Wendy Miller has a sobering report in today's Oregonian: Of the 27 new schools approved by Oregon voters in 2006, only about one in four have achieved LEED certification at any level. That doesn't mean the non-LEED-rated schools do not have sustainable features but rather that they didn't pursue registration.
Still, as Miller writes, going green but not pursuing LEED amounts to a kind of honor system. Should Oregon be requiring its public K-12 schools to earn certification?
"School boards cite cost as the main reason they haven't pushed for such schools," Miller writes. "But there appears to be a move by some districts to build green without the expense and perceived hassle of meeting national standards. Green is a nebulous term, they say, and they don't need a certificate to prove their new schools were built to be sustainable."
The story also says that five schools across Oregon have received LEED certifications, and another 16 new public schools are expected to be approved for certification within the next year. But Miller does not report, by comparison, how many schools there are which are not receiving or seeking LEED documentation.
Miller does, however, delve into the issue of whether LEED certification sometimes steers design and contruction toward decisions that have less to do with the efficiency of the school. "For example, LEED requires contractors to recycle their construction debris and use wood from certified forests," she writes. "It's a holistic approach. School districts that don't pursue LEED may skip those requirements and put the money into the building to enhance its energy efficiency or improve its comfort."
Again, though, a school could conceivably use these arguments that embracing LEED isn't necessary because you can be just as green or greener within school walls than without it, but then abandon a lot of the efficiency measures with "value enginering" (an industry euphamism for cost cutting) when no one is looking.
Then there is the issue of whether LEED certification adds to a project's total cost. According to a study Miller cites by the US Green Building Council, administrator of LEED, these measures can add one to three percent to a project's total cost.
But I have long been hearing from local architects that a LEED-rated school can be done for no extra cost. Way back in 2003, for example, I wrote an article for Metropolis magazine about three Oregon schools designed by BOORA Architects: Clacamas High School (pictured in the diagram above), The Dalles Middle School, and Ash Creek Intermediate in Independence (pictured at the top of this post). In each case, architect Heinz Rudolf and his team at BOORA were able to eliminate enough mechanical and other costs by embracing sustainable methods to make the total construction cost for these projects no larger than that of conventionally built schools.
"I believe in functionalism," Rudolf said in the Metropolis story. "You design a building according to analysis, and everything is in the right place. Then you don't need a big electrical system or a big mechanical system. You take advantage of all the things you can. If you ignore all these good things that nature provides automatically, then you have to overcome them." Each of these three buildings underwent significant commissioning to ensure optimum knowledge and performance of ventilation and mechanical systems, verifying that everything was built the way it was intended to be.
What do the rest of you think: Should Oregon pass a law requiring all public schoos to achieve at least LEED Silver? Or are contemporary energy codes and other measures already assuring more efficient schools without such interference?
As so often happens with Oregonian stories, I found Miller's reporting itself to be well reasoned and written, but the headline -- which an editor usually writes -- made me cringe a little: "Oregon schools: It's not easy, or cheap, being green." The headline takes a more pessimistic attitude than the story itself, casting skepticism on going green at all when Miller's story was about whether to certify. (The paper did the same with a recent story about Memorial Coliseum, expressing skepticism in its headline and sub-healine about a recent tour that didn't exist in the Casey Parks-written story or the tour itself.) Nobody should be arguing at all about the merits of sustainable design and construction itself, especially when it comes to public schools. Students learn better and are healthier, and Portland's own architecture community has already long since proven it can be done at conventional budgets. So as it happens, it can indeed be easy, and inexpensive, to do the right thing.