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Improving Education with Indoor Environmental Quality

October 17, 2014 by Todd Bushmaker AIA LEED AP in School Business Affairs

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 School Business Affairs magazine and is reprinted with permission of the Association of School Business Officials International (ASBO). The text herein does not necessarily represent the views or policies of ASBO International, and use of this imprint does not imply any endorsement or recognition by ASBO International and its officers or affiliates.

Like many goals in life, the pursuit of indoor environmental quality is not an end in itself. The real goal is related to student success via student health, teacher retention, improved test scores, reduced absenteeism, and the fostering of lifelong learning that will prepare students for the workplace of tomorrow.

By focusing on the school facility, including indoor air quality, daylighting, and acoustics, we set the stage for realizing those goals. But how do we get there?

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) has become the standard for sustainable certification and is a great guide, providing a clear path to healthy classrooms. LEED certification and standards can provide the direction school districts need to make wise and principled decisions regarding the planning, design and construction of healthy classrooms.

You should strongly consider an integrated process, such as Total Project Management: Vision Taken to the Power of Green® (TPMg). As you consider a new construction or a renovation project, ensure that your planning approach considers the four critical components of an integrated process, such as TPMg: (1) healthy productive environments, (2) capital costs, (3) life-cycle cost savings, and (4) sustainable design and delivery. When every decision satisfies all of those components, you will reach a solution that makes a positive, sustainable impact on your school, while minimizing any negative effect on the natural environment.

Northland Pines High School in Eagle River, Wisconsin, was completed in 2006, becoming the first LEED Gold-certified public high school in the United States. The 250,000 square foot facility was completed at a total project cost (excluding land) of $116 per square foot. That price was well below the average regional construction cost in 2006 of $154 per square foot.

In 2008, River Crest Elementary in the Hudson School District in Wisconsin became the first elementary school in the state (and the second public elementary school in the nation,) to receive Gold certification under the LEED for Schools Rating System. The 93,000 square foot school was completed at a total project cost (excluding land) of $166 per square foot--considerably less than the region’s average construction cost in 2008 of $223 per square foot. The project was a milestone in the education world that proves that highly sustainable schools don’t have to come at a premium price.

Both schools were able to realize their vision for a healthier educational environment and high sustainability at noticeably lower first costs than are typical for even conventional, non-LEED certified school projects. They are appreciating the benefits of having healthier environments for teachers, students and staff; a thoughtful structure built with a smaller environmental footprint and lower constructions costs; and a facility that meets functional needs while being inspiring and providing a greater connection to the community.

ACOUSTICS. Acoustics are a critical component of LEED for Schools, and for good reason. High standards for background noise, reverberation time, and sound transmission coefficients are vital to ensuring that students can hear the intended messages. With careful selection of ceiling tiles, for example, one can quickly reach an acceptable level for reverberation time; properly designed walls and doors with high sound transmission coefficients will reduce room-to-room cross talk. Additionally, appropriately placed heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning vents and lined ductwork contribute to improved speech intelligibility. Careful selection of exterior windows will help cut distracting noise in more urban settings.

But hitting the background noise target for LEED, and for learning, can be more challenging. That challenge reinforces the importance of establishing the aim of the project in the early stages with the planning and design team and of engaging the proper consultants to assist with the more technical aspects and design of specialized spaces, such as gymnasiums, music rooms, and auditoriums. It is also important to stay vigilant to keep those acoustical elements in the project even when budgets get pressed and squeezed.


Daylighting and improved views have a positive impact on student and teacher health and sense of well-being. In addition to classrooms, natural light can enhance common areas and reduce power consumption. Up-to-date product knowledge, combined with strategic product placement by the design team, provide systems to manage lighting levels, glare, and unwanted solar heat gains and losses.

Assessment of the lighting levels in relation to the visual task being performed is a vital consideration in the discovery phase of a project. Insufficient or poor-quality lighting may reduce teacher and student productivity while areas that are overlit waste energy. For classrooms or offices where computer use is the primary function, lower light levels are often preferred. Those deliberations are important, whether you’re designing new space or considering a retrofit.

Windows often encompass a significant percentage of the exterior wall area of campus buildings and account for a sizable factor in the heating and cooling load of a school. Lastly, many technological advances have been made that enhance the thermal performance of windows, providing a greater level of comfort and fewer classroom distractions. Such advancements include better edge-sealing techniques, improved framing materials, low-conductance gas fills, edge spacers, and low-emissivity and solar control coatings.

At River Crest Elementary, the layout of the school takes advantage of northern and southern exposures for most classroom spaces, as well as northern exposure for daylighting in the gym. All classrooms and most regularly occupied spaces have natural light. Clerestory windows illuminate the entry foyer, gym, and cafeteria, and skylights enhance the staff and music rooms. Additionally, view windows are locationed along the classroom corridors. Northland Pines High School also takes great advantage of daylighting. High ceilings and strategic placement of gray low-emissivity windows add daylight to classrooms without glare or heat gains and losses.

The value of daylighting cannot be understated. More than 21,000 students took part in the Heschong Mahone Group's daylighting study ( that showed a strong connection between daylit school environments and student performance. For example, daylit schools had a 20% faster progression in math and a 26% faster progression in reading.

According to the U.S. Green Building Council, a review by Carnegie Mellon University of five separate studies evaluating the effect of improved indoor air quality on asthma revealed significant findings. Buildings with improved air quality realized an average reduction of 38.5% in asthma-related issues. Studies have also found a reduction in the episodes of colds and flu when air quality is improved.

At River Crest Elementary and Northland Pines, achieving high indoor air quality comes from using a combination of products with low or no volatile organic compounds that are specified for furniture, adhesives, paints, flooring systems, and carpeting and from monitoring carbon dioxide levels. At River Crest, classrooms feature air supply systems that use a high percentage of outside air, and classrooms, offices, and other areas have the option of using natural ventilation. Additionally, carbon dioxide levels are constantly monitored to ensure that air quality is at the prescribed levels for LEED requirements.

Cleaning products can significantly affect the health of those using your facility as well. Reducing exposure to harmful cleaning substances can improve student productivity and even affect employee morale. Healthy children have fewer distractions from their education, and a healthier environment means fewer absentee days for both students and staff.

When considering a remodel project, indoor air quality improvements can also start with an assessment and report of existing conditions, such as looking for mold and mildew caused by excessive humidity or moisture intrusion. Those conditions can exist without being obvious, for example, in crawl spaces or tunnels or in concealed chases and ductwork. Additionally, irritating airborne particulates can accumulate over many years in any path of air transfer if the building envelope is not sealed completely or the ductwork is not maintained or filtered properly.

Updating or replacing the heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems and controls can go a long way towards fixing the problem, but a proper up-front analysis is crucial to making sure all contributors are remediated.

The Green Lake School District’s K-12 school in central Wisconsin faced a situation common to many older schools across the country. Constructed in the 1950s, the building's windows were in dreadful shape, the heating bill was large and climbing, the roof leaked when it rained, the entryways needed to be redone, and band and choral rooms were seriously lacking.

To make matters worse, the old windows on the west-facing classrooms had been almost entirely covered with a wall material to control glare and provide some thermal improvements. In the classrooms facing south, heavy curtains were typically drawn shut to control glare. As is often the case with older school buildings, efforts to improve energy efficiency starting in the 1970s often resulted in Band-Aid solutions that had a negative impact on other quality-of-learning factors, such as daylighting and indoor air quality.

Key green remodeling steps at Green Lake included reopening the expansive window sections on the west-facing classrooms, the selection of high-performance windows (similar to those used in new schools with lower visual transmittance to control glare), the addition of band and choral rooms, new entrances, and roof repairs. The existing direct and indirect light fixtures were acceptable and could be retrofitted with better-performing lamps and ballasts at a modest cost.

By taking steps to improve classrooms with proper acoustics, an emphasis on daylighting, windows that enhance thermal performance, and great indoor air quality, you’ll set the stage for great success.

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