Sustainability on Any Budget


A tale of two states: Connecticut and Rhode Island achieve sustainable school design despite opposite economies.

By Glenn R. Gardiner, AIA, LEED AP, and Daniel Weston, AIA

A challenging economy is a catalyst for opportunity. Chicago Mayor and former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel may have said it best, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

The Recession has prescribed stress tests for our public educational system, and municipalities across the nation are identifying schools’ strengths and weaknesses. Education decision makers in pre-K to 12 are focusing on design guidelines and building strategies that create compelling, functional, and innovative learning environments on a budget. Sustainability remains at the forefront of school design, and communities are quickly discovering that green not only protects the Earth, but also makes sound fiscal sense.




Lessons From Connecticut

Since 2007, Connecticut’s building code requirements have mandated that new school designs meet energy and sustainable standards. LEED Silver, CHPS, or NECHPS are most often utilized. From the onset there was significant resistance to sustainability goals, as municipalities believed mandates would increase costs and make taxpayers resistant. Initially, raw numbers were often taken out of context and applied only to short-term benefits. Over time, however, communities recognized the long-term cost savings associated with sustainable school design.



Additionally, Connecticut has a unique reimbursable classification know as Renovate-as-New. Typically Connecticut does not reimburse school districts for work that would be classified as ordinary repair and maintenance. A renovation and addition project might be economically restricted in reimbursement to only those components that represent new program areas. Renovate-as-New requires design teams to certify that all building systems have an additional life span of 20 years.

“The State of Connecticut has many existing structures within its borders,” said Bruce Bockstael, chief architect and administrator of client teams for the Connecticut Department of Construction Services. “As far as the Department of Construction Services is concerned, we view this as a real blessing on several fronts. First, most buildings with 70 plus years of wear are still around due to the value of the construction techniques used in our past. They were built to last, used excellent materials, and were easily reusable. Secondly, real sustainable design is the project you don’t build. So, when faced with a space need where one can use an existing building, knowing that to build a new one requires energy to produce the materials, transport the materials, and the labor to put them in place, all of which represents an energy cost that we can avoid, then we simply update portions of an existing building to meet our technological needs for the day.”


District 18 Soars

Regional School District 18 in Lyme/Old Lyme, CT, demonstrates the success of the Renovate-as-New program and gained $4 million in reimbursements on a $40 million project. In 2006, District 18 and our firm, Northeast Collaborative Architects, embarked on a major renovation of their existing 30-year-old high school. As one of the first projects in Connecticut required to meet sustainability goals, it became an experimental model to explore ideas and cost impacts for meeting LEED Silver requirements. District 18 looked at the mandates for sustainable design coupled with the degree to which the building was being renovated and determined that it was in their best interest to pursue that reimbursement category.

Together we established a comprehensive program that balanced energy conservation, green product design, and long-term sustainability goals. The decision to reuse the existing facility made economic sense. Sustainability experts agree that building reuse often yields fewer environmental impacts than new construction. The reuse of buildings with an average level of energy performance consistently offers immediate climate change impact reductions compared to more energy-efficient new construction.

Beyond the initial savings associated with reusing the existing building, District 18 reaped additional benefits from implementing a geothermal system. Although the construction cost was increased by approximately $750,000, the geothermal system is expected to pay for itself within 10 years. The system has a 50-year life expectancy, so District 18 can anticipate 40 years of reduced energy costs associated with this decision. This, coupled with the myriad of additional energy-savings measures, such as daylight harvesting; LED site lighting; increased wall, window, and roof performance; and quality eco-friendly materials, will result in significant reductions in overall energy usage.


Rhode Island Rebounds

The Recession continues to resonate in neighboring Rhode Island where double-digit unemployment remains steadfast. Many cities and towns, especially low-income urban communities, are threatened by bankruptcy and do not have the resources to address problems plaguing their schools.

Prior to the economic downturn, Rhode Island’s public, private, and charter schools were advocating sustainable initiatives. For example, in 2007, our firm created a LEED Silver design for the expansion of the Compass School in South Kingstown, RI. In addition to maintaining high academic standards and strong family engagement, the charter school promotes environmental sustainability and social responsibility. The $9 million project featured learning clusters that would accommodate mixed classes comprised of three grade levels. Green elements harvest daylight and rainwater and include energy-efficient heating, cooling, lighting, and recycling and composting systems. In 2008, the Recession postponed the project but school leaders continue to raise building funds to achieve their original vision.

“Because of serious state and local budget concerns in Rhode Island, there is, at present, a moratorium on school construction and repairs except for those affecting health and safety,” said Elliot Krieger, spokesman for the Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.


Hope Emerges
There is hope for the Ocean State, though. “Rhode Island is honored to be one of only six states to receive two Race to the Top awards, including the initial Race to the Top grant and the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant,” added Krieger. “We are using these funds to transform education through ensuring educator excellence, adopting world-class standards and assessments, accelerating all schools toward greatness, and developing user-friendly data systems. Some of the initial work entails implementing a statewide evaluation system for educators, training more than 4,000 teachers in Common Core State Standards, providing mentoring for all beginning teachers, establishing an academy to train administrators who will work in the lowest-achieving schools, developing systems that will provide teachers with timely data on each of their students, and supporting the establishments and expansion of innovative charter public schools, among other initiatives.”




Striving for Innovation
Recognizing the connection between education and re-energizing the state’s sluggish economy, the Board of Regents recently approved new regulations on career-technical education that take dramatic steps to ensure all students have access to high-quality programs, and support the development and expansion of programs in fields that are likely to lead the way in the future of Rhode Island’s economy.

Innovative school models are key measures Rhode Island must embrace to create long-term progress for the public school. For example, the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center is a state-funded public school district and local education agency that serves 690 high school students at three campuses. Our firm completed a feasibility study for the MET School’s campus in Newport, RI, which is presently in the schematic design phase led by the Rhode Island Department of Education.

According to its mission statement, “The MET’s individualized learning approach has proven successful in unlocking students’ passion for learning. The MET empowers its students to take charge of their learning, to become responsible citizens and life-long learners. The hallmarks of a MET education include internships, individual learning plans, advisory, and a breakthrough college transition program.”

Currently, the Rhode Island Department of Education, on behalf of the State of Rhode Island, is planning to build the first net-zero state facility and perhaps the first net-zero high school in the region. The project is designed to maximize renewable energy sources on the site and minimize energy consumption with an air-tight, well-insulated exterior envelope, 100-kW photovoltaic system, geothermal heat pump, and other sustainable features. The project will comply with the Rhode Island Department of School Construction Regulations and with the Northeast Collaborative for High Performance Schools’ protocol, and is intended to provide a model for school construction across Rhode Island and the region.

In Connecticut, Rhode Island, and school districts across the country, sustainability has become a priority. Voters are better educated as to the benefits of sustainability and expect school leaders and design professionals to fully understand all the opportunities that exist and the methodologies to incorporate them into their projects.


Daniel L. Weston, AIA, is a partner at Northeast Collaborative Architects. He focuses on the public school realm and was senior designer and project manager for over $150 million of educational projects in Connecticut. Reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">'+addy_text38311+'<\/a>'; //--> .

Glenn R. Gardiner, AIA, LEED AP, is a partner at Northeast Collaborative Architects. His career spans 30 years and he has developed an expertise in educational and sustainable design. Reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">'+addy_text74488+'<\/a>'; //--> .

Photo captions:

First photo - Connecticut Regional School District 18's new addition includes a secure administrative area as well as a new student commons/cafeteria that connects the two wings. (Credit: Northeast Collaborative Architects)

Second photo - The new MET School is a net-zero facility designed by Rhode Island Department of Education School Construction staff: Lead Architect Joseph da Silva; Architect Manuel Cordero, and Associate Mario Carreno.

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