By. Dr. Stephany Mason, Technical Director at the Collaborative for High Performance Schools


School Buildings and Student Performance

A recent study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, SUNY Upstate Medical University, and Syracuse University (Allen et al. 2015) demonstrated that the cognitive performance of office workers was enhanced in “green” buildings with superior indoor air quality (IAQ) – low volatile organic compound (VOC) levels, reduced carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations, and increased ventilation levels. These results prompted Arnel Catalan, Collaborative for High Performance Schools Board Member and Associate Principal at Mount Vernon Group Architects, Inc. to say, “Traditionally, our Design Team has prioritized energy efficiency over ventilation because more emphasis has been placed on energy than IAQ. Our approach to HVAC design has been to provide the minimum ventilation for spaces based on number of occupants, space volumes, and activities. The Cognitive Function Scores are an eye-opener and our approach to HVAC design with minimum ventilation requirements should be re-evaluated and discussed among peers.”


Cognitive performance is the ability to learn, think, reason, understand, remember, and imagine. Maximizing proficiency in this area is essential for children and the study led by Harvard assistance professor Joseph Allen confirmed that the indoor building environment can play a critical role in getting there…or not. Further, relative to their size, children’s breathing rates and metabolic rates are significantly faster than adults. Children breathe in and metabolize greater doses of VOCs and exhale more CO2 than adults in the same environment. Thus, the impact of IAQ on student performance is likely even greater than for adults in the Allen et al. experiments. This study adds to the considerable empirical research explicitly connecting high performance building characteristics and student productivity.


In March 2016, the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), the 21st Century School Fund, and National Council on School Facilities released a report, “State of Our Schools,” which revealed a lack of funding to build, maintain, and operate K-12 schools in almost every state. Thus, the buildings where we educate our children are not being adequately funded to ensure good IAQ. In addition, other indoor environmental characteristics that impact our ability to hear (acoustics), see (lighting), and concentrate (thermal comfort), all key for learning, are also at risk.


CHPS High-Performance Schools – Indoor Environmental Quality, Integration, and Operations & Metrics

These two reports are not the first on these subjects – nor will they be the last. They are merely the latest driving the mission of the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) to make every school an ideal place to learn.


What does this mean? It means a well-designed, operated, and maintained facility that enhances student performance; positively impacts student, teacher, and staff health and well-being; and makes education more enjoyable and rewarding. The bottom line – creating a building with an indoor environment conducive to learning that is operated efficiently and can be maintained with minimal difficulty and, ideally, expense. A building that addresses the complete spectrum of indoor environmental factors: light quality, air quality (including temperature, humidity, odors, and pollutants), and sound quality (acoustics), collectively referred to as indoor environmental quality (IEQ). Recognizing that the primary goal of school programs is to educate students, it is important to emphasize good IEQ and how it is essential to these educational goals. In concurrence, Mr. Catalan says, “There are several factors to consider in designing an ideal space that enhances productivity, such as indoor air quality, daylighting, and acoustics.”


How do we get there?  We get there by taking an occupant first approach and “green” schools from the inside out. CHPS strives for a school facility environment where the air quality, acoustics, lighting, and thermal conditions take center stage. An environment that promotes the health, well-being, and performance of its occupants, both students and staff. We can create these environments, but we need to ensure IEQ remains optimal. Buildings need to be operated and maintained for peak performance, and occupants need to be taught what they can do toward this end. Facilities personnel must be included in the design process, reviewing designs for operability and maintainability. Our goal is to connect conditions to outcomes and focus on creating, improving, and maintaining schools with conditions for favorable outcomes.


To this end, CHPS emphasizes IEQ, operations and metrics (O&M), and integration in its Best Practices Manuals, building rating system criteria, and other resources. The CHPS Best Practices Manual consists of several volumes and includes:

  • “Planning for High Performance Schools” (Vol 1), for school and district officials and practitioners in the initial phases of a project with an emphasis on integrated design;
  • “Design for High Performance Schools” (Vol 2), a reference guide for design and construction professionals with guidance for materials specification, HVAC performance, thermal comfort, acoustics, and lighting;
  • “Maintenance and Operations of High Performance Schools” (Vol 4), for school facilities personnel to operate their schools as their designers intended and provide optimal health, efficiency, and sustainability; and
  • “Commissioning of High Performance Schools” (Vol 5), a guide to the process of commissioning school equipment to ensure optimal performance.


The CHPS Criteria was originally developed in 2002 to establish a definition for healthy, high performance schools, and addresses IEQ, energy and water efficiency, site and materials selection, strategies for integration and innovation, and O&M. To reflect the importance of IEQ, one-third of the total available points are allocated here, twice as many as in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Schools system. We refer to the strategies for integration and innovation and O&M as the bookends that ensure schools perform as intended, and include strategies to institutionalize high performance decision-making and involve students and staff in the proper operation and maintenance of the school. Says Ken Wertz, Executive Director for the Massachusetts Facilities Administrators Association and former Director of Maintenance and Operations for the Sharon Public Schools in Sharon, Massachusetts: “The school design process should be a collaborative effort involving all necessary components of the school environment. Often overlooked is the perspective of the school facility operations and maintenance personnel.” The bookends are designed to address Mr. Wertz’s concerns.


Prior to construction, CHPS requires a minimum of two integrated design team workshops that identify high performance goals and best practices and ensure their incorporation as an ongoing part of programming and design decision making. The design team includes:

  • Owner Representatives – Owner’s Project Manager, Facilities Maintenance Representative, District or School Capital Project Staff, Utility Representative, and Commissioning;
  • Agent Design Consultants – Architect, Interior Designers, Engineers (Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing, and Civil), Food Service, Acoustic and Energy Consultants, Lighting Designer, and Landscape Architect;
  • Construction Representatives – Construction Manager, General Contractor, and Major Subcontractors; and
  • School Occupants Representatives – Principal, Teachers, Special Education Representatives, Students, Parents, Operations Staff, and Community Members.


O&M include Facility Staff and Occupant Training, Performance Benchmarking, Systems Maintenance Plans, Indoor Environmental Management Plan, Green Cleaning, Integrated Pest Management, and Anti-Idling Measures. These measures all focus on preventing problems through a combination of educating school occupants, inspecting and maintaining equipment, minimizing the use of toxic materials, and cleaning the indoor environment. Benchmarking provides an assessment of actual school conditions and whether the high-performance goals, including good IEQ, have been achieved and maintained.


Benchmarking Case Study

In 2016, Adams 12 Five Star Schools, located outside of Denver, Colorado, completed a project to benchmark the performance of its entire portfolio of 49 schools. The district worked with CHPS to benchmark their buildings using the CHPS Operations Report Card (ORC). The ORC delivers a report card of total building performance in the four IEQ areas discussed earlier – IAQ, acoustics, lighting, and thermal comfort.


Sample CHPS Operations Report Card

Sample CHPS Operations Report Card


Margi Ammon, an architect with the school district, oversaw the development and implementation of the program. “Our program had two goals,” says Ammon. “First, we wanted to focus on ensuring that we are delivering healthy classrooms, and not just energy efficiency. Second, we were looking for a way to showcase what we’ve already done in our buildings. We needed a benchmarking program to demonstrate what we’ve already done and how well the schools are performing.”


Since the program’s inception, the facilities ORC Team has met periodically to evaluate how the process is working, interpret results, and give thought as to how to incorporate them into their planning process.  As an example, “We have found some issues with our thermal comfort and lighting levels in our buildings. We’re troubleshooting a few of the schools, trying to address some of those things quickly,” says Ammon. “But the bottom line is our facility upgrades that happened between 2000 and 2008 were more focused on infrastructure renewal and energy efficiency. Now we’re finding spaces that aren’t as thermally or visually comfortable as we expected, so we are working toward integrating the comfort aspects along with energy efficiency.”


The program’s overall goal was to create a case to develop the district’s recent bond, which will be on the November 2016 ballot. “We want the community to know that we’re going to spend their money well on making the spaces more healthy and comfortable for our community’s children,” says Ammon. “This program is an important part of our leadership making the case to the community that we can make our students and teachers more successful by improving both health and energy efficiency.”


The benchmarking process has led to specific actions taken by the ORC Team. “We are identifying trends of both good and poor performance and determining root causes. The ORC Team generated report cards, as well as recommended improvements directly relating to the targeted critical maintenance items scheduled in the bond that will be shared and discussed with our design team professionals. Additionally, the report cards will better inform future improvements that will continue to support already high performing, healthy classrooms and make improvements where needed to reach those same goals – all to support high quality learning environments. Based on this and other work, the team has put together a follow-up plan of engagement for schools to increase awareness of the ORC and to identify opportunities to redirect maintenance and/or capital dollars to improve classroom health/performance.”


About the Author

Dr. Stephany I. Mason is the Technical Director at the Collaborative for High Performance Schools, working to ensure that every child has the best possible learning environment with the smallest impact on the planet. Dr. Mason has participated in research and standards development related to IAQ, ventilation, and sustainability for organizations such as ASTM, ASHRAE, and USGBC. Her prior experience includes Vice-President for Product Testing at Eurofins Air Toxics, Principal Scientist at UL Environment, and research faculty member at Georgia Tech. She has a B.S. from the University of Illinois, an M.S.E. from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Ph.D. from Columbia University.