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‘Green’ schools buildings failing to pay off, group says

Wed., Aug. 27, 2008

lSeveral “green” schools built in Spokane in recent years fall far short of their goals, an Olympia think tank says. Educators say the group is using premature and misleading data provided by the schools.

The Washington Legislature mandated in 2005 that state money be used only to build “high performance” schools – those intended to conserve energy and water, encourage the recycling of building materials, and provide more natural light and outdoor air.

Advocates said that despite higher building costs, taxpayers would save money through lower utility bills. Teachers would stay on the job longer, they said, and students would score better on standardized tests, suffer fewer allergy problems and have fewer absences – all because of better air circulation, more natural light and the use of more natural building materials.

“One California district has seen scores increase close to 30 percent in buildings with abundant daylight,” says the narrator in a state video promoting the regulations. “While other districts may see increases of lesser magnitude, the conclusion is still the same: Better light means better scores.”

But Todd Myers, director for the Center for the Environment at the Washington Policy Center, says the only certifiably green schools built so far – three in Spokane and several others in Western Washington – performed no better than other modern schools during the 2006-’07 school year. His study has caught the attention of national groups that say environmental regulations go too far.

The problem, Myers said, is that proponents of “high performance” buildings made too many promises. He doesn’t contend that green construction techniques are bad – nor are bigger windows or more fresh air – but that such decisions should be made locally.

“Give the power to the people who have incentives to make improvements,” he said.

Supporters of statewide standards contend the state has a stake in the matter, because it provides about 30 percent of the money that goes into school construction.

They also note that districts have a range of options. The standards acknowledge, for instance, that it’s impractical for rural schools to be located within a mile of half their elementary students – an energy-efficiency standard that urban districts might easily obtain.

Out of a possible 80 points, schools must hit 40. Among a long list of standards that can earn districts points:

•Water-saving toilets and waterless urinals.

•Native landscaping, combined with trees that shade paved surfaces.

•Recreational space that doubles as neighborhood parkland.

•Reusing half of an existing building’s structure and 30 percent of its furniture when it is replaced.

•Using some building materials made of “rapidly renewable” materials, such as poplar trees or bamboo, and some manufactured locally.

•Windows that open in each classroom.

•Heating and air-conditioning systems that self-adjust for open windows.

•Lights that self-adjust to natural light.

Lofty goals

Legislators, health officials and educators tout the benefits of building green in the video on the state superintendent of public instruction Web site. Among them is Greg Brown, Spokane Public Schools director of capital projects, who was interviewed at Lincoln Heights Elementary, which opened for the 2006-’07 school year.

As a demonstration project and with financial incentive from the state, Lincoln Heights was built to green standards that exceeded those eventually adopted by the state. Two other Spokane elementaries, Lidgerwood and Ridgeview, have been built to the state standards.

Brown says that building to the state standards adds 3 percent to 5 percent to the cost of new projects, and that many of the costs can be recouped in the first 10 years through energy efficiency.

“We’re probably going to save about $30,000 per year in utility costs in operating this building,” Brown said on camera.

He and associate superintendent Mark Anderson noted Tuesday that “sustainability” was one of five attributes identified as important by Spokane constituents who attended a two-day conference about school design, after voters approved a 2003 bond issue for replacing some schools and improving others.

But other modern demands on the buildings drive up energy use. Among them: assuring the buildings are better suited for after-hours use by the community; assuring that each school has a unique design; offering lots of technology; and providing modern safety features.

Providing bigger windows and more fresh air also adds to utility costs, Brown acknowledged.

All of those factors make it hard to determine how much energy savings can be attributed to any particular building technique. But Brown said he stands by a prediction he made in the video: that the state standards would mean 30 percent cheaper utility costs at Lincoln Heights. He clarified, however, that he meant 30 percent cheaper than if the same building had been constructed to meet minimum energy-efficiency codes.

Brown thinks some predictions for student performance may have over-reached or are unverifiable. A Seattle school administrator, for example, predicts in the video that students in classrooms on one side of a hallway would score 8 percent higher than those on the other side because of the difference in sunlight.

No such specific student-performance predictions were made in Spokane.

But, Brown said, Lincoln Heights staff and students are happier in the new building. And there have been fewer complaints about health problems that staff and parents previously attributed to the stuffy old building.

“I believe that by building better buildings you will build better learning environments,” Brown said.

Scrutinizing the numbers

Data that the Center for the Environment’s Myers obtained from Spokane Public Schools show that Lincoln Heights, Ridgeview and Lidgerwood elementaries performed no better during the 2006-’07 school year than the only other elementary school built this decade, Browne Elementary.

In fact, Browne, which opened in 2001, had significantly lower utility costs that year than the three green schools. The numbers: 87 cents a square foot at Browne, compared to an average of $1.14 at the three others.

Furthermore, students in the green schools showed no greater improvement in WASL scores than other elementary schools in the district.

Absenteeism is more difficult to compare, Myers acknowledges, but it appears there was little effect when the green buildings replaced their predecessors.

“This is not to say that the health of the building doesn’t matter (for test scores and absenteeism); it’s just to say that there are other things that matter much more,” such as poverty, Myers said.

Although they provided Myers with the figures he’s using, district administrators say there are several problems with his comparisons. For one thing, they said, Browne Elementary gets less after-hours use than the others. And a new building typically has higher utility costs its first year because employees are still learning the most efficient ways to operate all the various systems for heating, air-conditioning, lighting and irrigation.

On Tuesday, Brown and Anderson provided figures showing that the square-footage cost of energy was nearly identical at the four schools in May, and that all of them used less energy than older schools.

Browne Elementary, they said, is similar to the newer buildings in many ways, even though it was designed several years before the 2005 Legislature mandated “high performance” standards and is not green certified. Its classrooms are flooded with natural light, for instance.

“We decided early on, based on the studies that were presented to us, that day-lighting was the way to go,” said Brown.

And that, said Myers, only proves his point about local decision-making. Schools were already modernizing their construction techniques before the state jumped in, because it was the smart thing to do.

“They’re not waiting around for Olympia to tell them what to do,” he said. “In Olympia, their incentive is to look good politically.”

Contact Dan Hansen at (509) 459-3938 or

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