Green Schools: Worth the Cost?

Last week, USA Today published an article titled Green Schools: Long on promise, short on delivery. Earlier this year USA Today also published a two part piece on LEED in general which I actually thought was fairly objective in its analysis of the potential drawbacks of the LEED Rating System as it exists today. It wasn’t high praise for the rating system by any means, but it provided what seemed to be well researched perspectives on possible short-comings of the system. I’ve really been struggling with how to address and respond to this most recent piece that  takes aim at LEED for Schools in particular, though. While I don’t disagree with some of the criticisms it has of LEED for Schools, such as failure address actual building performance instead of projected or “expected” performance, I am left feeling that this particular article is poorly researched, contradictory to itself and does nothing to identify ways to make any improvements.

When I was planning this blog post I considered breaking down the entire article and pointing out obvious problems like the fact that many of the more “energy-efficient” schools in the Houston School District likely have little or no ventilation and may or may not have air conditioning. Of course they use less energy than a new school that has a healthful, thermally comfortable environment! Or I could point out that the article bashes LEED in one paragraph for not focusing more on energy and then turns around and bashes it for not focusing more on indoor environment in the next. Which do you want? If both, then obviously neither can be the sole focus. However, others have started to take this approach for me in the article comments section in USA Today.

So, I decided to use this post to bring up one simple thought instead.  The article seems to infer that Green Schools are not worth the “extra” money being spent on them, but does it make sense that we should spend slightly less money on a school that bad ventilation, poor temperature control, no daylight and toxic materials? That doesn’t seem like a reasonable point of view to me at all.  LEED and LEED for Schools aren’t perfect. I will be the very first person to admit that if you give me the chance. However, they are so much better than nothing. They provide a solution to start moving the market incrementally toward an ultimate goal. Additionally, a third party verification that a building is green almost always ensures better results and performance, even if the verification system itself is flawed, than a mere declaration by a design team or building owner. This article seems to advocate throwing our hands in despair and giving up since the system isn’t perfect. That may be the easy path, but certainly not the one that will get us to better, healthier, more economically responsible learning environments.


3 thoughts on “Green Schools: Worth the Cost?

  1. Great site and I compliment you on your success in the industry. Keep it up. Really. At least until you make partner or have your own firm and client base.

    Thanks for the sample LEED test questions. I’m hoping the recession might end soon, and figure when V4 comes out later in the year, I should go for at least the GA. If there is a recovery, maybe having passed V4 will put me a leg up on the competition.

    I can perhaps offer an answer to the worth of spending more for a better learning environment.

    I used to like to say that the schools I went to, through HS, had the original chair desks, where your fold up seat was part of the desk behind you, and there was a hole for your bottle of ink, and I got an education, went to college (in a barely converter parking structure), and became an architect – licensed and all (and it’s a sad comment on the profession that I have to add that qualifier), even managed to pass the design section of the week long licensing exam the second time – which is all I took the second time. Then tack on 30 yrs continuous employment – starting in college.

    Now this would be proof that environment has little to do with education and that it is the quality of instruction is what is important.

    However, check out my website for my resume and you’ll see that perhaps environment does matter (

    Make your own call.

    Pls feel free to use this as an illustrative anecdote (in whichever way you see it) in your work, with clients, in speaking engagements, etc..

    Also, please in your work ensure your client hew to the “little bit more cost” for green buildings in the public sector, especially schools. Ego rises at the oddest times, even on school boards, even in NYC, where dull career bureaucrats are in charge. Such as their new green school, at $600 per SF (before inevitable cost overruns endemic in NYC school construction). Mind you even in NYC a primary school runs only $200 per SF or so. So, ego and slavishly following the green banner is costing NYC TWO NEW STATE OF THE ART educational facilities. What’s so costly, during design the SCA / BOE discovered there wasn’t all that much they could make green, lighting, finishes, furnishings, it wasn’t green enough. They tried to cut it’s energy costs, but couldn’t really, since high ventilation, heating, full kitchen, endless scrubbing and washing of everything is mandated, all high energy activities, so it’s green by virtue of installing PV’s over every available surface, no matter how inefficient, including a parking lot almost half as big as the school (and no, parking lots are almost never included in a NYC school – student walk or are bussed, teachers street park or rent driveways from locals. Rather environmentally friendly really.

    Criminal waste of public money such as this does not advance sustainability, it makes a mockery of it and provides all the reason nay sayers need to end sustainable initiatives.

    Feel free to use this also in your work etc, I fact checked it online, though I first heard it from one of the professionals involved years ago when it was in planning.


  2. Allison,

    I don’t believe I’d spend my time responding to such articles. Implying that LEED is not worth the additional cost would banalogousus to implying hybrid automobiles are not worth the additional cost. It’s not (entirely) about the cost. We know LEED isn’t “perfect”, and who would expect that it should be. As a practicing LEED AP, most of my issues are with the mothership (USGBC) than the rating systems. Everyone has an opinion as to how LEED can be better. USGBC monitors membership comments/suggestions and the result is why USGBC issues quarterly addenda and new versions. LEED v4 promises to be more than incrementally better than LEED 2009, which was more than incrementally better than LEED v2.2. “Perfect” isn’t always good in positives ways. Once we start believing we are “perfect” we lose the incentive to improve.


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