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Wyck Knox, AIA, LEED AP, of VMDO Architects on greening schools and curricula

Wyck Knox, AIA, LEED AP, of VMDO Architects on greening schools and curricula

Credit: Sam Kittner

There’s clearly a demand growing all across the country for green schools. That means different things in different jurisdictions, considering the politics of green. But everyone wants a healthy environment for their kids, and there’s greater recognition that high-performance buildings produce high-performance students.

Unfortunately, a lot of facilities in this country don’t meet basic needs. People often say they don’t have the resources to “go green.” Does it cost more to build green? No, you can build green at any price point. There’s a lot of simple, low-hanging fruit. A top priority of a sustainable school is indoor air quality and light, something that can be achieved at any price point. At Manassas Park Elementary School, in Virginia [a Title 1 school that earned an AIA 2010 COTE Award], we made use of Solatubes, which were very inexpensive and haven’t leaked, despite record snowfalls. They provide light all day because of their unique parabolic shape.

Generally speaking, there are three dimensions to a green school. There’s a healthy school, which is about making sure it’s nontoxic. There’s a high-performance school that conserves energy and water (and money). The third aspect is building-as-teaching-tool.

The building itself can become a lesson plan, providing endless possibilities to our talented teachers. The way Manassas Park Elementary works is what you might expect from a high school. The kids don’t stay in one room all day and they change classes frequently so there’s a lot of movement in the building. There are three outdoor classrooms—two courtyards oriented to get full southern sun and a main outdoor classroom that doubles as a bioretention area. There was a large stormwater pipe running through the site and we decided to daylight it so that when there’s a big storm, the teacher can take a class out there and see firsthand how drainage works.

Almost everyone learns better by doing. If the building becomes a teachable place, students can see the impact of their actions firsthand. Manassas Park has three academic “houses,” or wings. A dashboard tracks energy use for each house but was giving faulty data for one house, causing its energy use to appear abnormally higher than the others. When the principal challenged those students to do better, a fourth grader responded, “It’s not fair—we’re the southernmost building and we’re getting more solar heat gain than the others!” I think his response speaks volumes to how engaged our kids can be.

If a school doesn’t actively promote stewardship of the world around it, I’m not sure it counts as a green school. Law schools and medical schools produce lawyers and doctors, so what should it mean to graduate from a green school? As told to William Richards.

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