On May 21, 2007, the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) held a Congressional briefing on the value of incorporating high-performance “green” design in buildings – including schools. Buildings account for more than 40 percent of annual U.S. energy use and are, in turn, responsible for 39 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. As the lifespan of a typical non-residential building is over 75 years and that of public schools is 50 to 60 years, the economic, environmental and health impacts of inefficient building design are long-lasting.

Recognizing that many high-performance measures can be incorporated with minimal up-front costs while yielding enormous savings during a building’s lifetime, various organizations within the building industry have established goals and created standards to build more sustainably. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has called for a 50 percent reduction by 2010 of fossil fuels used to construct and operate buildings, with an additional 10 percent reduction per year for the ensuing five years. The U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design” (LEED®), a voluntary, rating system to promote resource conservation, energy efficiency and indoor environmental quality is currently used as a standard in the federal government and by a growing number in the private sector. The federal government’s Whole Building Design Guide (WBDG), developed with assistance from the Sustainable Buildings Industry Council, emphasizes an integrated design approach to creating high-performance energy efficient buildings.

This issue has garnered bipartisan support, including legislation introduced this year in both the House and Senate (e.g., H.R.121, H.R.1259, S.489, S.506 and S.1165) to advance energy-efficient sustainable building design. In particular, the High-Performance Green Building Act of 2007 (S. 506), introduced by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) with eight co-sponsors, seeks to establish an Office of Green Building Performance within the General Services Administration (GSA) to develop and implement a consistent green building standard for use by federal agencies. GSA owns and operates approximately 500,000 buildings, making it the largest landlord in the United States. S.506 also would provide financial incentives to federal agencies for adopting green building practices and grants to educational agencies so that more schools can become healthy, high-performance buildings.

High-performance green buildings can:

  • substantially cut the building’s energy consumption and cost
  • improve student and worker health and productivity through better indoor environmental quality
  • generate on-site renewable power which is also less susceptible to disasters and national security threats
  • reduce the environmental impacts of the “built” environment, and
  • provide jobs in the renewable energy and biobased product industries (reducing the country’s reliance on imported oil

In addition to large energy and water cost savings, green buildings can save money for the federal government, schools and businesses due to reduced sickness and absenteeism among their workforce. The American Lung Association estimates that indoor air pollution costs businesses more than $100 billion a year due to death, sick days, direct medical costs, loss of productivity, and damage to materials and equipment. Schools would benefit from incorporating green building design principles due to the heightened susceptibility of children to airborne pollutants because of their less developed immune systems. There are currently 54 million children in 120,000 schools, half of which have environmental conditions that daily erode health and learning.