School sustainability goes way beyond “green”

 In Blog, Articles, K-12 Education, Learning Environments

Metal drinking straws, recycle bins, reusable grocery bags.

Or maybe you think of solar panels, the farmers’ market, or “natural” deodorant.

“Sustainability” can mean many things to many people. And while all of the above are certainly part of its definition, trying to pigeonhole sustainability into just one of its manifestations fails just as surely as that natural deodorant will.

LEED, net zero, passive house—a lot of attention has been focused on making buildings and homes more sustainable, energy efficient, “green.” That same attention is also at the center of school design and construction, but consider this definition of sustainability from the U.N. Commission on Environment and Development:

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Because that’s really what this is all about: Designing for the future. And that kind of focus moves the core of sustainability way past any simple granola notions and into a philosophy that’s crucial for the school buildings that prepare our future leaders—a philosophy of enduring design.

Schools must become more than just buildings

Just to be clear: I’m all for recycling and farmers’ markets, and I applaud the amazing initiatives implemented by students and educators at many of the schools with which we partner. But those initiatives become even more powerful when the community mindset changes around what the school means.

The school has traditionally played the role of community hub in communities large and small, and even within neighborhoods. And most are constantly striving to find better ways to incorporate community support services to improve educational outcomes. After all, many of these larger challenges are all related and intertwined—issues like health and academic success, family dynamics and social skills, etc.

The relationship is symbiotic of course, as explained by Tarleton State University:

“Schools do not simply provide a place to educate our children; they can also anchor local neighborhoods, support better public health, create a cleaner environment, and offer additional amenities to the community.”

The Coalition for Community Schools makes a similar argument by advocating for stronger relationships between the school and many aspects of community resources, as The Whole Child Blog explains:

“Its integrated focus on academics, health and social services, youth and community development, and community engagement leads to improved student learning, stronger families, and healthier communities. Schools become centers of the community … Using public schools as hubs, community schools bring together many partners to offer a range of supports and opportunities to children, youth, families, and communities.”

When we start viewing schools as the true foundation of any community or neighborhood, we’ll begin approaching the buildings and facilities themselves with the question, “How will they stand the test of time?” Then we tap into the larger question of sustainability and begin to ensure we’re meeting the needs of our future generations—that we’re truly designing the future.

Apply sustainability to your school values

The good news is that sustainable design is really inseparable from good design. And the most forward-thinking school districts are paying much closer attention to finding an architectural partner who’s considering the lifecycle costs of the school building and making choices today that make tomorrow’s systems work more efficiently.

We know the school building and its systems have to not only function, but they should also be focused on quality and well-being—about making a positive impact on all occupants over the coming decades. Because as we’ve learned through our experience, even the greenest design features and building systems don’t mean much if the concept and the holistic approach of true sustainability isn’t integrated into the school’s values, operations and educational approach.

However, if a school does align its sustainability efforts with its core educational values and mission, then those efforts will be easy to spot—not only in student activities and educator leadership, but also within the bonds it forms and strengthens with local organizations and the community at large.

As a result, the school building itself becomes yet another “teacher,” as researcher Burcu Gulay Tascı reports:

“Education has an important place in teaching people to understand, control and change their environment … The architects should design the school building in compliance with the sustainability criteria and should not ignore the fact that their product is not only a place where education takes place, but also it is, per se, an environment for learning.”

When we create a school building focused on the learning experience – one that’s inclusive to all learners and that’s built with a holistic approach to sustainability – we’ve truly laid the foundation of a culture of sustainability. And that’s something future generations of learners will one day thank us for.

Scott Barton is a partner at Hollis + Miller Architects, an integrated architecture firm that designs the future of learning environments, including public, private, K-12 and higher education. Share your thoughts on Facebook, LinkedIn or on Twitter @HollisandMiller.

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