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The Role of School HVAC in Student Performance

May 26, 2015
Green schools report lower absenteeism, better academic performance, and less faculty turnover. If schools in your community aren’t being designed and built to green standards, you need to ask your school board why.
Solar panels on a kindergarten roof. (Credit: anyaivanova/iStock)

Several years ago, while serving as chair of the local U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) Green Schools Committee, I had the privilege of attending the national Green Schools Symposium presented by the Center for Green Schools at the USGBC. Some of the more salient facts I took away were:

  • A quarter of Americans go to some type of school every day as students, faculty, or staff.
  • K-12 schools spend more money on energy—on the order of $6 billion—than they do on textbooks and computers.
  • The top 25 percent of schools in terms of energy performance cost 40 cents per square foot per year less to operate than average-performing schools.
  • Green schools can save enough on energy and water to hire at least one full-time teacher, buy 200 new computers, or purchase 5,000 textbooks.
  • The lowest-efficiency schools use three times the energy of the best-performing schools.

Here’s where the rubber meets the road: Green schools report lower absenteeism, better academic performance (especially in reading and math), and less faculty turnover.

But don’t take my word—or even the word of researchers—for it. Ask my granddaughter Anissa, who is a student at a green school, Cedar Ridge High School in Round Rock, Texas. Cedar Ridge was designed and built to LEED BD+C: Schools (v2007). Construction was completed just prior to the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year, and LEED certification was awarded in 2011. The two-story, 375,000-sq-ft school is unique in that it is divided into four distinct academies—the Academy of International Business and Economics, the Academy of Professional Studies, the Academy of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, and the Academy of Visual and Performing Arts—each with its own media center and teacher planning areas. The common areas for all students are the cafeteria, the athletic facility, and the heart of the campus, its outdoor courtyard.

Judging from its most recent performance indicators, Cedar Ridge—like other green schools—is providing a better learning environment for its students. Cedar Ridge has a 94.8 percent attendance rate, only a 0.2 percent dropout rate, and an average SAT score of 1490. Additionally, 78 percent of its students are college-ready in math.

Cedar Ridge has won several awards, including Project of Distinction in the 2012 Education Design Showcase. Of its many sustainable features, the one that most impresses Anissa is the natural daylight to all learning spaces. The one probably of most interest to HPAC Engineering readers is the innovative displacement-ventilation (DV) system.

For those not familiar with DV, it is an air-distribution strategy by which a high volume of low-velocity air supplied through floor-level diffusers displaces warmer air above it to ceiling grilles, where it exits the space. Because DV generally uses higher-temperature supply air, it can significantly reduce cooling energy consumption and increase economizer use, an important consideration in Round Rock, where natural ventilation is desired during spring and fall. Additionally, the average temperature of the stratified air is higher than that of conventionally mixed air, which reduces heat transfer through the building envelope. DV can improve overall indoor-air quality by concentrating pollutants above the breathing zone.

When Anissa visited my office last summer, she didn’t know what LEED was. Today, she not only knows about LEED, she recognizes the benefits of learning in the healthier environment of a green school. Parents (and grandparents), if the new schools in your community aren’t being designed and built to green standards, you need to ask your school board why.

About the Author

Larry Clark

A member of HPAC Engineering’s Editorial Advisory Board, Lawrence (Larry) Clark, QCxP, GGP, LEED AP+, is principal of Sustainable Performance Solutions LLC, a South Florida-based engineering firm focused on energy and sustainability consulting. He has more than two dozen published articles on HVAC- and energy-related topics to his credit and frequently lectures on green-building best practices, central-energy-plant optimization, and demand-controlled ventilation.