Why LEED for Schools: It’s all about the Benjamins (and all of your other students!)

January 14, 2019

We’re occasionally asked about the value of formally pursuing LEED Certification.  Why not just ‘design to LEED standards’ and not worry about the formalities and cost?  The most important reason is that formal Certification necessitates on-going attention to sustainability that results in better performing projects.

Re:Vision has been named to the top 20 firms globally for number of LEED for Schools projects complete by USGBC. We know that certification provides an established, third-party-verified path to ensure that the high performance features students need to succeed exist in the final building.  It is important to pursue certification because funding is tight and because value engineering is certain to take place. 

We have been consultants on projects that ‘design to LEED’, and we see the sustainability of these projects gutted with greater ease than Certified projects.  The reason is never bad intentions.  But in the whirl of complex projects with competing time and resources, it is too easy to let sustainability goals fall by the wayside without on-going verification.  It is not the final LEED submission that counts; it is the process of holding an entire team accountable for a client’s sustainability goals that matters. 

Let’s break down some of the costs of Certification versus non-certification.

Energy Modeling

Energy modeling must be performed on LEED Certified schools.   While some people try to avoid it, you cannot ‘design to LEED’ without an energy model.  This is one of the most valuable opportunities for identifying improvements to lower operating costs and to keep everyone comfortable.  Since it should be performed on any high performance school, the cost difference is a wash.

Commissioning

This is another category that projects may try to avoid on non-certified projects.  Just like energy modeling, commissioning should be done on both Certified and ‘Designed to LEED’ schools.  If you haven’t commissioned your school, you really cannot confirm that you’ve designed to any standards at all.  Again, there’s no cost difference between Certified and non-Certified.

Professional & Certification Fees

Finally an area with some pricing differences!   It’s true that you’ll save money if your consultant doesn’t have to manage a formal certification process.  But you should absolutely plan to have a consultant if you are ‘Designing to LEED’.  We have worked on countless projects that started without a LEED consultant and needed one in the end to get their certification.  If so many projects cannot get it right with certification on the line, how will your team do if the stakes are even lower?

And there are certifications fees, as well. You can find the current fee structure for certification on the USGBC’s website.  For a typical 100,000 square foot school, total fees would be about $7200.

Why It’s Worth It

Schools are, perhaps, the most important buildings to get right.  Counting students, faculty, and staff, 20% of the US population spends their days in a school.  And students are typically the most vulnerable members of society – young lungs, developing brains, and inexperienced immune systems.  This is compounded by the fact that students don’t have a say in where they go to school.  Students don’t provide funding for the building, and they cannot vote for the people who do.   Students often aren’t even asked for their opinion about what they want out of a school.

So how does a LEED Certified school address those problems?  The LEED Criteria have been designed to provide environments that are the most conducive to learning.   Many of those Criteria are common-sense solutions:

  • Providing quiet classrooms so students can hear.
  • Designing HVAC systems to avoid mold.
  • Providing plenty of fresh air to help students pay attention.
  • Installing healthy products that maintain good indoor air quality.
  • Establishing construction procedures to keep the design intent intact for all of these and more.

Other solutions are less obvious:

  • Classrooms with plenty of natural daylight have been shown to improve learning outcomes and improve sleep habits at home.
  • Demonstrating energy efficient and water efficient systems lets students take conservation lessons home to their parents & guardians.
  •  Outdoor spaces are designed to encourage physical activity and curricular connections.

At the end of the Certification process, you get at shiny plaque to hang on the wall of your school.  Who reads those, right?  The truth is that parents do. The community does.  Kids do.  Especially when you’re proud to show it off.  And that plaque, that mark of achievement, tells the community that you care about getting this right.  When budgets are cut and education gets short shrift ( . . . again), you can communicate just how much you value your biggest community resource: students.

Resources

The Impact of School Buildings on Student Health and Performance