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A Greener Curriculum

For School Construction, Sustainability Is Standard Practice


By Lauren Pinch

For schools, “green construction” may as well simply be called “construction.” Almost every school embarking on a new building campaign is actively pursuing, or at least considering, some level of sustainability.

The change has been rapid and transformative. According to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), nearly 1,000 school buildings met or were seeking LEED certification as of September 2008, with applications growing at a rate of more than one school a day.

LEED-certified and registered schools currently exceed 100 million total square feet, the USGBC reports. And this number doesn’t even account for the schools that have green components but are not LEED certified.

“What was once voluntary isn’t so voluntary anymore because building green has become a regular part of how we do business,” says Mark Purcell, a LEED-accredited professional (AP) and business development manager for Nason Construction, Wilmington, Del.

Purcell, a co-founder of the Delaware Valley USGBC, joined Nason Construction to help the company implement green building techniques and gain green work experience.

La Jolla Country Day School, La Jolla, Calif.Nowadays, contractors must stay on top of green building techniques or risk losing public and private school building opportunities.

“It’s becoming so commonplace that if they don’t become involved in green techniques, they are going to get left behind,” says David Murphey, project manager for Flintco, Inc., Austin, Texas.

With politicians and rulemakers also touting the financial and educational incentives of building sustainable schools, most every project that emerges from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s stimulus funding will require green construction practices.

With the support of the USGBC, the newly formed Mayors’ Alliance for Green Schools has committed to help school districts retrofit existing facilities and create public-private partnerships to implement new initiatives, such as planting green roofs, installing solar gardens or starting recycling programs.

Even in a national construction slump, savvy contractors are finding work providing schools with green retrofits and renovations.

A Gold Star Project
At the La Jolla Country Day School in La Jolla, Calif., Bilbro Construction Company, Inc., San Diego, is demonstrating exactly how it’s done. About 40 percent of the company’s annual work is in the education sector, with most of its LEED-certified projects built for private institutions.

“Private schools are very competitive and promote the sustainable elements of their campus when recruiting,” says Doug Mellinger, LEED AP, Bilbro senior project manager. “Green elements inherent in the final building products are often the focus of teaching lessons.”

Mellinger is the design-assist general contractor for the construction of a $3.5 million kindergarten and lower school science complex at the La Jolla school. The new 7,800-square-foot wood-framed structures include gabled roofs, concrete roof tiles, skylights, natural ventilation, high-efficiency HVAC systems and low-irrigation landscaping. The project team also diverted more than 75 percent of waste from conventional landfills by recycling most building materials. 


By reviewing cost and constructability early in the design phase, Bilbro and the project team determined they could build the project to meet LEED Gold certification. 

The kindergarten buildings, scheduled for completion in August, join other green buildings on the campus that use rooftop photovoltaic panels for onsite power generation.

The Low-Hanging (and Green) Fruit
Every project is right for sustainability, even if it’s not right for LEED. Applying for the certification may be time or cost-prohibitive, and not every project owner wants to make the full investment considering today’s tighter budgets.

Small steps can make a big difference, however, and many contractors are incorporating select components guided by LEED’s recommendations, such as water conservation technologies or low-VOC materials. 

“We’re working on projects that are not necessarily getting LEED certified but that have green features,” Purcell says.

Villanova University Davis Center for Athletics and FitnessFor example, Nason Construction recently built Villanova University’s $14 million Davis Center for Athletics and Fitness in Villanova, Pa., which includes a pervious asphalt parking area that allows rain water to easily return to local acquifers.

The company also built the $26.2 million North Dorchester Middle School in Hurlock, Md., which offers increased daylighting and a geothermal heating and cooling system for energy efficiency.

Contractors that help owners plan a new green facility or retrofit should encourage owners to consider the low-hanging fruit: lighting controls, air controls and reflective roofing. Simple changes in specifying these basic building components can reduce energy loads without causing significant markups in cost, Purcell says.

And green retrofits are not a hard sell. On average, green schools use 33 percent less energy and 32 percent less water than conventional schools, according to the USGBC.

Another selling point: The market has come a long way in offering recycled building materials that can withstand wear and tear in high-traffic school buildings. Sustainable flooring products containing bamboo or recycled glass are a popular alternative at many schools and colleges. “These are getting more attractive, they’re durable and their price line has come down,” Purcell says.

Enhancing Learning Environments
In addition to the bottom-line driven motivation of lower electricity bills, school districts and private school administrators are becoming more in tune with an equally important return on their green investment: happier, more productive students.

“If I’m selling ‘green’ to a project owner, I emphasize that it creates a better environment for learning,” Murphey says.

Flintco is currently working with the University of Texas (UT)-Austin Charter School to plan a new 50,000-square-foot, LEED Silver-certified facility for students in grades K–5. The charter school students are attending classes in portable trailers while the UT project is in the design phase.

“All the reports show that kids tend to learn more, retain more, and their test scores have gone up in buildings that have more daylighting and good indoor air quality. You want to give them the best possibility for learning in buildings that are built to LEED standards,” Murphey says.


Indeed, according to a 2006 study sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers, the American Institute of Architects, the American Lung Association, the Federation of American Scientists and the USGBC, building green saves an average school $100,000 each year in energy costs—enough to hire two full-time teachers, or purchase 5,000 new textbooks or 500 new computers.

The study also found green schools’ better lighting, temperature control, ventilation and indoor air quality contribute to fewer cases of asthma, colds, flu and absenteeism, helping improve learning, test scores and lifetime student earnings.

Mary Tappouni, president of Breaking Ground Contracting Company, Jacksonville, Fla., couldn’t agree more. Her company is currently constructing eight LEED projects, including Jacksonville’s first LEED-certified residence.

Discovery Montessori School, Jacksonville Beach, Fla.In the education sector, the company is building an addition to the Discovery Montessori School in Jacksonville Beach that will meet LEED criteria, with the No. 1 goal being a healthy and holistic learning environment for students. 

“The Montessori mission and green building go hand-in-hand,” Tappouni says. “It all starts with an enhanced learning environment. That means the most to the parents, the administrators, the volunteers and the people who use the space.”

Ahead of the Curve
Specializing in green building has been a major source of business growth for Breaking Ground Contracting. Founded in 1997, the company has grown from one employee to nine and has seen revenue growth averaging 56 percent per year since 2004. In March, Tappouni was named a 2009 Small Business Person of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

As a sustainability leader in the community, Tappouni stresses low-cost options to school decision-makers. While many project owners are more well-informed about LEED certification and green building benefits these days, some still shy away at any hint of increased construction costs.

“There is a heavy stereotype that it costs more to build green,” she says. “We want to make sure they know we can provide green options at no additional cost.”

Educating the construction industry and dispelling myths is one of Tappouni’s primary goals. Working with Associated Builders and Contractors’ Gulf Coast and North Florida chapters, the company provides “lunch-and-learn” training sessions for subcontractors on the basics of building green. The initiative has trained more than 500 students so far.


Participants can complete part-time green building courses guided by National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) certified instructors in addition to safety and skills training coursework. 

The green training has invigorated several small businesses in northern Florida by helping them stay up to date on best practices, Tappouni says. Some subcontractors have taken their involvement a step further by finding and researching new green products, such as new VOC-free adhesives. “They give us feedback on what works and what doesn’t. Ultimately, it makes us better at what we do,” she says.

The company recently developed a children’s learning tool called “Me and Green” to influence kids to incorporate earth-friendly practices in their everyday life, including at their schools. The book, created by Catherine Burkee, Breaking Ground Contracting’s education director, caters to the third-grade learning level and will be distributed this year throughout schools, the community and local construction firms.

“It’s a nice way to get kids thinking about what it means to be green, and how they can work toward sustainability in their personal lives with their families,” Burkee says.

University of Texas-Austin research complex, Austin, TexasPart of the Curriculum
The same motivations hold true for colleges and universities. Although many capital construction projects are being put on hold due to difficulty obtaining financing and finding donors, collegiate building departments are placing value on incorporating sustainability in the course curriculum and on campus.

“No higher education institution wants to be labeled as being insensitive to the environment,” says Mark Pearce, Flintco director of preconstruction services. “Students, faculty and potential donors look to the university systems to be leaders in sustainability, whether in new construction, maintenance, facility management or environmental policy.”

Texas State University-San Marcos, for example, has goals to achieve LEED Silver certification on two projects, one of which broke ground in January.

“Collegiate project owners are now fully committed to getting their projects certified,” Pearce says. “However, the extent of the certification process is still new and being tested.”

Pearce helped build the University of Texas’ first LEED-certified project, UT-Austin’s 94,000-square-foot Research Office Complex, in 2006. 

Flintco, like many construction firms, encourages all of its employees to become LEED APs and participate in the USGBC’s voluntary Green Advantage program.

“Flintco believes that a high percentage of future college and university projects will have some sustainable goal,” Pearce says. “Even if LEED certification is not required, we will see, at a minimum, changes in waste management, material selection and indoor air quality requirements for construction projects.”

Contractors agree the future is bright for green building in the education sector.

“School boards at all levels are going to embrace sustainability and the profits they can gain from it, and so will their students,” Tappouni says.


Contractors As Energy Consultants

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, electricity consumption in the building sector continues to increase, with residential buildings consuming 37 percent of all electricity produced in the United States and commercial buildings consuming 36 percent in 2006. Energy expenditures for these buildings are projected to double between 1980 and 2030.

While these numbers are alarming, electrical and mechanical contractors are helping schools combat the problem by installing more efficient lighting, heating and cooling systems to reduce their energy loads.

In addition, electrical contractors are developing and recommending greener products, as they are often the most familiar with the ins and outs of new lighting and HVAC technologies.

“Electrical contractors can be valuable consultants for the education segment when they are aware of solutions and educated on the products that are available on the market,” says Melissa Golden, Schneider Electric market segment manager. “They can act as a strong consultant on ways school owners can utilize green building programs and extract value.”

Owners look for experience and knowledge in an electrical contractor. “Contractors must have an understanding of what the school administrator is looking for, and be able to prescribe the solution,” Golden says.

Energy monitoring is another trend for the academic sector. Electrical contractors can consult on not only indoor and outdoor lighting choices, but also create a system to monitor energy use across a school campus.

“I think schools often know what they want to accomplish in the end, but they don’t necessarily know how to get there,” Golden says. “The contractor can bring sustainable solutions that the owner didn’t even know were on the market.”


Lauren Pinch is assistant editor of Construction Executive.  

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