Feature

Green Schools on Ordinary Budgets

The cost case of eco-friendly design and construction at two Wisconsin school projects by MARK E. HANSON

If we want green schools at design and construction costs that are the same or less than conventional facilities, a starting point for school system administrators and school boards is to ask for just that.

You’ve got to say it like you mean it and then back up your interest in green qualities with your actions. If you get “no” for an answer, you may have to look for other providers of school design and construction services.

Mark HansonMark Hanson is affiliated with the Wisconsin-based design firm responsible for several LEED-certified school buildings.


Some in the green building industry have spoken for some time now of green buildings not needing to cost more. Jason McLennan in his 2004 book The Philosophy of Sustainable Design discusses not falling into the “green is always more” syndrome. He goes on to explain the concept of tunneling through the cost barrier described in the 1999 book Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins.

A 2007 cost study by the global construction consulting firm Davis Langdon and posted on the U.S. Green Building Council® website compares various building types, including 43 non-Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified academic buildings to 17 (LEED®)-certified buildings of the same type. Their conclusion was “no significant difference in average cost for green buildings as compared to nongreen buildings.”

Two Schools
The story of two green schools lends compelling support to the case for green construction and renovation. These schools were designed and constructed at costs that were 25 percent and 29 percent lower than the regional cost averages.

Northland Pines High School, a new 251,000-square-foot facility in Eagle River, Wis., was completed in August 2006 at a total project cost of $29 million. That figure included all design, site work, demolition of the old school, construction, commissioning and LEED certification. This cost comes to $116 per square foot, or 25 percent below the regional cost average.

The regional cost average for new public high schools completed in 2006 for Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin was $154 per square foot, according to the February 2007 issue of School Planning & Management. It’s important to note that the regional cost average is based on data relating to construction costs only for most of the schools. The cost difference between Northland Pines and the regional cost average would be even greater if only construction costs were shown. In the case of Northland Pines, the construction cost was just over $26 million.

Northland Pines was the first public high school in the United States to earn LEED-New Construction Gold certification, the highest level achieved by public high schools to date.

The second school is River Crest Elementary School in Hudson, Wis., which earned only the second LEED for Schools Gold certification nationwide for public elementary schools under the more recently adopted LEED for Schools rating system. This new 93,500-square-foot school was completed in 2008 for $15.5 million.

The total project cost of $166 per square foot includes all design, site work, construction, LEED certification and commissioning. This is 29 percent below the regional cost average of $223 per square foot as reported by School Planning & Management in its 2009 School Construction Report.

In comparing costs, a substantial difference exists between the two schools and the regional cost averages in the two years. The reasons for this difference are the large cost increases that took place toward the end of the economic bubble and the higher construction cost levels in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, of which Hudson is a suburb.

The bottom line is that these two schools are excellent examples of delivering a green school with outstanding features at conventional cost — or, more accurately, at less than conventional cost.

Counterintuitive Issues
While the story of the cost savings in green schools is compelling, the results seem counterintuitive. The questions you might be asking include:

• Are these green, but otherwise substandard, schools? In other words, did you save cost but provide junk?

•  How were the quality and costs managed?

•  Can the delivery of lower-cost, high-quality green schools be replicated?

The most convincing way to answer the first question is to take a tour to see for yourself. Because this is not feasible for most readers, perhaps contacting the district administrators to see how they feel about their schools is a viable alternative. In any case, you’ll have to take my word that the auditorium with orchestra pit is a stunning performance hall for the community in the case of Northland Pines, and that the teachers at River Crest love the smart boards, small project rooms, views of adjacent fields and woods, and daylight in their classrooms.

As for the second question, quality and cost management have two components. Applying both enables a project team to tunnel through the cost barrier. The first component is the integrated design approach, and the second is the integrated project delivery method.

By the time our firm was working on these projects, we had proven, based on earlier green projects, we could complete green facilities at or below conventional regional cost levels. But it was only after we had completed Northland Pines and River Crest and reviewed comparable projects that we more fully understood how we had kept the costs down.

Tunneling Barriers
The integrated design approach hinges on good fundamentals in design, the use of energy modeling to guide design choices and a concept we call Value TradingSM.

One area in both schools where we cut costs came in the use of as few, quality light fixtures as possible while using high-quality lamps to provide effective lighting. Thus, the school districts saved through the reduced number of fixtures purchased and in ongoing energy expenses. These light choices are supported by high ceilings, direct/indirect fixtures, highly reflective surfaces and classroom layout.

Further operational cost savings are achieved by providing daylight controls. As internal heat gains from lights are lowered, the capacity of the cooling system is reduced, which further decreases first cost (initial project cost) and operating cost. (Many cost analyses focus on life-cycle cost analysis, which considers operational savings over time to pay for higher initial costs. While this is useful, these schools are examples of lower initial cost and operational savings.) We use energy modeling to estimate energy use and system capacities to guide design choices.

These examples bring up another old adage. An engineer is never fired for providing too much capacity, whether it be for lighting, boilers or chillers. While that may be true, it is equally true that excess capacity increases initial cost and operating cost, both of which we were targeting.

The tug-of-war I had with one of our electrical consulting engineers over this issue ended some years ago. One of our earlier school district clients had hired an energy-efficiency engineering firm to find energy savings in their schools. They had just de-lamped— in other words, removed some of the lamps at one of our 1990’s pre-green schools for which our consulting engineer had done the lighting design. Needless to say, once this story was shared, the electrical engineer got the message that designing with excess fixtures was no longer a safe strategy for holding on to business.

We find cost savings in many other places in green schools. Both Northland Pines and River Crest used vegetation adapted to the climate to avoid irrigation systems. Both schools selected waterless urinals, which we found use less water to operate and are less costly to install.

Because of the high value placed on views to the outdoors and daylight, glass with lower levels of visual light transmittance was selected to control glare, thus avoiding the use and cost of blind and shade systems. Design approaches that require shades to control glare typically result in reduction or loss of views and may use more artificial lighting because shading systems are being used.

A key feature of Value Trading is that the owner, the school district in this case, is in the middle of the decision process over what to add and what to reduce or eliminate throughout the project. These decisions can affect lighting, mechanical systems, plumbing systems, insulation levels and window selection. Once a budget is set at or below conventional cost for a green school, our experience is there is no choice but to stay within the budget. Value Trading drives additions and deletions as the integrated design is formed.

Late in the design process at Northland Pines, the school board decided to purchase new lights for the existing football field using savings generated by switching from a conventional brick to a local concrete brick product.

Delivery Alternative
The second aspect of the cost management is in the delivery method. The standard delivery method for many years was a process referred to in the industry as design-bid-build. That delivery process now has a competitor that is rapidly being adopted called integrated project delivery, or IPD.

While various versions of IPD exist, essentially this approach places a building project, such as a school, under a single contract to a firm responsible for both the design and construction. In our version of IPD, we have used a process for 30 that we call Total Project Management: Vision Taken to the Power of Green®, or TPM. We perform planning, design and construction management services where all of the construction tradework is competitively bid. This maximizes the amount of bidding and helps drive down costs. We represent the school district’s interest as we work with all of the subcontractors. In other versions of integrated project delivery, separate firms join forces to deliver projects.

The advantages of these approaches are in providing an integrated team of planners, designers and construction managers who work with the owner from the start of the project through occupancy. The construction professionals are involved in the planning and design stages of a project, working with designers in providing critical input on constructability and cost-saving options within the context of a green project. Further savings come from the competition of the bidding process and the management of site activities by a field project manager.

It’s not easy to document how much the integrated design by itself reduces cost, but we have repeatedly achieved savings in construction projects using both integrated design and integrated project delivery. At the end of a project, if problems are identified, finger pointing doesn’t follow between an architect and a general contractor.

This is not to say that integrated design with a design-bid-build project delivery would not be able to deliver a green project at conventional cost. Some states or school districts require a design-bid-build approach.

Personal Delight
In looking back on the success of Northland Pines High School and River Crest Elementary, two things stand out.

First are the teacher and student reactions to seeing their new green schools. We’ve seen actual tears of joy when teachers have walked into their new classrooms while getting ready for the school year to start. And we continue to be amazed at the care with which students and facilities personnel respect and take care of their green schools. River Crest filled to capacity with 588 students way ahead of schedule.

The second thing that stands out is the performance of the schools in terms of energy use, air quality and noise levels. Northland Pines was estimated to save more than $130,000 per year in energy costs compared to something called the LEED baseline energy-cost estimate. Actual energy use has been even better during the first three years. The data from the last full year came in at $0.83 per square foot per year (at the 2004/2005 utility rates used when we modeled the building). It should be noted this is a fully air-conditioned school in a state that also experiences cold winters.

Next Steps
Whether you are considering a new school, an addition or remodeling, every student deserves a green school. Cost considerations can be your friend in making the case. The starting point is to find out what conventional schools cost in your region, and then ask for a green school at less than that cost. You have to ask for what you want.

Ask for an integrated design, and consider using integrated project delivery. When you consider proposals, review each firm’s previous green school experiences and the cost levels at which the schools were delivered. Talk with these project owners, and visit some sites. Make sure the firm you select can pass the test. You should expect them to achieve a grade of A to earn the right to provide your new or remodeled green school.

Mark Hanson is director of sustainable services with Hoffman LLC in Appleton, Wis. E-mail: mhanson@hoffman.net