Raising expectations for school buildings

By Joseph Clair, PE, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago September 1, 2009

Imagine sending a child to a school without indoor plumbing, textbooks, or computers. As strange as that sounds, within the past 150 years we have done just that, and in some parts of the world, people still do. Those advocating for a revitalized interest in improving the quality of schools have imagined a future in which no child attends a school that has inadequate lighting, poor ventilation, acoustical issues, or other environmental stressors that negatively impact the learning environment.

Many argue that although the vision of “ every child in a green school within a generation” sounds wonderful, the reality remains that we cannot afford it. Someone making the same statement in the early 1980s regarding digital access in schools certainly would have heard the same retort. The truth is, the school I attended had no computers for education, but within one generation we have given 94% of all instructional rooms Internet access, according to a 2005 study by the National Center for Education Statistics . We can, and will, affect the same change in the learning environment for the next generation.

What will it take? Policy-makers must recognize the impact that a quality classroom environment has on education and remove all barriers to improving the built environment. This includes eliminating the difficult financial choices that administrators have to make between providing a quality environment and providing a quality teacher. Community members and administrators must demand quality classrooms, and in return protect their community schools to ensure that they do not fall into disrepair. Lastly, designers must make a quality built environment, free of environmental stressors, the standard of care for all buildings. This last statement also will require administrators and policy-makers to understand that we have built some school buildings over the years that will never be green, no matter what level of investment, and accept that we should never do that again.

The Chicago chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has started an innovative project, called Adopt-a-School, to establish a process for rapid greening of the existing school buildings in Illinois. The Chicago chapter, through support from the Boeing Co. Charitable Foundation and several government, non-profit, and for-profit entities, will shepherd three schools in Illinois with at-risk populations through the USGBC’s LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations and Maintenance Rating System with the goal of achieving a Certified rating. The project will provide a framework for a future statewide program. The success of the project will come from the level of cooperation among the policy-makers, community members, and designers working to make each school the best it can become.

During my years with the Chicago Public Schools, I saw buildings built more than half a century ago that would win green-building design competitions today. We’ve always known how to design and build great buildings, we just lost our focus. Now that we have the knowledge of what works, and tools such as LEED for Schools , Collaborative for High Performance Schools , and ASHRAE’s Advanced Energy Design Guide for K-12 School Buildings , there remains no obstacle to ensuring that the next generation of students and parents can assume their schools will have not only the learning technologies we take for granted, but also the stress-free learning environments offered by green buildings.

Author Information
Clair serves as the director of campus energy and sustainability at the Illinois Institute of Technology, as well as the chair of the U.S. Green Building Council Chicago Chapter and the National Green Schools Advocate for Illinois.