Greening America’s Schools: Costs and Benefits

Some 55 million students spend their days in schools that are too often unhealthy and restrict their ability to learn. A rapidly growing trend is to design schools with the specific intent of providing healthy, comfortable and productive learning environments. Trees are an important aspect in green school construction from several angles including facility energy savings and cleaner air for children at play.

Cleaner air
Trees provide the oxygen we breathe. One acre of trees produces enough oxygen for 18 people to breathe each day and eliminates as much carbon dioxide from the air as is produced from driving a car 26,000 miles. Tree leaves help trap and remove tiny particles of soot and dust which otherwise damages human lungs and tree root networks filter contaminants in soils producing clean water. Forty trees will remove 80 pounds of air pollutants annually. That is, 4 million trees would save $20 million in annual air pollution cleanup.
Energy savings
Trees lower the temperature through shade. The cooling effects of trees can save millions of energy dollars. 3-4 shade trees located strategically around a house can cut summer cooling costs by 30-50 percent. For one million trees, that’s $10 million in energy savings.
These green, high performance schools generally cost more to build, which has been considered a major obstacle at a time of limited school budgets and an expanding student population. A 2005 survey by Turner Construction Company of 665 senior executives found that executives are discouraged from undertaking green construction because of concerns about cost, and a lack of awareness and available information on the financial benefits of green buildings.
This report is intended to answer this fundamental question: How much more do green schools cost, and is greening schools cost effective? This national review of 30 green schools demonstrates that green schools cost less than 2% more than conventional schools and provide financial benefits that are 20 times as large. Greening school design provides an extraordinarily cost-effective way to enhance student learning, reduce health and operational costs and, ultimately, increase school quality and competitiveness.
Conventional schools are typically designed just to meet building codes – that are often incomplete. Design of schools to meet minimum code performance tends to minimize initial capital costs but delivers schools that are not designed specifically to provide comfortable, productive, and healthy work environments for students and faculty. Few states regulate indoor air quality in schools or provide for minimum ventilation standards. Not surprisingly, a large number of studies have found that schools across the country are unhealthy – increasing illness and absenteeism and bringing down test scores. This report documents the financial costs and benefits of green schools compared to conventional schools.
Green schools provide a range of additional benefits that are not quantified in this report, including reduced teacher sick days, reduced operations and maintenance costs, reduced insured and uninsured risks, improved power quality and reliability, increased state competitiveness, reduced social inequity, and educational enrichment.
Related Resources:
Greening America’s Schools: Costs and Benefits. (PDF)