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Taking Your First Steps Towards Net Zero as a District

Sustainability and Net Zero are top of mind and becoming more and more embedded in our work. People and organizations are committing to new approaches and plans with the hopes of making a positive impact on our environment.

Do you know what your sustainability journey looks like? Below are several aspects to consider as you begin setting your plan to move forward.

Remodel vs Building New

The needs and styles of teaching and learning are continuously evolving. As learning models change, the environment in which learning takes place also needs to adapt. If your district is looking for more space, to address new instructional methods, or otherwise looking to reconfigure or grow, consider staying in your current space or possibly moving into an existing underutilized or unutilized building.

A remodel typically costs significantly less than new construction, while also reducing your impact on the environment. Even with extensive remodeling, the reuse of an existing structure requires fewer new materials. Construction of new buildings is a carbon intensive process due to the collective process of manufacturing, gathering and shipping of new materials.

Existing buildings that are prime candidates for remodel/reuse are those with long structural spans, non-load bearing interior partitions, level floors, generous floor-to-floor heights, and a regularly repeating structure. Even large “box store” buildings can be transformed into inviting, daylit spaces through the addition of skylights, clerestory areas, and new window openings. Additionally, these large spaces provide a high level of design freedom and enhanced ability to adapt over time, due to their largely open floor plate.

Onsite Energy Production and Storage

Purchase costs for onsite energy continue to decline while product and installation options continue to rise.  Now is a great time to consider producing energy onsite to decrease your reliance on the utility providers while also reducing your operating costs on a monthly basis.

Photovoltaic (PV) panels are a great way to generate energy onsite by harnessing the power of the sun. Panels can be installed on nearly any roof top, with options for sloped or flat (low-sloped) roof surfaces.  Many of these systems lay over your roof, requiring no new penetrations for mounting, ensuring you maintain a long lived and durable roof membrane. If mounting to the rooftop is not an option, there are many ground-mount options as well; PV arrays can be installed in open fields or be integrated into your site design, providing shade and shelter to your parking and sidewalk areas.

Wind turbines can also be considered to diversify your energy production methods for various weather conditions, coming in a large range of sizes and configurations. These do, however, tend to be more costly and less efficient at the scale practical for most school sites.

With the production of energy onsite you also need to consider whether you are going to invest in any energy storage.  Storage systems (typically battery systems) will allow you to leverage your energy production onsite during hours when you are not producing (i.e. PV at night), as well as ensure you have ample supply during peak demand hours.

A successfully implemented energy production and storage system onsite could remove your reliance on the utility’s energy grid entirely. In the US buildings account for almost 3/4 of all energy consumption. Every effort made to reduce this demand curbs our carbon emissions as we work to decrease CO2 in the atmosphere.

Reduction of Water Use

Fresh water is a critical resource that needs to be protected and managed. The droughts and wildfires in the western United States this last year underline the critical value fresh water has. Our buildings use about 13.6% of all potable water each year in the US, roughly 15 trillion gallons. A simple way to decrease this use is to look at the plumbing fixtures we are using.  Most plumbing fixture manufacturers now offer numerous “low-flow” fixture options, whether you are looking at your lavatories/sinks, toilets, urinals, or showers. Additionally, toilets may offer a dual-flush option, one set for liquid waste and another for solid, ensuring the right amount of water is being used. Replacing existing fixtures with low flow options could significantly reduce your water use and thus save your district significant money on an annual basis.

 A less costly option to replacement, would be to add aerators to your existing faucets. These devices, when attached, can reduce your faucet’s water flow as much as a new low-flow fixture. A final interior remodel to consider is the installation of drinking fountains with bottle fill stations integrated into them.  These stations allow students and staff to fill their re-usable water bottles throughout the day and eliminate the waste associated with single use bottled water.

Water conservation isn’t just possible inside of your building. Consider the use of native vegetation in your landscape. Native plants require little to no watering vs exotic or non-native species otherwise brought in. If periodic watering of your vegetation is needed, consider installing rain-barrels, or water cisterns, on your downspouts and utilizing this harvested water for this need.  Note that this water cannot and should not be used for other purposes without extensive treatment and infrastructure investment, permitting may also be required.

Scrutinize Your Floor Finishes

Your flooring may not be first place you think to look when considering your environmental impact or operating expenses. Historically, schools were often seen with 12″ vinyl composition tile (VCT) throughout their hallways, classrooms, cafeteria, etc.; VCT was a low first-cost material introduced to replace asbestos tile, which was found to be unsafe when frayed or broken. However, due to the porous nature of VCT, it requires regular stripping, waxing, and polishing, using harsh chemicals and significant labor to clean and maintain it. This maintenance of the VCT has a negative impact on the lifetime cost of the material.

Other products on the market today, such as luxury vinyl tile (LVT), sheet vinyl, ceramic tile, etc. offer increased durability, simpler maintenance, and can save your district money over time. For even more cost savings you may consider simply using the concrete floor slab that is already present. You can now specify polished concrete floors, in your new construction or existing facilities. There are numerous options for colors, gloss, and aggregate exposures.  This finish is durable, resistant to stain, and requires no specialized products to maintain. In addition, it requires no flooring material to be manufactured, installed, and eventually replaced – a truly sustainable option. Of course, as with any design element, there are other considerations that should be reviewed with your architects to include acoustics, lighting, and slip resistance.

An Intelligent Approach to Lighting

Simple lighting changes could save your district money by reducing energy usage. A quick first step, for any district facilities still using florescent lighting, would be to consider replacing or converting all lighting to Light Emitting Diode (LED) fixtures. LED fixtures require less energy to operate, have a significantly longer life span, are typically dimmable, and can come in a wide range of color temperatures. Use of LED lighting can give new life to your spaces by making them feel brighter and more lively while still decreasing your operating costs.

Beyond this first step, your focus for any new or existing facilities should be on using daylight to your advantage. Some studies have shown that increased access to daylight has a positive effect on student achievement. This does not mean that all walls should be clear glass windows; introducing daylight in an uncontrolled way will lead to issues with glare and solar heat gain, causing an uncomfortable and less than desirable learning environment. Consider tinted glass and exterior shading devices for your windows. These approaches will allow you to keep windows open to views of the outdoors without users pulling down blinds. Tunable tint technology, electrochromic glass, automatically adjusts throughout the day based on sun position or interior functional needs. This technology is more costly but an extremely versatile option.

Further, consider bringing in daylight from above, whether it be through clerestory windows, traditional or tubular skylights, there are great ways to allow in daylight, even into rooms that have no exterior walls. As you plan to bring in additional daylighting into your spaces, ensure you are installing the lighting sensors and controls necessary to take full advantage of the electrical savings possible, turning off lights in zones based on the light coming in.

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