Green design has become an important asset in educational facilities, resulting in not only a healthy environment, but also higher student achievements. Recently, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) awarded the Dunbarton High School in Ontario, Canada, for its commendable efforts in sustainability with the title “Greenest School on Earth.” To create an environmentally-conscious place, Dunbarton’s facility has applied many green strategies such as an energy-efficient building envelope and windows, low-wattage fluorescent lighting, a rooftop solar water heating system, etc. Other important green amenities are an outdoor classroom and a pollinator garden. The latter is a pesticide-free habitat of flowers and plants that produce enough nectar and pollen throughout the year to sustain a community of bees, butterflies and other pollinators—crucial members of a healthy ecosystem. It is important to emphasize that sustainability is an integral part of the curriculum in this school that enables students to learn about ecology and the environment at large.
In the U.S., as well, sustainability and school construction have been joined together in a productive partnership in many instances. As LEED certification has become an important incentive for developers and local governments, various states have made an attempt to implement this approach in their schools construction programs. For example, in 2008, Maryland passed the Maryland High Performance Building Act that mandates a minimum requirement of LEED Silver rating, not only for schools that are new constructions, but also for upgrades and additions. Moreover, this legislation offers generous grants for “net-zero” school facilities, able to offset their energy consumption through sustainable features. In the nearby District of Columbia, the Dunbar High School designed by Perkins Eastman set the record for gaining a high score (91 out of 110 points) on sustainability, earning a LEED Platinum rating, and for proving a correlation between exceptional student achievements with high building performance. Among the impressive feats of this project that are worth mentioning, we can include a photovoltaic solar array able to power all classrooms for 8 hours on a summer day, DC’s largest geothermal system with 460-foot wells located below the school’s athletic fields, two 20,000-gallon cisterns for storm water reuse, low-VOC materials, low-E glass windows, and sustainably harvested wood products. The school provides abundant natural light and enhanced acoustical performance that can improve the classroom experience.
With $40 billion currently being poured into the educational institution construction industry, we understand that school construction is a significant chunk of state’s budgets and expenditures. However, despite few exceptions where adequate funding, supervision, and leadership have yielded both green buildings and green curricula, there is still more work to be done in order to integrate green design in both school’s construction and educational programs. We can hope that in the near future, a holistic approach will ensure that every U.S. school will close the sustainability gap which, in turn, may contribute to close the achievement gap.