Schools: Reflecting on Recent Environmental Lessons Learned

Posted on: August 10th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

Written by Renee Kuhlman       

Things that very quickly ruin my morning – stories about kids forced to trade quality walking/biking time for long bus commutes to new sprawl campuses.

Each and every morning, I kick off the day by reading through a slew of newspaper stories and blog posts chronicling school closures, rehabilitations, and funding issues. To be honest, it's a labor of love that comes with the territory of being the "schools guru" for the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Center for State and Local Policy. Then, after much scanning, surfing, and clicking, I send out the most interesting stories to a growing list of folks who are interested in community-centered schools.    

Some of the stories I come across make me glad to have gotten out bed, like this one from the Charleston Daily Mail, where Superintendent George Krelis spoke in glowing terms about the recent renovations to the 1917 Triadelphia Middle School in Wheeling, WV. "There was never a discussion of demolishing the building. It’s in tremendous condition. Structurally, it’s a beautiful facility.”      

Ahhh, I live for sound bites like that.      

Sometimes, however, I get frustrated seeing the same stories over and over again. Take this example from in Honolulu, where one of four K-6 elementary schools located on the island of Molokai might be closed for claimed efficiency reasons. Efficient?!? If the school is closed, the students who currently walk to the 1937 Maunaloa School will not only have to ride a bus, but will lose the many benefits offered by smaller schools. According to Maunaloa Elementary School Principal Joe Yamamoto, “the school is really like a second home to them...they are always around the school.” I must ask (though I can probably answer myself): Has a full cost study been done measuring the health, transportation, and community costs of the decision?      

That’s why I was so excited to hear presentations last Thursday by Patrice Frey and Elaine Clegg to the organizations that are receiving funding and technical assistance through the Helping Johnny Walk to School: Sustaining Communities through Smart Policy project. I thought the lessons we learned that day might be helpful to you.      

Lesson #1 – Explain How We’re Avoiding Negative Environment Impacts by Using Older Schools      

According to Patrice Frey, the deputy director of the sustainability program at the National Trust, there are several environmental reasons for keeping older school buildings in use. When people think of carbon dioxide emissions and buildings, they typically think of emissions that come from the operation of buildings. In the eyes of many, buildings produce so much carbon through use of electricity and natural gas that it’s better to rip them down and start over. Not so fast!  Turns out that the construction process itself produces lots of carbon. For example, researchers have found it takes 35-50 years for a new, energy-efficient home to recover the carbon expended in construction. I’m no mathematician, but even I can extrapolate what that means in terms of school construction.   

Lesson #2 – Life Cycle Analysis...Coming Soon      

The National Trust is sponsoring research on life-cycle assessments, and one of the scenarios we'll be running is the use of an existing school building vs. demolishing it and building new. For those like me who are unfamiliar with what exactly life-cycle assessment means, check out this easy-to-understand description. Due out this winter, the new research will be a boon in the effort to protect community-centered schools.      

Lesson #3 – Guess Again – Older Buildings Aren’t Necessary Energy Hogs      

Older buildings, including schools, are not “energy hogs." The Department of Energy has found that the “energy use per square foot” for older, commercial buildings (which Patrice Frey believes would be same basic typology as an older school) is less for buildings constructed before 1920 than any other era of construction up until year 2000. Why is this, you might ask? No need to look further than the thick masonry walls, high ceilings, and operable windows in your local school.      

Lesson #4 – Putting It In Writing Makes A World of Difference      

Taking the recommendations from a variety of sources, including the recently published Helping Johnny Walk to School publication, Elaine Clegg with Smart Growth Idaho has given presentations across her state about smart growth, safer routes to school, school siting, and complete streets. On the school siting issue, the workshops are designed to encourage collaborative planning between school districts, land-use, transportation, and planning agencies so that school site decisions incorporate a full cost comparison, including transportation, health, and community costs. These workshops encourage an agreement to be signed by agencies and any non-governmental organizations (YMCA, youth organizations, etc.) involved to overcome the question of who has authority to make decisions. Clegg also suggests that such agreements always include a process so that the public’s opinions can be incorporated.      

All in all, these four lessons prove that the old saying is wrong; you can teach an old dog some new tricks. Please let us know if they make a difference in your community.      

Renee Kuhlman directs the Helping Johnny Walk to School: Sustaining Communities through Smart Policyproject and enjoys learning something new every day. If you are interested in her daily of school clippings, please contact her directly at

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