Spotlight on Sustainable Schools

Thursday, September 10th, 2015
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At Harrison School in Canberra, the naturally-ventilated, well-lit classrooms – each featuring individual heating controls and occupancy sensors – deliver comfortable conditions all year round.

With its 5 Star Green Star rating, the building is certainly energy efficient, but any energy savings are dwarfed by the accelerated teacher productivity and student learning.

On the other side of the globe, the students at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester are now learning and performing in a building that combines sustainability and acoustic sensitivity to spectacular effect. The largest specialist music school in the UK, Chetham has integrating cutting-edge sustainable technologies – from high-spec HVAC and lighting to CO2 sensors and state-of-the-art acoustic treatments – within a heritage-listed building. The result is a healthy, high-performance learning and teaching space.

La Trobe University’s Institute for Molecular Science building in Melbourne – featuring labs and learning spaces – connects science with sustainability in an environment that delivers energy efficiency and excellent indoor environment quality.

These are just three examples that point to a sustainable future for our schools.

While conventional wisdom has it that talented teachers and a well-rounded curriculum are the essential ingredients of a good education, research now tells us that a school’s physical design can affect a child’s academic progress by as much as 25 per cent.

A recent year-long study by University of Salford’s School of the Built Environment and British architecture firm Nightingale Associates found environmental factors – such as classroom orientation, access to daylight, acoustics, temperature, air quality and even colour – directly influenced learning rates. In fact, 73 per cent of the variation in pupil performance could be explained by building environment factors.

This isn’t the only study to link academic outcomes with school environment. A seminal study by Heschong Mahone Group, covering more than 21,000 students in 2,000 classrooms, found a direct correlation between daylighting and student learning, including a 20 per cent faster progression in maths and a 26 per cent faster progression in reading. Simply ensuring students had window views enhanced student learning by up to 10 per cent.

Other studies have found that better classroom acoustics improve academic performance, while good ventilation, high quality lighting and paints and carpets that don’t release toxic chemicals can improve student and teacher health, resulting in fewer sick days and higher teacher retention. When coupled with the estimated operating cost savings – which can be as much as 40 per cent – more money can be spent on teacher salaries and learning resources.

For most schools and universities, the desire to build green was driven by economic efficiency. Green buildings are cheaper to operate, which mean more money for teachers, text books and other learning resources. The Center for Green Schools in the US estimates that each green school saves around US$100,000 each year in direct operating expenses, equivalent to two teachers’ salaries, 200 computers or 5,000 textbooks.

But more than operational cost savings, schools and universities understand they have a deep and abiding responsibility to the occupants of their buildings – who are, after all, our next generation of leaders.

Sustainable school buildings are also being used as a powerful teaching and learning tool, with green featured and advanced technology inspiring children to come to grips with the real-world application of green technologies. We know many students learn better when abstract concepts are demonstrated to them visually. Some schools position real-time energy monitors around the school, while others incorporate stormwater management into the landscape design.

While we need to invest in our physical environments, embedding sustainability into school curricula is just as important. Sustainability is now addressed in the Australian Curriculum as a cross-curriculum priority, and state governments are enhancing this with programs and resources. For example, the Sustainable Schools NSW hub provides teaching resources on a wide range of topics from creating food gardens to meeting the challenges of climate change. In Victoria, the ResourceSmart Schools program simultaneously helps schools reduce costs while giving students the opportunity to learn about sustainability.

It’s clear that a sustainable school delivers far more than energy efficiency. It’s time we reframed our conversation so that the community begins to understand that an investment in better buildings is an investment in the education and learning outcomes of our most precious asset – our people.

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