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Healthy, Resilient and Sustainable Schools

By Brad Miller, WELL AP and Gabriella Henkels, LEED AP BD+C
October 21, 2019

In August 2019, The Washington Post published an article “2°C Beyond the Limit: Extreme Climate Change has arrived in America.” The article analyzes the average temperatures in different sections of the U.S. from 1895 to 2018. The results show that some parts of the U.S. have already exceeded the 2°C target limit of the Paris accord, including higher population centers like the Northeast and Southern California. With urbanization growing, climate change will continue to affect these areas and will disproportionately affect vulnerable populations. School-age children (ages 6-12) in urban environments are especially vulnerable to the changes associated with climate change. Schools must be designed resiliently to endure current and predicted future environmental conditions, especially as more school buildings are being used as community resources for shelter, emergency power, and food and water storage during acute events. Resilient school buildings themselves also serve as educational tools to teach and engrain the principles of resiliency and sustainability to future generations. 

School-age children are particularly vulnerable to climate change due to their developing immune and central nervous systems.  Indoor air quality (IAQ) is of the utmost importance in schools as airborne illnesses can quickly spread through these densely occupied buildings. Poor IAQ can also negatively affect a school’s primary function of educating its students due to absenteeism from illness and irritated students and staff suffering from headaches, fatigue, or other ailments. These causalities can inhibit a child’s developing brain’s ability to learn, which could have future impacts on individuals and further widespread societal impacts.  To maintain safe IAQ conditions, increasing ventilation from the HVAC systems and installing high-rated MERV filtration on outdoor air entering the building are strategies proven to significantly reduce airborne diseases and other pollutants entering the building’s airstream.  These methods should be used in conjunction with other IAQ management strategies such as source management and exposure control to ensure safe and healthy conditions in school buildings to combat the expected increased spread of airborne diseases due to climate change. While many new school buildings constructed will incorporate these design strategies to ensure safe IAQ, it is just as important that existing schools, especially in low-income and urban areas, push to implement resilient design strategies, as these demographics are likely to experience the symptoms of climate change and environmental degradation before other segments of the population. 

Food scarcity is another symptom of climate change that will affect school-age children. Food deserts, areas with inadequate supply of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthy whole foods, are most common in impoverished areas and rural areas where the nearest supermarket is miles away. Climate change will have an impact on food supply, causing food prices to rise and communities within food deserts to be further marginalized. Higher food prices may limit access to healthy foods, which may impact a child’s nutrition at home, and families may not have the resources to provide a home-packed lunch or money to purchase a lunch from the school cafeteria. Food scarcity for students can be combated by incorporating resilient design features such as on-site food gardens, which can be used to teach students about proper nutrition in a fun and interactive manner. Other food resiliency strategies include farm-to-school networks and food-waste composting infrastructure which also serve as learning tools to bring resiliency and sustainability into education. 

IAQ and food security are crucial to school-age children’s physical and intellectual development. As building professionals design schools that are increasingly more resilient, incorporating sustainable design strategies such as renewable energy systems, reclaimed water systems, and rainwater management infrastructure, health and well-being design elements cannot be overlooked. These resilient design strategies will help students’ cognitive function, ensure healthy physical development, and can serve as teaching tools to further educate children on how society can adapt to be more resilient to a changing climate.