Green Backing

 By Kiley Jacques

Architect, policy maker, and green school champion Joseph da Silva advocates for integration and collaboration on every front.

Joseph da Silva has been on the forefront of the green schools movement in New England.

Joseph da Silva, Ph.D., has a unique perspective when it comes to school buildings. The first-generation immigrant was born in the Azores, Portugal, which he describes as “an environmental paradise.” Upon moving to the United States as a young boy, he entered the public school system, where he became distinctly aware of his surroundings.

“I really connected with the space of the classroom because it was so foreign to anything I had ever experienced,” he recalls. “I was exposed to the fact that schools have all of these unique spaces. They have auditoriums, theaters, offices, classrooms, and athletic facilities—all together in one place. That was fascinating to me. That was when I started really focusing on architecture and school buildings.”

That formative time set him on a path from which he has never strayed.

He earned a degree in environmental science and management from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, which proved pivotal in shaping his course. He considers his interest in the budding green movement of the late 1990s closely tied to those studies and the work of R. Buckminster Fuller. “I was exposed to really deep environmental issues through architecture and engineering in a way that I hadn’t been before,” says da Silva, who remembers being enthralled with scholars whose lectures focused on sustainability and “doing more with less.” “When I left there, I had made that connection.”

He landed in an architectural firm, where he quickly realized there was little to no thought being given to the connection between architecture and the environment. “I felt that was really odd, so when I saw the [green] movement starting [to form], I knew it was the right thing, and naturally got involved.” That involvement put da Silva at the forefront of the green schools movement in New England. In fact, he was one of the first U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) APs in Rhode Island. As an architect, he worked with schools in Massachusetts—before LEED for Schools existed—and earned a grant “to reconcile what LEED would be for schools.” That work would prove exemplary.

Potter Burns Elementary School classroom in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

In time, he joined the Rhode Island Department of Education as school construction coordinator for the Rhode Island School Building Authority. The position’s appeal had much to do with the sustainability regulations being implemented. Rhode Island requires that public building construction projects of at least 5,000 square feet and public building renovation projects of at least 10,000 square feet be designed and built to achieve LEED or equivalent certification—this includes school district building projects and renovations if they have received state funding.

State-mandated sustainability-focused building regulations are something about which da Silva speaks reverently. For him, having state support for sustainable school building projects makes all the difference in terms of how much can be done and to what degree. He makes the point that Rhode Island’s regulations are exceptional in that they have not needed amending, unlike those in other states.

The Potter Burns school cafeteria. Da Silva has worked toward implementing sustainability regulations in the Rhode Island schools.

The Potter Burns school cafeteria. Da Silva has worked toward implementing sustainability regulations in the Rhode Island schools.

“It is important to support those regulations in a way that doesn’t warrant revising them, because that can result in reduced opportunities,” he says. “You need to administer them in a way that is fair and gives them life, and that’s not easy—you really have to work at keeping them relevant, and you have to provide the technical support so that it works. If you do, you can actually avoid costs for local educational agencies.” His own work is proof of that; he and his team produced more than $100 million in savings for local communities in just a few years’ time.

Rhode Island provides state-funded schools anywhere from 30 to 96 percent reimbursements for green school capital projects, though da Silva notes one caveat is an extremely robust set of sustainability requirements. The state also offers incentives, which increase in value the greener the project is. “Those progressive percentages can easily be translated to additional green features and enhance[ments],” says da Silva. “That is really powerful as a way to implement incentives—it encourages more and more sustainability when the two are connected.”

Myriad roles, responsibilities, projects, and outcomes that da Silva has managed during his long tenure as a green school champion have shaped the narrative he shares with future leaders and policy makers. While pursuing graduate work, for instance, he researched indicators of sustainability and how they relate to school planning and design. “So during the day, I was practicing, and at night I was immersed in theory. That is one of the things I would recommend—if you can study in theory what you are practicing, it can be a transformative learning experience. I am a real advocate of experiential learning.”

Da Silva respects John Dewey’s progressive education philosophy, as he was one of the first to unite space and experience as part of learning. “We can make a building that is 30 percent more efficient and that has a sizable return over its life,” notes da Silva, “but when we educate a child, that has a lifetime of benefits. I think that is the most advance-forward and sustainable thing we can do.”

That kind of learning is at the root of the Rhode Island’s “school as a tool” protocol, which requires state-funded schools to integrate green school systems, practices, and technologies into the curriculum—something that is in evidence at the Manchester-Essex Regional Middle/High School in Massachusetts, for which da Silva was a lead architect. “The beauty of that school is that it teaches the protocol and environmental education. . . . It forces a deeper understanding . . . because we are connecting students with very relevant things in their space. They are understanding sustainability while washing their hands or turning on a light. The goal is to include a deeper environmental learning experience.”

It is his devotion to such strategies that earned da Silva the 2017 Best of Green Schools Policymaker Award from the Center for Green Schools at USGBC and the Green Schools National Network. For decades, he has heralded green school design and construction standards on every front, recognizing that his accomplishments are tied to those of his colleagues and collaborators. Da Silva sees smart policy making as a means for securing the future of green schools. “Without the policies, it is difficult to implement sustainable standards,” he says, noting the reciprocal payoff. “In my role, I serve students, but citizens and lawmakers provide the critical funding. We need their backing to support green public schools. . . . That is one of the big lessons learned—through collaboration [we can] really focus on policies that go to that end.”

Providence Career and Technical Academy’s Athletic Complex in Providence. Da Silva shares in the sustainability narrative with policy makers and future leaders.