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Sustainable Opportunities for K-12 Schools and Student Wellness

By Katrina Miaoulis, LEED AP BD+C
August 29, 2016

Every day, 25% of the U.S. population attends one of 133,000 different K-12 schools across the country1. Given the amount of time students spend in school and the large percentage of the population they represent, improving the school environment is vital to promote the well-being of students. Academic buildings typically serve multiple end-uses and house a wide range of occupants, including numerous visitors. In evaluating these buildings, there are abundant opportunities to incorporate affordable elements of sustainability into design to reduce the environmental footprint of these buildings, and improve the overall experience for occupants.

A pathway to a sustainable building can be paved by following requirements of a green building rating system, regardless of whether certification is pursued. These systems offer a comprehensive approach to assess various characteristics of the school environment that can be enriched. In particular, LEED’s v4 BD+C rating system consists of metrics to evaluate student proximity to schools, as well as measures that enable access to walking paths and integrate the school with the local community through shared use of school and public spaces. The LEED® rating systems also encourages quiet learning spaces by setting minimum acoustic performance requirements that could reduce distraction and anxiety. Additionally, access to sufficient daylight has been shown to improve students’ performance by increasing productivity2. This rating system also draws attention to the effectiveness of building maintenance practices and operations in ensuring that deficiencies and problems that affect occupants (such as air contaminants that may trigger asthma or respiratory issues) are addressed in a timely and adequate fashion.

Furthermore, green building rating systems encourage consideration of specific design features affecting occupant comfort. The WELL Building Standard is an alternate rating system that delves further into the health of building occupants and their surrounding environment. Approaches to promote wellness in schools using this standard include access to fresh air, filtered water, and organic and special dietary options in the cafeteria, along with supervision of appropriate lighting quality throughout the day, access to fitness and exercise education, and providing the option of standing desks in classrooms.

While green building rating systems serve as a great roadmap to integrate sustainability into design, adhering to all of their requirements can be very expensive. There are many passive and non-invasive design strategies that can serve as affordable alternatives to enrich the school environment. For example, schools can emphasize reduction in energy usage and utility bills through the addition of simple features such as natural ventilation, interior shading controls, adjustable lighting controls, and thermostats. Schools can use sustainable operations as educational opportunities for students; policies can encourage students and staff to turn off lights, report dripping bathroom sinks, close doors behind them in each classroom, and recycle materials. Additionally, using science classes to teach students to build simple composting systems, rainwater harvesting structures, or solar powered devices are a great means of empowering students to promote sustainability, cost savings, and environmental health.

There are many ways in which school buildings can be designed and run to utilize various sustainability approaches. Not only will these techniques reduce the building’s impact on the environment, they will also serve to improve the wellness of the students within the building. Whether through the adoption of a green building rating system, the implementation of energy-conscious daily practices, or the integration of environmental education within the K-12 curriculum, there are ample opportunities to help schools perform more sustainably while creating a philosophy of conservation for students worldwide.


1.Botchwey ND et al. A model curriculum for a course on the built environment and public health. Am J Prev Med 2009;36(2 Suppl):S63-S71.  Built Environment + Public Health Curriculum

2.Boyce, Peter, Reviews of Technical Reports on Daylight and Productivity (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 2004); Heschong Mahone Group, Daylighting in Schools: An Investigation into the Relationship between Daylighting and Human Performance (1999).