Sustainable schools, but at what cost?August 2014
All new schools are built to meet the required Green Star rating, but is the same attention being given in the construction and design of these schools to the ability to teach and learn? JUDE BARBACK considers the merits and limitations of the Green Star rating system.
Newly opened Pegasus Bay School in Christchurch is the first school in New Zealand to generate as much energy as it uses, thanks to the installation of over 557sqm solar electric panels. The school joins a club of 13 other energy-efficient schools: those that carry a 5 Star Green Star rating.
What is a Green Star school?
The 14 schools – with another four expected to join the club next year – are built to the New Zealand Green Building Council’s Green Star Education 5-Star Standard, which is now the Ministry of Education’s policy for all new schools.
The Ministry requires new schools to follow environmentally sustainable principles for design and construction as assessed by the New Zealand Green Building Council’s Educational Tool: the Green Star – Education v3 Design and Built rating tool. The tool allows the Ministry to determine where its funding will be spent and provides an independent evaluation of a project’s energy efficiency and sustainability credentials.
The Green Star rating tool evaluates the environmental initiatives and/or the potential environmental impact of new or refurbished whole schools, school buildings, tertiary buildings, and childcare centres, including their fit-out. It considers a number of environmental attributes, including energy and water use, materials, indoor environment quality, land use and ecology, emissions, transport, and building management. Schools gain or lose points on the basis of how well they meet these criteria.
Design principles trump teaching functionality
The initiative to incorporate sustainability into the design of our new schools is commendable. However, on closer inspection, there appear to be several problematic aspects with the process.
One issue related to building new schools under the Green Star framework appears to be the conflicting goals of the Ministry-contracted design team, and the board of trustees and principal.
For new schools, the Ministry typically contracts a team to undertake the design and construction of the building in accordance with the Ministry’s guidelines to achieve Green Star rating. Meanwhile, an establishment board of trustees is formed, but by the time the two groups eventually start collaborating, the construction team has already made most of the core decisions about the building. The principal is appointed later down the track again, and his or her involvement appears to come much too late into the process.
Steve Lindsey, principal of Papamoa College in the Bay of Plenty, which achieved its 5 Star rating, says he would like to have been involved at an earlier stage of the design process.
“All parties should definitely be involved, but the process is the wrong way round,” he says.
He says the pressure to achieve the star rating meant that it was difficult to make changes to the design. A straightforward request to have one less window and more wall space in a room was vetoed by the construction team because the window was needed to meet the light requirement to achieve the star rating.
Melanie Taylor, principal of Golden Sands School, also in Papamoa, agrees that the process for building the school felt restrictive around functionality and design. She says that if they wanted to make changes to the design part way through, this had implications for the whole design in order to keep the design on track to achieve the Green Star rating.
She says adherence to the Green Star rating system meant their choices were restricted. For example, there were only two carpet choices.
Taylor says they were keen to get solar panels, but to get these, they also had to get rainwater tanks, for which she didn’t perceive a lot of use. So this meant they couldn’t get the solar panels.
Lindsey points out aspects of the school’s design that adhere more to energy-efficiency principles than suitability for teaching. For example, most of the lighting is controlled by sensors. While this may be good from an environmental perspective, Lindsey points out that a teacher can’t control their environment – they may wish to darken the room. He says the teacher response was to block out the sensors, but the rooms have now been retrofitted with light switches.
Another example Lindsey provides where functionality has been compromised by design is the school’s lift. It has been made with transparent materials to expose the parts, giving students a chance to see how it works. While a good idea in theory, the reality is that it lets in a lot of sun and Lindsey anticipates that they will have problems with the lift in a few years due to sun damage. He suggests the money spent on the designer lift would have been better spent on creating a learning space for students.
Neither Taylor nor Lindsey are aware if their schools’ experiences are passed back to the Ministry to help inform the building of new schools in the future.
“We provide feedback to the construction team but whether they pass on details like that to the Ministry’s New Schools group, I don’t know,” says Lindsey.
Cost of being green
Another concern voiced by some new schools is related to the maintenance of some of the technology involved in the build. Many of the, bells and whistles, used in the construction of a green school are expensive and high-tech and subsequently require specialist maintenance.
New schools are not entitled to any capital funding for ten years. So, if, for example, the solar panels need fixing after three years, the school would need to go back to the Ministry requesting they are fixed – otherwise, the panels will sit there dormant for another seven years until they have the money.
Bringing awareness of sustainability
Aside from some minor frustrations with the process, both Lindsey and Taylor support the philosophy behind the Green Star rating.
“We have a responsibility to teach students about sustainability. You don’t learn these things through theory but rather through seeing it being done,” says Lindsey.
He believes the school’s energy-efficiency and sustainability has an indirect effect on the school’s culture and values.
Part of the Green Star rating system involves the school designing lesson plans around environmental issues and incorporating energy efficient aspects of the building into the curriculum. The school has panels explaining how things work. Lindsey says some schools have gone one step further and opted for a cut-away in the wall to show the pipes and so on.
Lindsey says many of the students do projects on aspects of the school’s energy efficiency, such as the rainwater tanks to store water, and the solar panels to heat the water.
Taylor says some of the things they were already doing at Golden Sands, such as their Kids on Feet and recycling programmes, helped them to gain points to meet the Green Star criteria.
The Green Star rating system is more than just a nod in the right direction; it is a clear commitment to making our schools – and by natural extension our education system – more focused on becoming energy efficient and environmentally conscious. However, it seems apparent that a little more could be done to accommodate design elements that will benefit teaching and learning as well.
Green star schools are designed and constructed to:
- Use less energy in operation through energy-efficient building design
- Demonstrate high indoor air quality leading to improved learning outcomes
- Eliminate toxic materials from places where children learn and play
- Employ day lighting strategies and improved classroom acoustics
- Conserve fresh drinking water and help manage storm water runoff through the use of rainwater collection
- Decrease the burden on municipal water and wastewater treatment through water recycling and water-efficient appliances and fittings
- Encourage waste management efforts and recycling through separation opportunities to reduce demand on local landfills
- Provide interactive environmental education with an emphasis on sustainability and resource
- Reduce maintenance costs in the long run.