Greening K-12 Schools

Feb. 1, 2008
Editor's note: Following is the first in a series of excerpts from The Green Building Revolution, the latest book by Jerry Yudelson, PE, MBA, LEED AP,

Editor's note: Following is the first in a series of excerpts from “The Green Building Revolution,” the latest book by Jerry Yudelson, PE, MBA, LEED AP, who will serve as keynote speaker for HPAC Engineering's fifth annual Engineering Green Buildings (EGB) Conference and Expo Oct. 21 and 22 at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. For more on EGB 2008, visit

On a parallel with the higher-education market, the K-12 schools market continues to grow, fueled in many states by population growth from immigration and also by the need to replace or renovate older schools. However, owing to the unique nature of funding for most K-12 projects (i.e., via school bonds), the rapid rise in construction costs in recent years has significantly affected the ability of schools to include extra-cost green-building measures in their projects. Many projects have cut back on all added amenities just to be able to complete their basic program requirements and get a school open on time. …

A survey of school-facilities officers identified six major triggers for building green educational projects:

  • Desire to lower operating costs, cited by 92 percent of survey respondents.

  • Desire to increase health and well-being of students and staff, 88 percent.

  • Energy-cost increases, 87 percent.

  • Emphasis on student productivity, 77 percent.

  • Emphasis on staff productivity, 64 percent.

  • Utility rebates and other incentives, 61 percent.

The survey showed that school-facilities directors thought hard benefits (such as reduced utility costs) were important, but they also cited soft benefits (such as improved health and productivity) quite frequently.

Because schools spend one-third of their operations-and-maintenance budget on energy and other utilities, it is easy to see why lower operating costs are cited so frequently. What, then, are the barriers to more green-school construction? The same survey said that 87 percent of the respondents believed that higher first costs were the main obstacle, while 60 percent cited the time and cost to get approval to do something different. Forty-five percent thought that different accounting for capital and operating costs was a barrier because that made it harder to use life-cycle costing to justify extra energy-saving investments. …

A 2006 study found that schools were likely to be the next major market for green-building construction. Other findings included the following:

  • A concern for “improved health and well-being” was the most critical social factor driving education green building — a factor that had not been as highly rated in prior research on the commercial and residential green-building markets.

  • The fiscal advantages of green building, such as energy-cost savings, are the major motivation behind the construction of green schools and universities.

  • Higher first costs are the primary challenge to building green in this sector, though recent studies have found only minor first-cost increases, which are more than recouped in a building's operational-cost savings.

  • The expectation of operational cost reductions resulting from green building is the most important trigger for faster adoption of green-school building.

  • There is a strong need for access to and information on green-building products, particularly those that improve health, such as products that reduce mold and indoor-air pollutants.


Researchers have known since the late 1990s that daylighting and views to the outdoors raise school performance by more than 20 percent. A study of the test performance of 21,000 schoolchildren in California, Colorado, and Washington statistically proved the case for greener school design. …

Surveys also show that most seasoned observers believe greener schools have enormous benefits. For example, a 2005 survey of 665 construction-industry executives by Turner Construction Co. showed that they believed green K-12 schools had the following benefits:

  • Improved community image, 87 percent.

  • Ability to attract and retain teachers, 74 percent.

  • Reduced student absenteeism, 72 percent.

  • Improved student performance, 71 percent.

  • Lower 20-year operating costs, 73 percent.


Late in 2006, well-known researcher Gregory Kats published a revolutionary study of the costs and benefits of green schools. … Many of the study's conclusions apply equally well to higher education, but they are devastating for the status quo in secondary-education building design, renovation, and remodeling.

The study examined the costs and benefits of green schools, assuming a cost increase of 2 percent, or $3 per square foot, to an average national school-construction cost of $150 per square foot.

The report, “Greening America's Schools,” found that building green would save an average school $100,000 each year, net of costs — enough to pay for two additional teachers. The report broke new ground by demonstrating that green schools are extremely cost-effective. Total financial benefits from green schools outweigh costs by a ratio of 20-to-1. …

The bottom line is very simple. If you are a school-board member, school superintendent, or concerned parent, you should take this evidence to heart and support building green schools in your school district. Even subtracting the potential benefit of higher lifetime earnings resulting from higher test scores, the net benefits of green schools outweigh the costs by a ratio of 8-to-1, an 800-percent gain; excluding the benefits from teacher retention and the extra jobs generated by the assumed higher costs of green schools, the benefits still outweigh the costs by a ratio of 6-to-1. For a return on investment of 600 percent, you would be wise to go forward. Even counting just utility-cost savings, the benefits outweigh the costs by a ratio of 3-to-1.

As the results of the study become better known, look for green-school design and construction activity to accelerate in the 2008-2010 period. There are no longer any good reasons for school architects and administrators to provide anything but high-performance green design for future projects.

Copyright © 2008 by Island Press. Excerpted by permission of Island Press. All rights reserved. No part of the preceding excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Jerry Yudelson, PE, MBA, LEED AP, is principal of Yudelson Associates. Chair of the 2008 Greenbuild International Conference and Expo, he has trained more than 3,300 building-industry professionals on the LEED rating system. He is the author of six books and many research studies, white papers, and articles on green buildings. He can be contacted through his Website,

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