K-12 Embraces Green

April 25, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — With 29 LEED-registered buildings, commercial offices represent Michigan’s most popular use of the U.S. Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design guidelines.

Surprisingly, K-12 public education comes in second with nine buildings.

With non-academic district buildings such as the Forest Hills Fine Arts Center and with university academic buildings, laboratories, and dormitories such as the Grand Valley State University Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center (registered as commercial office), public education and commercial office are neck-and-neck at 28 and 26, respectively.

The LEED for New Construction and Renovation standards were initially created for commercial office development. As health-care institutions and manufacturers have adopted the standards alongside the Detroit Lions and government bodies, commercial office has served as the default classification.

Examined further, K-12 public school buildings are the single largest adopter of LEED in Michigan (see chart). By industry, manufacturing does boast more projects, but the uses of each building are diverse.

By project ownership, only Ford Motor Co. owns more Michigan LEED-registered buildings than Forest Hills Public Schools. (Herman Miller does have several others outside of Michigan, a pre-LEED green building and one leased building.)

Forest Hills has laid claim to both the state’s first educational LEED facility in the Goodwillie Environmental School and perhaps the nation’s first LEED high school in Forest Hills Eastern.

“School districts are challenged to be good stewards,” said URS Corp. architect Michael VanSchelven, who led the Forest Hills Eastern design. “That’s most commonly interpreted as the dollar, but they need to be good stewards of resources across the board — materials, land. They are becoming more aware of the impact these buildings have on the environment and community.”

The green building features also provide students with a healthier environment both physically — through better air quality and diminished toxins — and educationally.

While not tracked in an education environment, the benefits of green building on office productivity have been well documented by the USGBC. With its dependence on natural daylight and improved air quality, students are likely to be more alert and productive.

“And there isn’t a better place to talk about sustainable solutions than that environment,” VanSchelven said. “How you might select materials — and beyond that, recycling and the broader impact it has on society in general — these are concepts you can apply at school and at home with mom and dad.”

Oddly, three of the LEED-registered projects were completed within the Detroit Public Schools, the state’s poorest and most indebted district.

Meanwhile, the Grand Rapids Public Schools has stated green building as a design prerequisite within its $150 million bond construction. GRPS already has environmental programs similar to those at Forest Hills, but in the face of its recent budget cuts, stakeholders would likely be outraged to see any unnecessary expenses in the construction.

As Progressive AE architect Jeff Remtema explained, many schools are attracted to green building for its savings potential.

“The energy efficiency helps reduce the overall energy costs for the life of the building,” said Remtema, whose firm designed Goodwillie and is now designing GRPS’ Straight Elementary School. “I think it puts out a really good image to the community. It shows that they are concerned not just for the environment but for the stewardship of the public money and the health of the students in there.”

David Smith, GRPS executive director of facilities and operations, noted this when he presented the program to the school board in February.

“This is a subject very near and dear to my heart,” he said. “I just got a gas bill this morning for $250,000.”

VanSchelven, who is designing GRPS’ Alger Park School, said the challenge for K-12 schools is to build a facility that will endure the test of time.

That is especially important to schools like GRPS, which waited decades for the opportunity to renovate some of its obsolete facilities. GRPS will need two more rounds of millages to fix its current needs, an actual cost of roughly $500 million.

“This has brought to the forefront the need to create buildings that don’t cost a lot of money to maintain over decades and decades,” VanSchelven said. “Considering that 95 percent of a school’s budget is not flexible, in many respects K-12 is the best environment to embrace sustainable solutions.”    

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