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 The Division of the State Architect's Sustainable Schools Resource

Frequently Asked Questions

Sustainable School Design
Indoor Environment Quality
Energy Resources
Water Resources
Community Matters
Financing and Incentives

Sustainable School Design

    Can improved student performance really be linked to high performance schools?

    Yes, evidence is growing that high performance schools can provide learning environments that lead to improved student performance. For example, recent studies have shown that effective daylighting has contributed to improved student test scores by 10 to 20%. Besides the studies, it is intuitive that quieter, comfortable classrooms with adequate lighting and good air quality yield better students and teachers. Low- and no-emission building materials can reduce odors, sensory irritation, and toxicity hazards associated with indoor air pollution. Efficient windows also reduce outside noise distractions; improved heating and cooling systems permit students to hear the teacher better and avoid huge room temperature swings; adequate lighting improve the students ability to read books and the blackboard; and more.

    Where do I find help to build high performance schools?

    Help is available through programs at the national, state, and local levels. The CHPS website is a good example of the commitment of the State of California in assisting communities on constructing high performance schools. On this website, many resources are provided to help you design and construct high performance schools. Please also explore the rest of our website to find more high performance school construction resources.

    What is a High Performance School?

    "High Performance School" refers to the physical facility. Good teachers and motivated students can overcome inadequate facilities and perform at a high level almost anywhere, but a well-designed facility can truly enhance performance and make education a more enjoyable and rewarding experience. A high performance school is healthy; thermally, visually, and acoustically comfortable; energy, material, and water efficient; safe and secure; easy to maintain and operate; commissioned; has an environmentally responsive site; is a building that teaches; a community resource; is stimulating architecture; and is adaptable to changing needs.

Siting     back to top

    What is the optimal orientation of a school building?

    When the site permits, orient buildings so that the majority of the windows face either north or south (i.e., along an east-west axis). Such an orientation will reduce year-round heating and cooling costs, while optimizing natural lighting. Use strategic placement of vegetation when the site prevents this type of orientation.

    How can "good" siting make a difference on the energy and environmental performance of a school?

    Siting is a primary consideration for the environmentally sound school building. A school building should complement its environment. Many things will help ensure the good environmental performance of school like working around existing vegetation to shade the building and outside cooling equipment to reduce HVAC load, lower energy bills, and reduce local pollution. Locating a school near public transportation and within walking distance to a majority of the students will further reduce energy use, while also lowering local traffic and pollution. Refer to the Site Planning section of Volume II of the CHPS Best Practices Manual for discussions of numerous other considerations to make for siting a school.

    What role does stormwater management play in a high performance school?

    Stormwater management is vital to the safety and ecological health of a school's site. Moving stormwater quickly to gutters, downspouts, catch basins, and pipes increases water quantity and velocity requiring large and expensive drainage infrastructure. Water should instead be captured in cisterns and ponds, or absorbed in groundwater aquifers and vegetated areas. Remaining water runoff should be slowed down and spread across roof and paved surfaces evenly before entering bioswales and creeks. Perforated drain pipe and filters, as well as "Green" roofs, can also help promote water absorption. Refer to Guideline SP11 in Volume II of the CHPS Best Practices Manual for more information.

    How can the siting of the building effect student safety and security?

    Factors such as the visibility of school entrances from main office, the lighting quality in halls and corridors, and general accessibility of the school grounds can affect the security of your school.

Indoor Environment Quality      back to top

    What are the key elements of school indoor environmental quality (IEQ)?

    IEQ encompasses aspects of a building's indoor environment affecting occupant comfort and health, including:
    • Thermal comfort (temperature, radiant heat, relative humidity, draftiness).
    • Light (the amount and quality, lack of glare, direct sunlight).
    • Noise (the levels and kinds, classroom acoustics, inside and outside sources).
    • Ventilation, heating & cooling (fresh air intake, recirculation, exhaust).
    • Microbiologic agents (infectious disease, mold, bacteria, allergens).
    • Chemical agents in the air or surface dust (such as formaldehyde and other volatile organics, pesticides, lead, asbestos, radon).

    What are examples of the ill health effects associated with poor IEQ?

    Poor IEQ can cause students, teachers, and administrative staff to experience a range of acute or chronic symptoms and illnesses:
    • Headaches and fatique (from VOCs and glare).
    • Irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat (from VOCs, particles, low relative humidity).
    • Respiratory symptoms, e.g., allergic reactions (from mold, animal allergens, dust mites).
    • Breathing difficulties, e.g., increase in asthma symptoms (from allergens, particles, cold).
    • Increased transmission rates of colds and flus (due to poor ventilation).
    • Poor IEQ can also lead to excessive exposure of classroom occupants to some carcinogens.

    What are some of the more important design decisions affecting IEQ?

    To ensure good IEQ, school designers should pay particular attention to a few key buildings elements:
    • Building materials and surfaces (low-emitting for chemicals).
    • Ventilation systems (quiet, efficient filters, adequate fresh air).
    • Fenestration (adequate and operable windows).
    • Site drainage.
    • Envelope flashing and caulking.
    • Ease of maintenance for building components (e.g., floor cleaning, filter changing).

    What are common IEQ problems in classrooms?

    Various types of IEQ problems have been found in classrooms, such as:
    • Excessive levels of formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds, which can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation and pose cancer risks. These compounds are emitted from new pressed wood materials, and in some other building materials and furnishings, especially in new or remodeled classrooms.
    • Although classrooms have individual control of HVAC systems, these systems are often noisy and are not continuously operated (causing large swings in both temperature and humidity levels, and allowing indoor air pollutant levels to build up).
    • Moisture problems are sometimes present in roofing, floors, walls, and exterior doors.
    • Operable windows are often small or absent.
    • Siting can be problematic relative to pollutant and noise sources, poor site drainage, shading, and so forth.

Daylighting     back to top

    Doesn't the addition of daylighting in schools cost more?

    The design and construction of a school's daylighting systems can cost more money. However, a properly daylit school (with associated reduced electrical lighting usage) can lead to downsized cooling equipment. The savings from this smaller equipment helps defer the costs of the daylighting features. Hiring an architect or engineering firm that is experienced in good daylighting design, especially in schools, will minimize any additional costs from the design end of a project.

    Won't increased daylighting cause increased glare on white boards, desktops, and computer monitors? Won't daylighting cause overheating?

    As with any building feature, effective daylighting requires good design. Today's window technology and proven design practices can ensure that daylighting does not cause distributive glare or temperature swings. For example, exterior overhangs and interior cloth baffles (hung in skylight wells) eliminate direct sunlight, while letting evenly distributed daylight into rooms. "Daylight" is in effect controlled "sunlight" manipulated to provide useful natural light to classroom activities. Moreover, daylight by nature produces less heat than that given off by artificial lighting.

    When does daylighting not work?

    The application of daylighting without control of sun penetration and/or without photocontrols for electric lights can actually increase energy use.

    Won't daylighting make classes hotter, what's the difference between daylighting and passive solar?

    Design for daylighting utilizes many techniques to increase light gain while minimizing the heat gain, making it different from passive solar in a number of ways. First of all, the fenestration (or glazing) of the windows is different. In a day lit building, the glazing is designed to let in the full spectrum of visible light, but block out both ultra violet and infrared light. Whereas, in a passive solar building, the fenestration allows for the full spectrum of light to enter the building (including UV and Infra red), but the windows are designed to trap the heat inside the building. In addition, in day lit rooms, it is undesirable to allow sunlight in through the window. Instead, it is important to capture ambient daylight, which is much more diffuse than sunlight, this is often achieved by blocking direct southern exposure, and optimizing shaded light and northern exposure. Passive solar maximizes south facing windows, and minimizes north-facing windows, thus increasing heat gain, and minimizing heat loss.

Energy Resources     back to top

    Aren't all new schools energy efficient?

    Unfortunately, this often is not the case. Unless a school district directs its architect to design energy-efficient buildings, new schools may be as inefficient as old ones, or they may incorporate only modest energy efficiency measures.

    Is there really time during the planning and construction of a new school to consider energy-efficiency?

    During the rush to construct new school buildings, districts often focus on short-term construction costs instead of long-term, life-cycle savings. The key to getting a high-performance school is to ask for an energy-efficient design in your request for proposals (RFP) and to select architects who are experienced in making sure that energy considerations are fully addressed in design and construction.

    Don't energy-efficient schools cost more money?

    Total construction costs for energy-efficient schools are often the same as costs for traditional schools, but most architects acknowledge a slight increase in the capital costs maybe necessary (as some energy efficient building features may cost more.) Some of these costs can be offset. The reason is simple: efficient buildings have reduced building energy loads and take better advantage of the local climate. A properly daylit school, for example, with reduced electrical lighting usage and energy efficient windows can permit downsized cooling equipment. The savings from this equipment helps defer the costs of the daylighting features. Even when construction costs are higher, resulting annual energy cost savings can pay for the additional upfront capital costs quickly.

    Don't energy efficient lights give off a lower quality light than other types of light?

    Many older "cool" fluorescents had a low quality of light that give human skin a sickly bluish color. However, newer fluorescent lights are both a higher light quality and a higher efficacy. In addition, daylight, the highest quality of light, can help reduce energy use if the lighting system is properly integrated, with ambient light sensors and dimming mechanisms.

Water Resources     back to top

    Where can water savings be achieved in new school design?

    The largest use of water in schools is in cooling and heating systems (evaporative cooling systems, single-pass cooling systems, etc.), kitchens, maintenance operations, landscaping irrigation, locker rooms, and restrooms.

    Patterns of precipitation in most of California make it difficult to store enough rainwater for irrigation through the long dry summers. Good landscaping design including specifying native plants, proper spacing, and low-flow irrigation (that runs at night) will reduce a school's water demand and expenditures. High-efficiency irrigation technologies such as micro-irrigation, moisture sensors, or weather data-based controllers save water by reducing evaporation and operating only when needed. In urban areas, especially in Southern California, municipally supplied, reclaimed water is an available, less-expensive, and equally effective source for irrigation.

    How can landscaping make a difference in conserving water resources?

    The siting of a school and the shape of the land upon which is resides have tremendous impact on water resources. Selecting drought-tolerant plants will naturally lessen the requirement for water. In addition, using mulch around plants will help reduce evaporation, resulting in decreased need for watering plants or trees. Also, consider drip irrigation systems with efficiencies of up to 95% rather conventional spray systems with efficiencies of only 50 to 60%. Refer to both Site Planning and Other Equipment and Systems in Volume II of the CHPS Best Practices Manual to learn more about efficient landscaping to save water resources.

    Why treat wastewater on site instead of simply letting the local sewage utility take care of it?

    The treatment of sewage is a costly process taken on by the local utility at the customer's expense. The wastewater is typically treated and released back to the environment. Waste materials extracted from the wastewater must be further disposed of according to local codes. Considering on site water treatment will reduce the load on the local utility, offer an opportunity for students to learn about the biological and chemical processes involved in water treatment, and reduce operational expenses by avoiding a utility bill. Refer to Guideline SP15 in Volume II of the CHPS Best Practices Manual for more information.

    What is the difference between greywater and black water?

    Greywater is water that has been used in sinks, drinking fountains, and showers. Black water is water that has been used in toilets. Greywater is fairly simple and safe to clean and reuse, whereas there are more health risks associated with black water.

Materials     back to top

    Why is waste reduction planning essential for school districts?

    California school districts generate large amounts of waste-about 764,000 tons per year. These wastes represent a significant loss of natural resources and school district funds as well as a potential threat to student/staff health and the environment. To be responsible stewards of environmental quality, school districts should review new school construction, processes and operations, and even curriculum choices and evaluate the economic, educational, and environmental benefits of implementing effective waste reduction measures. Incorporating waste reduction as part of the school district's overall way of doing business can provide a number of important benefits:
    • Reduced disposal costs.
    • Improved worker safety.
    • Reduced long-term liability.
    • Increased efficiency of school operations.
    • Decreased associated purchasing costs.

    Why not simply select the cheapest building materials satisfying the applicable construction codes for schools construction?

    Building materials may have a number of associated operating costs beyond the straightforward, initial capital costs. Proper selection is essential to minimize these secondary costs. Building materials may pose future health hazards, costing schools absentee time and lost student and faculty productivity. Consider the dangers of volatile organic compounds, dust, and moisture when selecting materials. Keeping these indoor pollutants at a minimum will ensure a healthy indoor environment and improve the learning environment. Consider also the composition of the materials and how recyclable, durable, and refinishable they are. Keeping each of these characteristics in mind when selecting materials, the building will provide better service and reduce maintenance and operating costs. For more information, review Volume II of the CHPS Best Practices Manual, Interior Surfaces and Furnishings.

    From an energy perspective, does it matter where building materials are purchased?

    If practical, try to source building materials from local distributors and save transportation energy costs. These transportation costs are sometimes referred to as part of a material's embodied cost (and energy). Therefore, purchase building materials with low embodied costs such as local r regional certified wood harvested from sustainable and well-managed forests. For more on this, refer to Volume II of the CHPS Best Practices Manual, Interior Surfaces.

    Do recycled materials off-gas more than virgin products?

    There is currently research being done on this topic by the California Integrated Waste Management Board. A report analyzing the data from this project is due in the fall. Please check back to this site then, or check the CIWMB web page at:

    Is it possible to save money by reducing materials use?

    Onsite waste reduction and reuse during demolition and construction can save money by reducing the amount of money spent at the landfill, and by reducing the initial amount of money spent on new materials. The key to saving money is to have a good Construction and Demolition waste plan before starting operations, and to have identified where to recycle materials and what materials to salvage in order to save on labor costs later in the process.

Community Matters     back to top

    Will my community see high performance school design as a priority?

    High performance design for schools can be a selling point in bond elections because energy, indoor air quality, and other improvements translate to more comfortable classrooms for students, reduced energy bills, and lower operating and maintenance costs. In addition, the schools become healthier learning environments, reduce waste, and have less impact on the environment. Schools with good indoor environmental quality have been shown to increase average daily attendance of students (ADA)-on which state funding to local school districts is partially based.

Financing and incentives     back to top

    Don't high performance schools usually cost more money?

    Total construction costs for high performance schools are often the same as costs for conventional schools. Although, in some cases, design costs may be slighting higher, the resulting capital and long-term operation costs can be lower. For example, a properly designed daylit school with reduced electrical lighting usage can permit downsized cooling equipment. Even when construction costs are higher, resulting annual operational cost savings can pay for the additional upfront in a short period of time.

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