Educational buildings cover about 15%, or 10 billion square feet, of all commercial building space in the United States. Within that, the majority (7.7 billion sf) are K-12 schools, primarily publicly owned, with the remainder in post-secondary education.
In some ways, schools were the poster child for retrofits in the early stages of the energy efficiency and performance contracting market in the United States. They are large buildings, many of them are old, and the tenants are more stable than in other governmental buildings (indeed, overcrowding of K-12 buildings is a far more common problem than vacancy!). In addition, many state-funded schools were designed in the cheapest manner possible and, therefore, were built to relatively low standards. As a result, publicly funded schools provided strong opportunities for increased energy efficiency when performance contracting was just getting started.
Although many of the early developments in the performance contracting market were in K-12 buildings, though, the market is not yet saturated given that deeper retrofits are possible, net-zero energy buildings are only starting to enter the picture, and energy prices may rise.
There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that efficient and green buildings increase student attentiveness, daily attendance, and test scores. Although many energy efficiency upgrades pay themselves off through energy savings, the benefits of green and efficient schools on test scores may also add value to school districts’ budgets in other ways.
Here’s one way to look at it: Public schools typically spend about $10,000 per student per year; that amounts to about $100/sf annually to educate students. Energy costs for public schools, however, are only about $1/sf annually, or about 1% of a school’s annual budget. If green building can contribute to higher test scores, then the school has a better chance of attracting state or federal funding (recognizing that green building is only one of many pieces that would contribute to higher scores). So the cost-reducing benefits of efficiency are compounded when you factor in green buildings’ ability to create a better learning environment for students.
Legislation has been one of the main drivers of green schools through policies that mandate and support green and efficient schools in the United States. Forty-three states and the District of Columbia have energy standards for public buildings, many of which encompass schools. In addition, some states specifically require LEED certification for all public buildings, including publicly-funded K-12 schools. Others go even farther: Sixteen states require LEED Silver certification or higher for most state-funded construction projects.
In addition, funding for public facilities such as schools has helped bolster efficiency improvements through the recession. The Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants, for example, recently doled out $1.9 billion to municipalities and an addition $800 million to states to improve their energy efficiency, and schools are likely to be major recipients of that funding. The outlook for energy efficiency and green building in K-12 schools remains optimistic, and building service providers have good reason to keep this sector on the map for years to come.