EPA grants millions in funding to research green building impacts on health, performance in schools

EPA grants millions in funding to research green building impacts on health, performance in schools

Fall 2018 | Written by Calvin Hennick

When education officials make decisions about green buildings, they often consider two main factors: money and human health. While the return on investment of solar panels and efficient HVAC systems is well documented, school leaders have less ready access to data on the health and learning impacts of sustainable systems. “For us, to strengthen the case around health and green schools is a way for us to strengthen the whole case around green schools,” says Anisa Heming, director of the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).

In 2014, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) awarded a total of $7 million through its Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program to seven research teams to study the impact of green building practices on schools’ indoor environments, and how those environments affect children’s health and performance. While the researchers are still gathering and analyzing data, their work is already contributing to a more complete understanding of schools’ indoor air quality, acoustics, lighting, and other factors. And in some cases, the work may firm up the link between green building practices and student outcomes.

“We realized in recent years that even green building practices are not necessarily integrating health components from the beginning, when people are planning or designing,” says Intaek Hahn, senior physical scientist at the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research. “Our goal was to look at the building conditions, and let’s link them to the health and well-being of the occupants. We’re talking about students and teachers who spend most of their lives in those buildings.”

The following is a look at some of the research being done at schools around the country.

Above: Thunder Vista P-8 in Bloomfield, Colorado, participated in the EPA grant program. The new school cost $350 million to build and incorporates sustainable design principles.

Linking Efficiency and Student Performance

Through research at a Denver area school district that remodeled and rebuilt a number of its schools, Colorado State University professor Jeni Cross and her team have found that students in the greenest buildings tend to perform the highest.

“From our data, we found that the schools that are the most energy efficient had a notable and statistically significant impact on student performance,” Cross says. “We can’t assert causation on that, but there’s an association.” Cross acknowledges that it’s not immediately intuitive why students would perform better in an energy-efficient building, as some measures aimed at improving human health and performance (such as increased air filtration) might actually use more energy. “That is exactly the question we’re trying to answer,” she says. One possibility, Cross says, is that energy-efficient buildings tend to be newer, and newer school buildings tend to perform better in areas such as thermal comfort, where there is a demonstrated link to performance.

Studying Multiple Factors

A team of several researchers at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln is working to study the impact of a variety of environmental factors—including indoor air quality, thermal conditions, lighting, and acoustics—in Omaha area schools. “Other studies have shown that these individual factors can have effects,” says professor Lily Wang, part of the research team. “But we want to look at, if a district has a certain amount of money, what should they spend money on to make the biggest impact?”

The research team has gathered data from 220 classrooms, using custom kits to collect data on things like sound levels, formaldehyde, temperature, humidity, and daylight.

Wang’s specialty is acoustics, and she says that the early analysis of the data appears to show that students in louder classrooms suffer academically. While she has controlled for demographic differences across classrooms, more analysis is needed to determine whether the differences are rooted in building elements like loud mechanical systems, or are tied to other sound-related factors, such as poorly managed classrooms.

Wang’s team is working alongside a large development firm, and she says she hopes that builders will incorporate research stemming from the EPA grants into their practices. “It’s evidence based, which I think will be really helpful,” she says.

Above: Intaek Hahn is a senior physical scientist at the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research.

Above: Jeni Cross is a professor at Colorado State University.

Above: Based in Thornton, Colorado, STEM Launch is a school focused on inquiry-based and problem-based learning to engage all students in STEM education.

Above: Lily Wang is a researcher and professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

Above: Meredith McCormack is associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University.

Making the Case for Sustainability

Meredith McCormack, a medical doctor and an associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, is centering her research around Baltimore schools that are undergoing significant facilities improvements.

First, McCormack’s team looked at indoor environmental quality factors and their effect on student achievement, student health, and overall school climate in existing schools. Next, they are looking at whether schools that undergo facility improvements have corresponding improvements in air quality and environmental conditions. “I think we can learn a lot from understanding what common themes there are to what works, and maybe learning about what doesn’t work,” McCormack says. “The renovation gives us the opportunity to provide evidence that improving schools makes an impact. We can try to make the case about why it’s important to invest in school infrastructure.”

“Kids spend such a large portion of their time in schools,” McCormack adds. “It’s really an opportunity to provide kids of all different backgrounds with a healthy, safe, optimized environment where they spend a significant portion of their time.”

Heming says she hopes that the new research will make it more difficult for people to dismiss the built environment as an important contributor to student health and performance.

“There’s always a ‘Yeah, but …’ with health research,” Heming says. “Everyone wants to say, ‘Yeah, but … in that school, the students are well off, and so they have other healthy lifestyle factors.’ The more data you have, the stronger the case becomes. At some point, you have to look at the facts and stop saying, ‘Yeah, but …’ and acknowledge that this has a real health impact.”

Research Roundup

In addition to those teams already mentioned, the EPA STAR grants included awards of around $1 million each to the following research teams:

University of Oklahoma | By studying recently renovated schools in the Oklahoma City area, a university research team and its partners are attempting to “quantify the interaction between learning outcomes and design choices in sustainability, air quality, healthy interiors, and structural safety.”

University of Michigan | Studying approximately 40 elementary schools in the Midwest, University of Michigan professor Stuart Batterman and his team showed that a number of buildings have lower than recommended ventilation levels. The team is also studying the link between air ventilation and student health and performance. During the study, researchers improved ventilation for portions of school buildings and tested students, then did the same to the other portions of school buildings and tested students again.

University of Texas at Austin | A UT Austin research team is attempting to create the largest database to date on indoor environmental quality and health effects in high schools through literature review, school walk-throughs, student and teacher surveys, field sampling, and other methods. They are also conducting an evaluation of low-cost solutions to improve school environments.

SUNY Albany | With partner organizations, the SUNY team is assessing “the combined effects of individual school environmental factors and their interactions with demographics and neighborhood factors” on occupants’ health and performance, and to identify sustainable building practices conducive to an optimal learning environment.

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