High Performance Schools
March 14, 2005
by David B. South
On February 4, 2005, Solar San Antonio, a nonprofit advocacy for renewable energy, sponsored the Texas Energy Smart Schools Policy Action Plan Conference. I attended.
Speakers at this conference talked about ways in which America's schools could become "healthier, more efficient and effective, while operating at a reduced operating cost through lower utility bills." One of the first was John Brown of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the principal research lab for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
Mr. Brown set the tone for the conference by explaining that "smart schools" were "high performance schools." He used a school building of a conventional design as his model and described what the NREL currently considers a high performance school: a structure that is "23 percent better than code." In other words, a building that satisfies code with a minimum amount of insulation, fresh air and other elements that affect heating and air conditioning is the benchmark. But a building that is better insulated is considered better than code by some percentage, which may or may not be realistic. For conventional buildings to get better than code, it usually means more insulation and therefore more money.
Mr. Brown also pointed out that "smart schools" must be safe and secure and should last a long time with reasonable maintenance and depreciation costs.
Of course, all of the suggested improvements or modifications that make conventional schools "smart," make them more expensive. They need additional monies to achieve high performance ratings. Mr. Brown said that nationally the up-charge for high performance schools ranges between eight and 23 percent, but he felt that with proper planning it could be in the lower range.
Frankly, it was hard for me to just sit there quietly and not tell Mr. Brown and his audience that a Monolithic Dome's energy efficiency is at least 50 percent better than code and that it meets the DOE's criteria as a high performance structure with no up-charge.
Another speaker said that central air conditioning units should not exceed one ton for each thousand square feet of usable floor space. That interested me since he was advising what Monolithic had determined quite some time ago for our domes. But there was a difference. He was talking about schools in the northern part of the country. Monolithic uses that configuration, not only for the north, but for the hotter, more humid south where needs are higher.
This conference also discussed safety and security. Homeland security will be important in future school design. I hope that we will never experience a school blown up by an explosive laden vehicle, but it is a possibility. The Monolithic Dome is many times more able to withstand an explosive blast than a conventional building.
It's also possible that we might have the wrong people attempting to penetrate our schools. So, it will be more important than ever for entry points to be restricted and monitored, and that's more easily done in a Monolithic Dome than in many other structure types.
What wasn't talked about at this conference was security from natural disasters, such as tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes and fire -- proven hazards that definitely deserve attention.
But the conference did discuss schools "lasting 20 to 30 years." The problem with that is if a conventional school does last 20 to 30 years, we continue using it for another 20 to 30 years in a run down, unsafe, unhealthy condition.
Many speakers emphasized the advanced planning that must go into the construction of a high performance school. I agree. The school board, superintendent, maintenance, parents, teachers and students should all be involved. They should voice their wants and needs, then put the building out for bid on a design/build basis.
Design/build allows an architect to team with a builder and present innovative designs. New ideas, including new construction methods, will drive down costs and produce better buildings.
The conference stressed the team approach. Again, I agree. But for a team approach to work, it must include all members: engineers, architects, builders and their prospective clients.