There is rising demand for sustainably preferable and socially beneficial spaces where we can live, work and learn.

Our environmental impact has been splashed across newspapers and screens for some time now and it’s fair to say that our understanding and ability to deal with these issues has improved.

It’s also fair to say that we are responsible for passing what we have learnt to younger generations and by the same token, ensuring they grow up in healthy and safe environments. It makes sense that schools — as hubs of learning — should be leading the way in terms of being inspiring, forward-thinking spaces.

Green schools have been discussed a lot of late. A report released earlier this year by the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) reveals some interesting findings. Studies show that the influence green buildings have on productivity and performance is very real. In The future of Australian education – Sustainable places for learning, The Heschong Mahone Daylighting Study found that students in day-lit school environments demonstrated a 20 per cent faster progression in mathematics and a 26 per cent faster progression in reading. It also reported a five to 10 per cent increase in performance in students that had window views.

It’s not just about increasing productivity in children, either; it’s also about improving productivity in teachers. An environment geared toward healthy and happy learning will undoubtedly elevate the standard of teaching and ultimately encourage higher performing students.

Romilly Madew

Romilly Madew

“We simply cannot afford to risk the health and education of Australia’s next generation – and we should no longer accept school buildings that are below best practice. Not when we consider that the classroom environment can affect a child’s academic progress over the course of a year by as much as 25 per cent and can have as much of an impact on a child’s learning as their teacher,” said GBCA chief executive Romilly Madew.

If something as simple as access to natural daylight can lift teaching and learning, what would improvements such as access to fresh air, lighting, heating and cooling, better insulation and natural ventilation have?

Evidence points to short-term benefits, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned from our experience with the environment so far, it’s how to look to the future. So how do green schools affect the long-term future of the environment and our health?

According to Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA)’s standards and technical manager, Ingrid Cornander, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are important considerations for both the design and construction phases as well as the operations of buildings.

“VOCs released from furniture, paints, carpets and cleaning products contribute to poorer air quality in buildings. Limiting the VOC content is therefore an important consideration if we want to create healthy schools,” she said.

“Furniture and materials used in buildings that have not achieved a Green Star rating, or that do not include certified products from ecolabels like GECA could potentially be releasing more VOCs, which can result in serious health effects for those who are exposed.”

She noted that children with respiratory conditions are at particularly heightened risk of suffering health impacts due to VOCs.

“Not to mention the detrimental impact that toxic substances can have on the environment during manufacture, transport, use and disposal of products,” she said.

Fortunately, things are already being done to improve schools. The GBCA has a Green Star rating tool for educational institutions and ecolabels like GECA are certifying furniture, materials and even cleaning products to ensure VOCs and environmental impacts are addressed properly. It is already possible to fit out an entire school with furniture and products that are better for both the environment and health.

Architects, builders, designers and specifiers also recognise the benefits of greening schools and there are many pioneering organisations that specialise in constructing high-performing green buildings. Existing structures will now also be able to achieve a Green Star rating through the GBCA’s recently released Green Star – Performance tool, which considers the operational phase of a building from energy efficiency in operations through to waste management.

The good news is that sustainability, environmental, health and social impacts are being dealt with in a much more sophisticated way than before. Organisations are in place to ensure greener buildings, greener interiors and greener schools, too. The number of healthy environments to learn and teach in is on the rise.

By: Alex Longstaff