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Down in New Mexico, the 28th largest school district in the country, Albuquerque Public Schools, has been taking big strides to use LEED for Schools across the district. With 24 schools either certified or in the process of certification in the last four years, the district is on a path that other districts may be wise to follow.
What's so great about the LEED for Schools program that would make a school district like Albuquerque commit to it so quickly and fully? For one thing, the rating system, released by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) in 2007, has taken aim at areas of sustainability that are critical for the health, well-being, and learning for students. LEED for Schools takes challenges like test scores, health, teacher retention, absenteeism, and learning and provides solutions like daylighting, acoustics, and indoor air quality.
The design of schools should be all about enhancing education, the student experience and learning. LEED for Schools shows how to do just that.
Many people don't question the benefits of building to LEED standards, but some districts and teams might be tempted to view LEED for Schools certification as an unnecessary step to incorporate valuable sustainable strategies. That view underestimates the value of LEED for Schools certification. As Lou Novak, architect/project manager with Boulder Valley School District in Colorado says, "Going through the documentation and certification process applies an additional and rigorous quality assurance net on the project that helps to bring the building as a whole to a higher level of conformance."
In terms of student performance, daylighting has been observed to lead to higher levels of student performance. The most referenced study, by Heschong Mahone Group investigating student performance related to daylighting in classrooms, identified a 21 percent improvement in student learning rates in classrooms with the most amount of daylight compared to those with the least. That connection is promising and, though education and learning are influenced by lots of variables, this study still makes a good case for daylighting.
Another benefit of daylighting is that it improves the student and teacher experience in the school. As Ghita Carroll, sustainability coordinator with Boulder Valley School District says, "the abundance of daylighting flooding Casey (Middle School) is one of the first features students, staff and community members notice about the design." The feel that one gets in the middle school, which is pursuing LEED for Schools Platinum certification, reinforces the idea that striking views and impressive daylighting facilitated by the LEED process can fundamentally change the way that people feel in the building.
Going through formal LEED for Schools certification also provides teams the pathway, framework and leverage to include daylight modeling, which greatly expands the design team's ability to understand the expected results of a given design as well as to fine tune key elements like window location, glare reduction, shading strategies and contrast.
Another keystone of LEED for Schools is acoustics. A notable prerequisite requires that the building design meet high standards for reverberation time (RT) and background noise (dBA) in the classrooms themselves.
For some school districts, in depth acoustical analysis might be a new thing but Daniel Hicks, an experienced acoustical consultant with Geiler & Associates, says he doesn't think that teams should be nervous about meeting the prerequisite.
In fact, he says, it's "relatively easy," given that careful selection of the right ceiling tiles can be used to meet the requirements for reverberation time. But Hicks also says that "the requirement for background noise can be a little bit more tricky and actually requires that each room be evaluated based on local conditions. This involves more complex calculations that a mechanical engineer may or may not have the experience to perform on behalf of the project team."
In that sense, it's important to contract with and meet with an acoustics consultant early in the design phase and beyond to make sure acoustical elements are included in the early stages and remain throughout the design and construction.
Though the prerequisite may not be a technically daunting prospect, it doesn't mean that it's trivial or meaningless. In fact, "acoustical treatments like silencers and duct lining are often one of the first things to go during value engineering exercises, but they are typically required to meet the background noise requirements for LEED," says Hicks. This reinforces that if the project is not going through the LEED certification process, the acoustics may not be at the level needed. The risk is losing what Novak says he's observed at Casey Middle School, which is a "serene learning environment."
Not to be forgotten in LEED for Schools is the long list of credits focused directly on improving the indoor air quality in the building. The bulk of these credits, like minimum ventilation effectiveness, low emitting materials, and construction indoor air quality management, will be more or less recognizable to LEED for New Construction pros with the additional new credit for mold prevention. Each of these credits is really a must for every school going through the certification process, and products that meet these credit requirements, like low VOC paints, are readily available.
As was true with acoustics, the ability to meet the credits on a regular basis doesn't make the outcome trivial. As one study by the Carnegie Mellon University Center for Building Performance found, flu symptoms were reduced by 87 percent in schools that provided an increased amount of outside air. That same study also found that asthma rates were reduced by 72.5 percent and cold symptoms by 85 percent in schools that managed moisture control and pollutant sources respectively. Moreover, an analysis of two school districts in Illinois found that student attendance rose 5 percent after incorporating cost-effective indoor air quality improvements.
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