Greening Schools from the Inside Out: An Occupant First Approach

Greening Schools from the Inside Out: An Occupant First Approach

By. Dr. Stephany Mason, Technical Director at the Collaborative for High Performance Schools


School Buildings and Student Performance

A recent study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, SUNY Upstate Medical University, and Syracuse University (Allen et al. 2015) demonstrated that the cognitive performance of office workers was enhanced in “green” buildings with superior indoor air quality (IAQ) – low volatile organic compound (VOC) levels, reduced carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations, and increased ventilation levels. These results prompted Arnel Catalan, Collaborative for High Performance Schools Board Member and Associate Principal at Mount Vernon Group Architects, Inc. to say, “Traditionally, our Design Team has prioritized energy efficiency over ventilation because more emphasis has been placed on energy than IAQ. Our approach to HVAC design has been to provide the minimum ventilation for spaces based on number of occupants, space volumes, and activities. The Cognitive Function Scores are an eye-opener and our approach to HVAC design with minimum ventilation requirements should be re-evaluated and discussed among peers.”

Cognitive performance is the ability to learn, think, reason, understand, remember, and imagine. Maximizing proficiency in this area is essential for children and the study led by Harvard assistance professor Joseph Allen confirmed that the indoor building environment can play a critical role in getting there…or not. Further, relative to their size, children’s breathing rates and metabolic rates are significantly faster than adults. Children breathe in and metabolize greater doses of VOCs and exhale more CO2 than adults in the same environment. Thus, the impact of IAQ on student performance is likely even greater than for adults in the Allen et al. experiments. This study adds to the considerable empirical research explicitly connecting high performance building characteristics and student productivity.

In March 2016, the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), the 21st Century School Fund, and National Council on School Facilities released a report, “State of Our Schools,”which revealed a lack of funding to build, maintain, and operate K-12 schools in almost every state. Thus, the buildings where we educate our children are not being adequately funded to ensure good IAQ. In addition, other indoor environmental characteristics that impact our ability to hear (acoustics), see (lighting), and concentrate (thermal comfort), all key for learning, are also at risk.


CHPS High-Performance Schools – Indoor Environmental Quality, Integration, and Operations & Metrics

These two reports are not the first on these subjects – nor will they be the last. They are merely the latest driving the mission of the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) to make every school an ideal place to learn.

What does this mean? It means a well-designed, operated, and maintained facility that enhances student performance; positively impacts student, teacher, and staff health and well-being; and makes education more enjoyable and rewarding. The bottom line – creating a building with an indoor environment conducive to learning that is operated efficiently and can be maintained with minimal difficulty and, ideally, expense. A building that addresses the complete spectrum of indoor environmental factors: light quality, air quality (including temperature, humidity, odors, and pollutants), and sound quality (acoustics), collectively referred to as indoor environmental quality (IEQ). Recognizing that the primary goal of school programs is to educate students, it is important to emphasize good IEQ and how it is essential to these educational goals. In concurrence, Mr. Catalan says, “There are several factors to consider in designing an ideal space that enhances productivity, such as indoor air quality, daylighting, and acoustics.”

How do we get there?  We get there by taking an occupant first approach and “green” schools from the inside out. CHPS strives for a school facility environment where the air quality, acoustics, lighting, and thermal conditions take center stage. An environment that promotes the health, well-being, and performance of its occupants, both students and staff. We can create these environments, but we need to ensure IEQ remains optimal. Buildings need to be operated and maintained for peak performance, and occupants need to be taught what they can do toward this end. Facilities personnel must be included in the design process, reviewing designs for operability and maintainability. Our goal is to connect conditions to outcomes and focus on creating, improving, and maintaining schools with conditions for favorable outcomes.

To this end, CHPS emphasizes IEQ, operations and metrics (O&M), and integration in its Best Practices Manuals, building rating system criteria, and other resources. 

To read the full article, click here

For more articles like this, visit the Green Schools National Network newsletter release here


About the Author

Dr. Stephany I. Mason is the Technical Director at the Collaborative for High Performance Schools, working to ensure that every child has the best possible learning environment with the smallest impact on the planet. Dr. Mason has participated in research and standards development related to IAQ, ventilation, and sustainability for organizations such as ASTM, ASHRAE, and USGBC. Her prior experience includes Vice-President for Product Testing at Eurofins Air Toxics, Principal Scientist at UL Environment, and research faculty member at Georgia Tech. She has a B.S. from the University of Illinois, an M.S.E. from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Ph.D. from Columbia University.

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