Green School Economics
Indeed, the authors claim, "Greening school design provides an extraordinarily cost-effective way to enhance student learning, reduce health and operational costs and, ultimately, increase school quality and competitiveness."
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The savings to the school, as uncovered by the authors through a rigorous economic analysis, are found in lower energy and water costs, improved teacher retention, and lowered health costs. However these are dwarfed by savings to the broader community through the reduced cost of public infrastructure, lower air and water pollution, and a better educated and compensated workforce.
Benefits to Children
In the absence of performance studies in green schools, the report authors borrowed from research done in adult office environments, arguing that many of the intellectual activities are the same: reading comprehension, synthesis of information, writing, calculations, and communications. The report quotes the work of the Center for Building Performance and Diagnostics at Carnegie Mellon University, which has reviewed over 1,500 studies that relate technical characteristics of buildings, such as lighting, ventilation and thermal control to productivity and health.
They report that improved air quality — increased outside air, moisture control, pollutant reduction, and individual controls — show marked improvements in occupant health. Teachers say thermal comfort affects both teaching quality and student achievement, and the best teachers claim their ability to control classroom temperature is very important to student performance.
Green school design typically emphasizes providing views and managing daylight while eliminating glare. These two design features have both been correlated with improvements in performance on tests of office workers. Indirect lighting has also been found to improve performance.
The consensus of a review of 17 studies from the mid-1930s to 1997 found that good lighting "improves test scores, reduces off-task behavior, and plays a significant role in the achievement of students." Another synthesis of 53 generally more recent studies also found that more daylighting fosters higher student achievement.
The Capital E study reports evidence of reduction of absenteeism (5 to 15 percent) and increase in test scores (5 to 20 percent) among students moving into the new green schools in the study.
The authors note: "Based on actual improvements in design in green schools and based on a very substantial data set on productivity and test performance of healthier, more comfortable study and learning environments, a 3-5 percent improvement in learning ability and test scores in green schools appears reasonable and conservative."
They continue: "It makes sense that a school specifically designed to be healthy, and characterized by more daylighting, less toxic materials, improved ventilation and acoustics, better light quality and improved air quality would provide a better study and learning environment."
Benefits to Society
Helping students learn is only one benefit of providing healthy, green environments for them. "Greening America's Schools" also calculates other quantifiable benefits to society:
Faster learning and higher test scores indicate a student will achieve higher lifetime earnings.
Healthier environments can save uncounted millions in healthcare for students with asthma and other respiratory diseases. Teacher sick days go down. The high cost of staff turnover declines when improved teacher satisfaction means greater staff retention.
Green construction practices tend to increase local employment, increase recycling, and reduce waste. Operations and maintenance costs are lower. The urban "heat island" effect is reduced, lowering energy costs in the surrounding neighborhood.
And, of course, the use of renewable energy reduces the threat of global climate change.
The authors also point out the unquantifiable benefit of improving social equity. In today's crumbling schools, the students who suffer the most are from low-income families, living in low-resource school districts. "Greening public schools," they write, "creates an opportunity to improve the health and educational settings for all students, regardless of income or background, a process with clear moral benefits."
In December 2006, USGBC launched LEED for Schools to help K-12 school districts better define the business case for building green and to help them to implement their green building goals with third-party certification.
"Greening America's Schools: Costs and Benefits" was sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers, American Institute of Architects, American Lung Association, Federation of American Scientists, and the U.S. Green Building Council. The complete reportis available for download from the Capital E Web site.
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