What sustainable refurbished buildings mean for education in CH-UH

There have been several letters and opinion pieces in the Heights Observer recently that press the issue of what the $134.8 million facilities bond issue [would] do for education in the CH-UH District. [http://www.heightsobserver.org/read/2013/09/16/public-education-matters, http://www.heightsobserver.org/read/2013/09/24/how-to-pass-the-chuh-facilities-bond-issue, http://www.heightsobserver.org/read/2013/08/23/sustainable-buildings-will-help-teach-our-students] This is a central question for school leaders. We hope they can offer some significant information before the Nov. 5 vote. 

There are several ways that sustainable refurbished buildings can impact education: (1) a physical environment that enables health, comfort, and optimal mental function, (2) curriculum content that uses the buildings in lesson plans, (3) student, staff, and community attitude changes, both in terms of pride in the facilities and in terms of modified behaviors that accomplish sustainable resource utilization for a lifetime.

Here we will focus on the first impact: environment effects on health, comfort, and mental function.

Employers have long understood that the physical work environment affects productivity. The focus is usually on temperature, humidity, air quality, acoustics, and lighting. ["Advanced Energy Design Guide for K-12 School Buildings: Achieving 50% Energy Savings Toward a Net Zero Energy Building," American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, Special Project 134, pgs 5-6 for overview, 2011. (http://aedg.ashrae.org/Download.aspx?type=registrants&aedg=84&source=47dcbba0-439a-4d69-8356-6996270f13bf or (http://awilkinson.us/sustain/AEDG50-K12-2011.pdf)]

Because student performance is the outcome of a complex and individualistic multi-variable dynamic, it is difficult, if not impossible, to guarantee improvement solely on the basis of more sustainable facilities. Nevertheless, studies show reductions in sick days among faculty, staff, and student populations. The sickness can be induced by physical stresses like heat and noise, by air-borne pathogens carrying infections, or by dust and mold that can trigger respiratory problems like asthma. 

The literature features many case reports strongly suggestive of causal connections between sustainable facilities and improved student performance. Temperature and humidity are familiar factors from our daily lives. On peak heat and humidity days we all slow down and perhaps get more cranky. Our current school buildings have this problem year round, even on cold wintry days, compounded by zone HVAC control systems taking some rooms to extreme conditions in order for other rooms to be comfortable. Individual control of rooms with properly balanced centralized supply systems is the way to accomplish uniform comfort. Modern school HVAC systems do that.

Acoustic noise has different effects on different people. The spectrum and quality of the sound affects people differently. Some become nervous, agitated, or distracted by noise. In music classes and events, background noise prohibits quality performance and listening. There are standards for noise in schools (established by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association) that are beyond our schools’ present ability to meet. The most prevalent example is HVAC system noise, but in some cases the noise comes from adjoining rooms. [“Do School Facilities Affect Academic Outcomes?”, by Mark Schneider, National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, pgs. 6-8 are about acoustics, Nov. 2002. (http://awilkinson.us/sustain/outcomes.pdf)] 

Lighting has also long been understood to affect mental and emotional function in the workplace. However, recommended lighting practices have varied over the last half century, from cool- to warm-spectrum fluorescent lights and from having windows to not having windows. Sustainable facilities use day lighting to save energy, leveraging our understanding that the sun's light spectrum is best for humans. One of the best studies does not probe the psychological or physiological pathways of the effects of day lighting, but does provide a strong correlation of test performance with day lighting. [“Daylighting in Schools: An Investigation into the Relationship Between Daylighting and Human Performance, Condensed Report”, by Heschong Mahone Group, 31 pages, Aug. 1999. (http://awilkinson.us/sustain/HMG2012.cond-schools-rpt.pdf)]

Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) covers air-borne pathogens, CO and CO2 levels, dust, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC), and radon, not uncommon in the rock geology of our region. At this point our schools have no ongoing measurements to characterize this problem. New facilities build in measurements and preventions to enable improved IAQ. CO2 levels are perhaps the most dynamic and quick to affect mental performance. It is common for CO2 concentration to jump in a fully occupied room simply as a result of respiration. Some current classrooms have only internal air circulation.

Some have heating air ducts that only respond to temperature in the room. There is currently no provision in our schools to increase the fresh air flow when the students enter a room. Sustainable refurbished facilities would build that in. Research in the last decade has sought to quantitatively measure student mental performance as a function of CO2 levels. It is still a work in progress. But indications so far show effects of impaired reasoning at CO2 levels that used to be considered acceptable, let alone at the elevated levels often found in a full classroom. [“Elevated carbon dioxide may impair reasoning.” Science News, Oct. 16, 2012, (http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/345791/description/Elevated_carbon_dioxide_may_impair_reasoning), “Research Report on Effects of HVAC On Student Performance” ASHRAE Journal vol. 48, Oct. 2006, (http://awilkinson.us/sustain/2D_4_Effects_HVAC_onStudentPerformance.pdf)] 

We believe that sustainably renovated school facilities such as those envisioned by the CH-UH plan [Issue 81 on the Nov. 5 ballot] will result in improved student test scores, while also cutting energy consumption by as much as 80 percent and reducing operating expenses on an ongoing basis. [http://www.heightsobserver.org/read/2013/08/13/refurbished-chuh-school-buildings-will-save-energy-and-money]

Allen Wilkinson and Sam Bell

Allen Wilkinson and Sam Bell were members of the Sustainability Working Group of the Lay Facilities Committee. Allen Wilkinson is a candidate for the CH-UH Board of Education.

Read More on Opinion
Volume 6, Issue 11, Posted 10:32 AM, 10.08.2013