What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of green buildings?
If you said “energy savings,” you’re not alone.
Here’s another suggestion: Natural daylight.
Controlled use of natural daylight is a core ingredient in the success of the Poudre School District’s (PSD) six green school buildings, says Mike Spearnak, director of planning, design and construction for the Fort Collins district, widely regarded as one of the greenest school districts in Colorado and perhaps the United States.
Before the industrial revolution, people spent most of their waking hours outside, Spearnak says. And in the days of the one-room schoolhouse there were no electric lights but plenty of windows. So, teachers and students relied on natural light to do their work.
But those windows weren’t very well insulated and they let in a lot of cold air and dust. So, as artificial lighting became more popular, windows grew fewer and smaller. Some companies and schools eventually did away with them altogether to eliminate the “distraction” of staring out the window and improve energy efficiency following the OPEC oil embargo of the 1970s.
Daylight affects human beingsThat was a mistake, Spearnak says, because “daylight affects human beings.” People like natural sunlight and like to spend time in buildings that have a lot of natural lighting as long as it’s properly controlled, he says.
Spearnak had his first experience with “daylighting” buildings back in the 1980s when he worked for an architect who did several buildings that made use of a lot of natural daylight. His first experience with it at PSD followed the passage of a $200 million bond issue in 2000 that included funding for several new schools.
Spearnak’s first experience with school daylighting at PSD was almost his last. The school, Zack Elementary, was built in the early 2000s during a drought, when most days were filled with clear skies and no clouds. But the first day of school was cloudy and windy.
“We hadn’t calibrated the dimming system for the lights,” Spearnak recalls. “It was an on-off system, turning off individual lamps in the lighting system as it got brighter during the day. It was designed to change the lighting about every 20 minutes. But the lights were going on and off about every 10 seconds that day.”
The reaction from teachers, students and Spearnak’s bosses? Never again.
Fortunately for Spearnak’s career and the students and teachers who have benefited from the green schools he’s built for PSD, those early problems were soon fixed.
A four-year-old study on the costs and benefits of greening America’s schools, concluded that green schools cost about $3 per square foot more to build than conventional schools but that the added cost is offset many times over from savings in operating costs and improved student and teacher performance.
Spearnak agrees green schools boost performance and save money once they’re built. But they don’t have to cost more to build, he says.
Don't be dogmatic about being greenThe trick, he says, is to design a building that meets specific performance criteria without being dogmatic about everything being “green.”
“If you try to be a purist, if you try to make sure every single element is green, you can wind up spending lots of money,” he says. “One of the pitfalls is being very dogmatic about it. You have to learn to compromise.”
LEED certification is a good example, Spearnak says. “There is the danger that designers go chasing points” to achieve a higher rating, he says, when that’s not always the sensible thing to do. He points to Fossil Ridge High School in Fort Collins, which has a LEED Silver rating.
“It could have been rated gold if we had been willing to spend $3,000 to add an electric-car charging station,” he says. “But we don’t have any electric cars. It would have been a waste of money.”
Poudre School District has two LEED-certified schools – Fossil Ridge High School and Bethke Elementary – but uses its own PSD Sustainable Design Guidelines, not LEED, for its schools. “We just used LEED as a third-party verification on two of our schools to see how we we did using our system,” Spearnak says.
With his background as an architect, Spearnak invests extra money up front in design but recoups those costs during construction.
“We’re asking people to think harder” at the planning stage to design buildings that meet specific performance goals but can be built on budget and on time, he says.
One way he’s done that is by switching from a linear design to integrated design approach – everyone involved in project design is represented at every step of the design process. “The landscape architect knows the first name of the mechanical engineer and everyone else,” he says. “It costs more money to have this level of design team involvement. But we get a better product.”
The other thing Spearnak has done is “remove the heavy mantle of risk for the designers. Typically, there’s all this risk avoidance going on that keeps people from coming up with innovative solutions. We tell them we want a building that meets these 10 goals and that’s on budget and on time and that we’ll take the blame if they screw up. It gets people to a place where they’re free to come up with all kinds of creative design strategies, like fifth graders coming up with all kinds of cool ideas. We’re paying the design team to be more creative in finding ways to save money without cutting quality.”
NEXT: Other benefits of green buildings