shutterstock_89610991When I received the assignment to report on Douglas Park Elementary School (p. 110) and began researching the new facility, it was immediately apparent that the school was designed to its specific site in Regina, Saskatchewan, with a careful study of sunlight and how the natural resource would be incorporated into the structure. With long frigid winters, the architects shaped the building to absorb this very precious commodity for both health and economic reasons. Their creation is a one-of-a-kind facility, which works with the site in a number of ways to improve the educational experience of children.

Which is in contrast to the school designs I see in Texas where I live. Many of the newer schools in Texas use essentially the same plan, yet when I speak with eco-minded architects, they suggest the greatest gains in building performance are achieved by designing a building to its site. So what gives?

I took my question to Scott Alarcon. Alarcon is the president of Georgetown Independent School District’s board of trustees, the same school district where I’m employed in Williamson County. “I think there is a natural gravitation to those things that are familiar,” he tells me. “Using the same plan design gives you a greater comfort level regarding budget and possible areas of concern regarding contingencies.”

For more than a decade, Williamson County has been listed as one of the fastest growing counties in the nation. It’s just north of Austin and home to a cluster of high-tech companies and ground-breaking medical facilities.

The county attracts family-friendly professionals who demand a top drawer education for their children. Citizens approved hundreds of millions of dollars of civic bonds to create an education infrastructure that is truly remarkable, with robust building happening throughout the economic recession. But most of the school districts in the county have relied on standardized templates for school design. There is a sameness to many of the school buildings, no matter the neighborhood, no matter the building site, no matter the grade level.

It’s no accident. When I’ve asked students if they like the fact that a portion of their high school is exactly the same as their middle school, they generally agree that they like the familiarity. The first day of school is a little less anxious because they know the building. That goes for administrators and teachers as well. Plus, with budgets squeezed, there is little room for more experiments that may or may not eke out more efficiency. “I don’t want to be a guinea pig for new designs and not really know if they’re going to provide true savings or not,” says David Biesheuvel, my district’s director of construction and facilities. “Theoretical savings on paper does not always translate to actual savings in the field.”

It’s not just an unwillingness to spend more for experimental designs. Alarcon also sees a number of up-front cost savings from standardization, citing the efficiencies that come with short timelines, contractor familiarity, and known professional fees. Not that green design is somehow being shunned by schools in Williamson County. Instead, they are forced to take a pragmatic approach. “If it takes 100 years to achieve payback, then it’s probably not going to get far in our design planning,” Alarcon says.

A good example is Round Rock’s Linda Herrington Elementary School just down the block from my home. The school’s plan has been used repeatedly in the county, but as refinements in green design have become more economical, the design has been tweaked to incorporate new innovations. “I have seen costs steadily come down over time as LEED engineering has become more commonplace and efficient in commercial construction,” Alarcon admits. A noticeable improvement at Herrington, which the neighborhood has lauded, is the rain-harvesting system. Rooftop runoff is collected in a number of very prominent galvanized-metal cisterns at all the downspouts and used to irrigate the school’s indigenous landscaping.

Biesheuvel pointed out that many green features are less site-specific. “[Today’s] school buildings have better HVAC systems and computerized central controls to ensure proper airflow and conditioning, … accounting for not only temperature, but also carbon dioxide and humidity levels, which are critical to good air quality,” he explains. “New technologies in lighting are also increasing energy efficiency, which also reduce heat loads and the energy needed to compensate for hotter interiors.”

We aren’t there yet, but I hope in the future we enter a phase of school planning where the best of standardized layouts will be incorporated with the efficiencies and healthful performance of site-adapted sustainable design. Alarcon remains cautiously optimistic. “It is my hope we strike the right balance of environmental sensitivity and healthful performance along with being good fiscal stewards of the community’s resources,” he says. When it comes to education, it is our collective responsibility to meet that challenge.