Greening a Half-Century-Old School

If we are convinced that green schools are a great idea for new schools, what do we do for the vast majority of our students and teachers who are in existing schools?

Two things come to mind. First, operate any school in a green manner through sustainable practices. Start with green cleaning supplies and maintain the heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems for efficient operation.

Second, when it’s time to repair and remodel a facility, go green in a common-sense manner. Proven measures not only can extend the life of a school but transform the indoor environment.

Typical Problems
The Green Lake School District’s K-12 school in central Wisconsin, constructed in the 1950s, faced a situation common to many older schools across the country. The windows were in terrible shape, the heating bill was too high, the roof leaked, the entry-ways needed to be redone, and band and choral rooms were lacking.

To make matters worse, the old windows on the west-facing classrooms had been almost entirely covered over with a wall material to control glare and provide some thermal improvement. In the classrooms facing south, heavy curtains were mostly drawn shut to control glare.

Despite these challenges, this old school had good fundamentals, including a good location, sound structure, tall ceiling heights and direct/indirect fluorescent light fixtures.

Key green remodeling steps at Green Lake included reopening the expansive window openings on the west-facing classrooms, the choice of high-performance windows similar to what we use in new schools with lower visual transmittance to control glare, the addition of band and choral rooms, new entrances and some roof repairs. The existing direct/indirect light fixtures worked well enough, and in the future these can be retrofitted with better-performing lamps and ballasts at modest cost.

Lighting is an area where significant energy savings can be achieved in many existing schools by use of high-efficiency light fixtures and lamps, and often the use of fewer of them. Past lighting standards allowed for more lighting than is needed or desired. We’ve seen schools that were so overlit that school districts hired efficiency consultants to go through the schools to perform de-lamping — the removal of unneeded lamps.

Another common change is the conversion in gymnasiums from metal halide lamps to high-bay fluorescent lamps with practical controls to be able to shut off unused areas and adjust light levels to the activity.

The cost of the Green Lake remodeling and addition, completed almost 10 years ago, was approximately $2 million. At today’s costs, the project would be approaching $3 million.

Goal Fulfilled
In reviewing the experience at Green Lake a few years after the remodeling, the school’s guidance counselor and teachers remain thrilled with the results, particularly the transformation of the classrooms to day-lit spaces with views of the outdoors.

Interestingly, Green Lake originally was designed as a day-lit school, but that goal was not achieved because of the poor-quality windows. Through the remodeling project, which has brought new window options and a thoughtful yet simple design, the original vision for the school finally has been achieved. While the district did not have the funds at the time to do everything the leadership would have liked, they moved the ball in the direction they wanted.

And Green Lake K-12 school should be an effective and greener site for learning for at least another half century.
— Mark Hanson