Sustainable Design for Schools

Practical Applications

For centuries, buildings have been viewed as a way to live apart from the natural environment. We have grown used to modifying nature and the environment to suit our needs. As population has grown, more buildings have been constructed for shelter, schools, work, and other needs. The environmental footprint of buildings and urban communities has become very large, made more so by technologies that allow us to alter and consume the natural environment at an accelerated rate. Those impacts are further amplified by building designs that lock in inefficiency, consume virgin resources, rely on hazardous materials, and fail to complement surrounding landscapes.

The conventional perspective has been to design human environments in isolation from the larger natural environment. The consequence has been unnecessarily large environmental impacts, but also the construction of buildings that fall short in supporting the purposes of people who use the buildings, be they education, work, or other activities.

A number of architects and designers have demonstrated how the built environment may be designed to counter this traditional view. It may, instead, be designed to mimic and complement natural systems where the outcomes lead to design that is restorative to natural systems and, at the human level, to a sense of well-being. In a book titled A Green Vitruvius the authors, members of the Energy Group for the European Commission, explain the reason for their choice of title:

"2000 years ago the Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio wrote the ten books on architecture still referred to in every European architect’s education. ….The concept of the architectural pattern book offering design principles as well as solutions is universally familiar. This book is intended as a green pattern book for today…..To the Vitruvian triad of commodity, firmness and delight we postulate the addition of a fourth ideal: restitutias or restitution, restoration, reinstatement: where the act of building enhances its immediate and the global environment in an ecological as well as visual sense (Foreword)."

Adding the "fourth ideal," restoration, links sustainable design to place by respecting the landscape, the natural systems that support the landscape, and the cultural heritage that is linked to the landscape.

Transferring these ideas to the built environment for schools is the subject of this section. A necessary context is the role of sustainable design in a broad movement to reform education and improve learning. The field of education is under intense scrutiny to adopt methods of instruction to meet the needs of learners. Educators are being challenged to move away from the "factory model" where authority is centralized and flows from the top down. There is a push for national standards and for new roles for teachers and students where facilitation and collaboration are emphasized (Meek, 1995).

Given the pressures for and the nature of changes that educators and others are seeking, it becomes imperative to include thinking about the places for learning – schoolhouses – as part of the formula for change. Anne Taylor notes that, typically, talk of school reform and restructuring have not addressed the physical learning environment as a support system for education. Using architectural elements as tools to enhance children’s learning is a relatively new education reform idea. If we intend to transform education delivery practices and processes to enhance the learning environment, then we must put thought into the physical context in which these activities take place (Meek, 1995, p. 68).

The documented need for school renovation and new construction provides a unique opportunity to use design to support the needs of educational reform. Seizing upon the opportunities at hand is particularly relevant for three reasons:

  1. Given the scale across the nation of the problem of decaying buildings, there is the opportunity to make real impacts on design, the environment and the communities affected by a project.
  2. A second reason to integrate principles of sustainable design is the potential benefits students are likely to realize through improved performance and achievement by attending school in learning environments tailored to support and enhance educational goals.
  3. Lastly, use of sustainable design practices in buildings can result in substantial savings in operations and maintenance over the life of a building.

The remainder of this section discusses elements of sustainable design that benefit both the operating performance of schools and the natural environments in which they are built. The following section complements and enhances this discussion by describing the positive impacts certain sustainable design features may have on student performance.

Schools and the Design Challenge

Daniel L. Duke, as a professor and director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Educational Design at the University of Virginia, is intimately involved with research and design for centers of education. He acknowledges that we have entered into an "era of major school construction and renovation" caused by the combination of growing, shifting populations and aging, deteriorating educational infrastructures. Concurrently, communities across the nation, as well as governmental bodies, are questioning the structures for learning that are in place inside schools. By linking these two observations, Duke makes an important point:

"To build or rebuild our schools without rethinking the experiences that take place within them seems as unwise as revamping teaching and learning without considering new designs for learning environments. Together, these trends create an opportunity to redesign both schools and schooling (1998, p. 688)."

In considering the built environment, a sustainable design approach offers many advantages over traditional design of schools. Those advantages include cost savings through design of integrated systems and plans for multi- and flexible- use facilities. Cost savings may also be realized through use of specific design features such as daylighting, acoustical sensitivity, and use of non-toxic materials that promote learning by creating healthier interior environments. Sustainable design incorporates collaborative and integrative planning processes from the start of a design plan. The benefits gained by communications within a school community are immense. Of greatest interest to educators is the opportunity sustainable design presents to build schools that will support the learning process.

"It is not our goal to be a green building. It is not our goal to be an energy efficient building. Our goal is to be an educational facility and be the best educational facility we can be. Green buildings, energy-efficient buildings are strategies to reach that goal (Ohrenshall, 1999, p. 1)."

These words, spoken by Bill Dierdorff of the North Clackamas School District in Oregon, are important guides to focusing on the reasons for considering sustainable design for new school buildings. Sustainable design is not an end in itself. It is, rather, a way to create a model learning facility through architectural means. This goal is achieved by including specific design features that promote learning, and that create a welcoming, healthy, cost effective and environmentally responsible building. A learning facility is obviously more than just a complex of buildings on a site. It requires a program to support learning, the skills and experience of staff to teach students, and an administrative and operational team that works to provide the resources to keep the school building and programs effectively operating. Although those features are not part of the discussion of this report, it is important to keep in mind that they are critical to the success of any school community.

Just as sustainable design is a collaborative process, so too is the planning for a successful school community. The design of the school, together with the planning for programs, faculty and staff development, and financial and operational management are all essential elements that work together to determine the success of an educational facility in meeting its primary goal of becoming a learning community.

In his thesis entitled "Perceptions About the Role of Architecture in Education," William Scott Bradley lays a foundation for his discussion by offering a definition of architecture and by articulating the role of architecture in education. Architecture itself includes the school building, the learning environments within it, the landscaped site that includes the building, the infrastructure that supports mechanical systems, aesthetic details, instructional equipment, and anything that is created by users to adapt the environment to their needs. He describes five elements that are critical to architectural design if it is to meet the key goal of enhancing education. Those elements are architecture as facility, as place, as signpost, as textbook and as agent.

As a facility, architecture makes learning possible. It is sized, for example to meet enrollment projections and is designed to meet the requirements of and support curricula. As a place, a high value is assigned to the everyday lives of people. The school becomes a place that students and staff relate to in positive ways. It is inviting, aesthetically pleasing, and contains features that promote learning and that help to create an exciting educational environment. By being a signpost a school facility includes features that clearly define important spaces such as entryways, circulation patterns or high activity spaces. A school building is also a textbook by its use of design to support curriculum goals and to help make the learning environment more meaningful. Finally, architecture may be used as a beacon to signify an agent of change. "Applied to education it encourages and provides opportunities for changes in the method of instruction chosen by teachers or approaches to learning taken by students" (Bradley, 1996, p. 105).

Using Bradley’s definition of architecture’s role in education as a base, it is possible to expand upon his ideas by incorporating concepts of sustainable design into his definition. Sustainable design may be used as a tool for learning the importance of respecting the dependency of human systems on natural systems and how we should, therefore, design our communities to respect that relationship. It also may be used to show students and the adults who teach those students how collaborative work leads to positive outcomes through innovative approaches to problem-solving. Through sustainable design, a school building may become more than just a "facility." It may become a place that represents a community of learning in more than one sense - a meaningful symbol of respect for the environmental, physical and economic health of a community.

In June 1998, a group of architects, planners, school board members, teachers and representatives from federal agencies met to discuss and consider best practices in designing environments for learning. The practices were presented in draft form at a national symposium held in Washington D.C. later that year. The results included a set of three conditions and six principles. The conditions were: 1) learning is a lifelong process; 2) design is always evolving; and 3) resources are limited. Of the six principles, five speak directly to elements of sustainable design. The principles for learning environments relevant to this report are listed below:

  1. Enhance teaching and learning and accommodate the needs of learners.
  2. Serve as center of the community.
  3. Result from a planning/design process involving all stakeholders.
  4. Provide for health, safety and security.
  5. Make effective use of all available resources.

  6. (United States Department of Education (USDE): Design Principles: Schools as Center of Community, 1998, p. 2)

Reflecting the thinking that is occurring at the national level, these principles offer clear support for the application of sustainable design practices to new school building design. Under the first principle, the summary states:

"While most of the existing facilities housing the 86,221 existing public school institutions in America were designed to sustain a model of education characterized by large-group, teacher-centered instruction occurring in isolated classrooms, current knowledge and research about learning calls for new models (USDE: Design Principles, 1998, p. 2)."

The summary not only calls for innovation to address new models where student involvement is more active, cooperative and project-based, it also calls for an accelerated pace for research on the impact of the physical environment on learning. Efforts in sustainable design to address indoor air quality, daylighting and acoustical needs are all methods that speak to addressing physical conditions that affect student performance.

Considering schools as centers of communities supports the concept that schools are important symbols of "place." They should be welcoming to all members of the community. Children should be welcomed into the community, not set apart in isolation. Schools should represent centers of life-long learning where community members of all ages come to learn. And, by looking to schools as centers of community, resources may be shared and conserved by creating a site that is multi-purpose and open many hours of the day throughout the year.

The third principle speaks to the use of a collaborative process to include all stakeholders in designing an environment for learning. This is important for the support this process lends to inclusion and the resulting commitment of a community to a new building. Significantly, the integrated approach to multiple stakeholder participation in design results in problem solving and design innovations that support the goals of sustainable design practices.

The fourth principle, to provide for health, safety and security supports the sustainable design goal of caring for the physical health and well-being of those who will use the building. The summary for the fourth principle speaks to the need to create an indoor environment free of toxic materials. Interestingly, the summary also points out that schools should be designed to be more human-scale and personal to promote a sense of security and community. Reliance on "cookie cutter" approaches to school design across the nation has clearly been shelved as a relic of the past that is no longer appropriate for today’s learning environment.

"Attractive, well-designed and well maintained facilities communicate respect for the people and activities housed in them. As such, they contribute to positive school climate, good discipline and productive learning. (USDE: Design Principles, 1998, #4)."

In stressing the importance of making effective use of all available resources, the fifth principle raises the point that school designs must not only be built for people, but also for the environment. Conservation, preservation, and low-impact use of mechanical and energy systems are all recommended as features that should be part of any design. What are some of the specific elements of sustainable design for schools? A discussion of those elements follows.

Elements of Sustainable Design

The goal behind a new approach to built school environments is multifaceted. An essential component is to integrate a school building’s design with the goals for learning while simultaneously recognizing the interdependency of the built environment and its occupants with the natural environment. Attention to this essential component will lead to design that promotes the physical and emotional health of the occupants and supports – rather than works against – a student’s ability to learn.

In addition, a building, simply by the nature of its design, may be used as a concrete symbol of learning. A building designed on the premise of our link to and interdependency with natural systems is a statement of our respect for the environment and of our accepting responsibility to care for the environment through deliberate and thoughtful design decisions. Concurrently, by creating a healthy and productive building that is cost effective to maintain, we recognize the importance of meeting the social, emotional, physical and economic needs of the building's users.

A school’s built environment includes the outer shell of the building, the systems and materials that go into making the building a safe and protective shelter, and the sites, landscapes and cultural settings into which the building is placed. The built environment is designed with consideration for the environmental quality of elements that are identified and integrated into the plan. The following discussion of those elements provides an introduction to the range of considerations for environmental quality in sustainable design. It is not a comprehensive instruction of how the elements may be technically applied to design and construction.

Buildings resemble ecosystems. They are complex assemblages of interwoven, interacting elements (Rosenbaum, 1999). Traditional schools have been viewed as structures of "brick and mortar" that are designed and constructed under the direction of facilities managers, that are maintained by custodians, and that are used passively by students, teachers and staff. (Center for Environment, Education and Design Studies, 1999). Under that philosophy of design and operation, the elements of a building and site are broken into isolated strategies. Systems that are intended to complement one another actually may end up working against each other.

If more attention is devoted to integrated design during the initial design process, then the potential for realizing cost savings during construction and, over the long term, in operations and maintenance is significantly enhanced. In the 1999 article "Little Green Schoolhouse", Tremain notes that

"...architects and engineers who set out by viewing a building, its landscape, and functions as a whole might arrive at the cost-saving idea of having solar collectors serve double duty as sound barriers. Or they might translate marginally higher up-front costs such as natural lighting into significantly reduced over-all costs (1999, p. 19)."

Commonly, after salaries, a school’s largest expense is operating costs. In fact, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that schools could save $1.5 billion annually, a quarter of the nearly $6 billion spent to cover operating costs, by "greening" themselves (Tremain, 1999). Using sustainable design practices, Gary Bailey, whose North Carolina firm, Innovation Design, is a national leader in creating green schools, calculates that the schools his firm designs consume 30,000 to 45,000 BTUs of energy per square foot compared to typical schools that consume around 100,000 BTUs per square foot. Using the Department of Energy’s BTU figures, the annual yearly savings could be as high as $4 billion (Tremain, 1999). ("BTU" stands for British Thermal Unit, a standard of measure used to calculate energy consumption.) The important point behind the number crunching is to realize that sustainable design offers the potential for tremendous savings. For cash-strapped school districts, that potential alone presents a strong argument to consider sustainable design practices in planning for new school construction.

As described in the case study, planning for the Sakai Intermediate School on Bainbridge Island, WA included specifications that a salmon-spawning stream flowing through the site was to be protected. Because this specification was built into the planning, design and construction phases of the project, problems with the original siting of the school were identified early. Modification to the siting and drainage designs was made early enough in the project to keep to the original goal of protecting the onsite portion of the stream. With a coordinated, integrated approach, the challenge to protect the stream was dealt with in the most efficient way - at the front end of the project. It is critical that any sustainable design be based on collaborative, interdependent communications between all stakeholders involved with the project.

Using the same premise of integrated planning, school districts that are faced with building multiple schools can save money by developing a prototype for building. A prototype should not spell "rubber stamp schools," but instead reflect goals for materials use and performance standards that are then translated to be site appropriate. Bailey describes his own experience:

"I recently visited Clark County, NV, the fastest growing school district in the country. They are planning 80 new schools. I told the superintendent about our experiences in North Carolina and Texas. I showed him how, for an investment of $200,000 to develop prototypes, he could save millions. He was initially reluctant. But he left convinced (Tremain, p.1999, p.19)."

Given the importance of applying an integrated approach to planning, what are the key components of sustainable design? In his "Little Green Schoolhouse" Kerry Tremain borrows from Bailey a list of 13 rules for sustainable design (1999). While those "rules" do not necessarily represent a comprehensive list, they touch on the main areas that are components for consideration in sustainable design. Table 1 represents a modification of the elements listed in Tremain’s article. Table 1 includes a listing of additional elements and it is organized by category to highlight important sustainable design functions.

Table 1: Elements of Sustainable School Design
  1. Site Preservation
    • Site planning and landscape design. Maximize the site’s natural conditions and design easy access for pedestrians, bikes, and public transit. Provide site protection during construction.
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  2. Building Enclosure
    • Energy-efficient building shell. Design shell to address energy flows and use windows to maximize winter solar gain while minimizing summer overheating.
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  3. Resource Conservation
    • Energy systems. Consider the wide range of viable passive energy technologies and integrate them into overall design for maximum effect. Examples: Clackamas High School, opened in April 2002, uses computer and mechanically controlled daylighting and natural ventilation/cooling strategies which results in 40% less energy than required under Oregon's non-residential energy code.
      Millennium Elementary School (Kent, Washington) uses wind, solar and geothermal sources for heat and power, and also conserves water via waterless urinals and stormwater storage.
    • Water conservation. Harvest rainwater and stormwater; use low-flow fixtures, waterless urinals. Design landscapes with drought-resistant, native plants and grasses, and that support integrated pest management (IPM).
    • Environmentally sensitive building products and systems. Consider the life-cycle energy of materials and processes; prefer local, recycled, non-polluting materials.
    • Recycling systems and waste management. Encourage contractors to recycle, and to design buildings to facilitate staff and student recycling.
    • Transportation. Use alternative fuel vehicles; discourage single-car employee commuting.
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  4. Interior Quality
    • Air Quality: Use non-toxic or low-toxic materials and use natural or high quality mechanical ventilation systems.
    • Day-lighting. Orient buildings to maximize southern exposure; use daylighting to illuminate classrooms and reduce related energy costs.
    • Acoustics. configure building massing, forms and building group relationships to reflect and dissipate sound.
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  5. Operations and Maintenance
    • Commissioning and maintenance. Recognize and design for ongoing efforts. (Commissioning is a process to bring a building into operation by testing building systems [mechanical, electrical, plumbing, irrigation, etc.] to insure they are designed, installed and functional according to the agreed upon specifications. Commissioning may occur during design specification, construction and once the building is completed and occupied.)

  6. Education
    • Eco-education. Design the school as a teaching tool for sustainability and send the message that it matters.

  7. Community
    • Work with the local community to capture the historical, cultural and environmental importance of place.
    • Collaborate to design the school to function as a center of community.


An additional and very important consideration for sustainable design is the plan to manage the construction process. While the elements listed for sustainable school design obviously impact construction decisions, it is important to address the issue of impacts from construction up front. Looked at nationally, again given the scale of need for school construction and renovation, the potential impacts from the construction process are immense. Kibert recognizes that impact in the following statement:

"The construct of human society designed to allocate and provide resources to people is the economy, which, at least for the production of material goods, depends almost entirely on nature for its energy and physical inputs. The built environment is a major sector of the economy and to be sustainable it, like every other sector of activity, must examine its behavior in light of the imperatives and constraints dictated by sustainability. The unsustainable use of land, energy, water, and materials that is characteristic of construction industry must be changed from the present-day open-loop, cradle-to-grave model to a closed-loop system integrated with an overall industrial system that focuses on dematerialization, deenergization, decarbonization, and detoxification (1999, p.1)."

Susan Maxman, of Susan Maxman Architects, points out that "the construction industry continues to have a major environmental impact, generating at least 20 percent of the nation’s solid waste, consuming more than 11 percent of U.S. energy, and producing 30 percent of the country’s greenhouse gases" (Zeiher, 1996, p. 42). As both Maxman and Kibert observe, it is important to recognize that sustainable design is about both design for environmental quality in a building and about the impact of that design on the construction process.

Overview of the Process

How does a school district go about planning for new school construction based on sustainable design practices? Is the process substantially different from traditional approaches to building? One of the challenges school districts face is that many administrators begin projects with little or no experience in design or construction. The process can be daunting, particularly in today’s world of escalating costs, tight budgets, and conflicting political agendas.

Historically, design has been determined by professionals in charge of managing budget and design processes for a building. A typical team may include the client (in the case of schools, perhaps the facility manager), the architect, engineers, consultants, and contractors. In this scenario each group works linearly, passing the task on to the next group once their responsibilities are complete. Decisions are driven by cost, time and the quality of the product desired. There has, traditionally, been no link made by decision makers to "….be aware of the connections between environmental stewardship and the life cycle cost implications of long term investments in building costs" (Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 1999, p. P3). In addition, pressure to accept low bid contracts and minimal quality standards for materials and construction techniques often ends up resulting in higher operating and maintenance costs over the life of the building.

Traditional design and construction processes for the built environment have not been created in a contextual framework with consideration for the surrounding community. A design may be submitted for public "input" but at that point it is so far down the road, more than cosmetic changes become difficult if not impossible to manage for reasons of economic and schedule restrictions. Public forums may be prolonged and antagonistic because communications with the community come so late in the process (Pollard, 1994).

In describing the outcome of a planning process in Vancouver, B.C., Pollard comments on the importance of the initial, collaborative design charrette to guarantee sustainable practices are incorporated into a design and carried through to project completion. (A "charrette" is an intensive design workshop that involves people working together over the course of several days.)

"In addition to underscoring the notion that environmentally sensitive approaches can be positively integrated into community planning philosophy and demonstrating this through three design options, the charrette …..underscored the critical fact that a multidisciplinary and holistic design philosophy is essential to achieving a sustainable paradigm.

This arguably has been the most important point to be reinforced with this exercise. Without the equally weighted, simultaneous input from engineers, landscape architects, students, …. researchers, development consultants, planners, regulators and architects into the design process at the outset, the interrelationships and interconnections between natural, economic and built form aspects of a community would not have been fully and properly explored and exploited (Pollard, 1999, p. 7)."

A critical point of recognition, then, in any sustainable design process is that the initial stages of planning are most critical if the educational, environmental, economic and community benefits of the design are to be fully realized. The demands on design team time and the opportunities to save money are both high at the start of the design and construction planning process. They are at their highest at the point of team-building and goal setting. As the design and construction process progresses through its various phases to completion, the time demand on the planning team and the opportunities to save money both decrease (Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 1999).

Table 2 summarizes these steps in a list format. It is important to note that Table 2 is not intended to be a complete checklist of steps in planning and building a school. To detail that process is beyond the scope of this paper. However, Table 2 is intended to provide the reader with an understanding of the scope of planning elements that are important to sustainable building and that should be used as an alternative to traditional approaches to planning, design, and construction of schools.

Table 2: Sustainable Design Process for Planning, Design and Construction
  1. Predesign
    • Assemble Green Team
    • Develop Green Vision
    • Establish Project Goals and Seek Public Input
    • Establish Green Design Criteria
    • Set Priorities
    • Develop Performance Based Building Program
    • Establish Energy and Lighting Budget
    • Develop Partnering Strategies
    • Develop Project Schedule
    • Review Laws and Standards
    • Conduct Research

  2. Design
    • Seek Public Imput
    • Confirm Green Design Criteria
    • Develop Green Solutions
    • Evaluate Green Schedules
    • Check Cost
    • Integrate Systems
    • Refine Green Solutions
    • Check Cost
    • Document Green Materials and Systems
    • Verify Material Test Data
    • Seek Public Imput

  3. Construction Documents and Specifications
    • Insure clear statement of design intent
    • Check design intent against building rating systems
    • Include performance goals for systems and materials

  4. Construction Bidding and Process
    • Closely consider merits of design and construction by team as opposed to the conventional, linear bidding and construction process.
    • Closely moniter process to insure integrity of goals for Green Solutions

  5. Commissioning
    • Mechanical
    • Plumbing
    • Electrical
    • Other

  6. Occupancy
    • Regularly confirm system performance, perform maintenance
    • Conduct post-occupancy evaluation and continue commissioning as needed.



In its essence then, an integrated approach to sustainable design incorporates considerations for site preservation, energy efficiency, resource and material conservation, indoor air and light quality, and water quality and conservation. The entire planning, design, construction and post-construction evaluation is interdisciplinary in that all parties are involved in the sphere of the project. Goals are established early and are clearly stated. Cost analyses are built into plans to understand the full scope of up-front and longer term operating and maintenance costs. A coordinator to oversee the process is designated and supported. Table 3, a description of a "Green Building" from a publication by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, summarizes many of the concepts.

Table 3: High Performance Green Buildings
  • A project created via cooperation among building owners, facility managers, users, designers and construction professionals through a collaborative team approach.

  • A project that engages the local and regional communities in all stages of the process including design, construction and occupancy.

  • A project that conceptualizes a number of systems that, when integrated, can bring efficiencies to mechanical operation and human performance.

  • A project that considers the "true costs" of a building’s impact on the local and regional environment.

  • A project that considers the "life cycle costs" of a product or system. These are costs associated with its manufacture, operation, maintenance and disposal.

  • A building that creates opportunities for interaction with the natural environment and defers to contextual issues such as climate, orientation and other influences.

  • A building that uses resources efficiently and maximizes use of local building materials.

  • A project that minimizes demolition and construction wastes and uses products that minimize waste in their production or disposal.

  • A building that is energy and resource efficient.

  • A building that can be easily reconfigured and reused.

  • A building with healthy indoor environments.

  • A project that uses appropriate technologies, including natural and low tech products and systems, before applying complex or resource intensive solutions.

  • A building that includes an environmentally sound operations and maintenance regimen.

  • A project that educates building occupants and users to the philosophies, strategies and controls included in the design, construction and maintenance of the project.


Randolph Croxton, an architect deeply involved with environmentally conscious office design, puts these elements into the context of sustainable design by describing the architecture of his company, Croxton Collaborative:

"If one word could summarize (our) architecture, it would be 'optimization,' says Croxton. 'There are enhanced levels of energy efficiency, indoor air quality, pollution and CFC (chlorofluorocarbons) avoidance, solid waste management, water conservation, visual comfort, light quality, thermal comfort, and an enhanced awareness of time of day, seasons, and orientation to the sun, achieved within an overall market rate budget' (Zeiher, 1996, p.37)."

Laura C. Zeiher (1996), in The Ecology of Architecture, explains that sustainable design results "less from right or wrong solutions than from a full exploration of complex subjective issues, "sustainable design" not only respects natural resources, but also embraces human, cultural, and historical distinctions" (p. 30). Sustainable design is not a finite formula available as a model set in concrete. It offers a spectrum of design solutions that must fit the needs of a client, the site and the surrounding community. The key is that the spectrum of solutions work within an overriding framework that reflects a respect for resources so they are not depleted or permanently damaged. It is a process of innovation and restoration with respect to the natural environment, materials use and enhancement of human health, well-being and performance.

The Rocky Mountain Institute’s (RMI) A Primer on Sustainable Building (1998) suggests five principles that should be considered in any use of sustainable design.

  1. The work completed at the front end of the design process is critical to the successful outcome of the building product.
  2. Sustainable design is more a "philosophy of building rather than a building style" and, as such, may be "invisible" as a building feature. It is rather, integrated into a design style which will vary according to the needs of a site and a client.
  3. Sustainable design, by definition, does not assume excess expense or complicated design.
  4. An integrated approach is critical.
  5. Minimizing energy consumption is central and should be translated into energy- efficient mechanical and appliance equipment and materials.

In building new schools, the purpose of linking an integrated design approach to sustainable design practices is to create a building of high quality. The elements of a high quality building mean that it is secure, durable, cost-effective, aesthetically pleasing, environmentally sound, and site sensitive. In addition, methods and practices for resource conservation are employed both during and after construction. Design decisions within the context of designs for schools center on the educational goal of creating an environment that supports and enhances a student’s ability to learn. Just how the elements of sustainable design may benefit a student’s learning skills is the subject of the next section.


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