Going green: saving the planet, one building at a time

Imagine a school that turns fog into drinking water, an apartment building equipped with solar panels that move to follow the sun’s trajectory, or a building that can produce more energy than it uses. in fact, there’s no need to imagine. Buildings like those–“green” buildings–already exist and are becoming increasingly common.

Smart Classrooms

Lately, more and more schools are going green, and with good reason. “A green building … is designed and built to make the best use of everything that goes into it,” explains Rachel Gutter, senior Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) sector manager with the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). More than 70 percent of school districts with green schools reported a drop in student absences as well as improvements in student performance, according to a 2005 survey conducted by Turner Construction. The USGBC suggests that such results are no coincidence. Green schools, it says, have clean air, which cuts down on sick days, as well as good acoustics and use of natural lighting, which enhance classroom learning.

At St. Catherine’s Montessori School in Houston, “the building itself is a learning tool,” says Principal Judy McCullough. She credits teachers, who researched the effects of natural lighting on learning, with the decision to include a lot of windows. “Children learn better in natural light,” McCullough asserts. Another benefit: The school uses less electricity.

At St. Catherine’s, all the energy comes from renewable sources. Recycling bins collect paper, plastic, wood, metal–even leftovers from kids’ lunches (the food is composted and used as fertilizer). Last summer, students constructed a “sustainability shack” that produces solar power to operate tools.

The school is “awesome,” says 13-year-old Marissa E. “It’s really cool knowing that we are going to a school that is saving energy.” Classmate Aubyn L, 14, points out that the building is only part of the learning process. “My teachers, who care so much for the environment … have given us ideas on how to help and how to act.”

Make the Best Use of Everything

Growing concerns about energy use and the environment are driving the green building movement. Such a structure uses natural resources wisely–not just fuel, but also land, water, wood, and other building basics. Moreover, Gutter says, “it helps keep the people who use it healthy and comfortable, saves money for the people paying the water and energy bills, and protects the environment.”

A building’s true “greenness” lies in how it is designed, built, and operated. Does the ventilation system help ensure that people breathe clean air? Do paints or finishes emit unhealthy fumes? Were the building materials transported from halfway around the globe–burning gas and polluting the air–or from nearby locations? Is the building only as large as it needs to be, using only as much energy–and as many resources–as its purpose requires?

One useful evaluation tool is the USGBC’s LEED certification system. It awards buildings points for things such as recycling construction debris, conserving water, reducing energy use, and controlling soil erosion. There are four LEED rankings–certified, silver, gold, and platinum–and separate programs for new construction, existing buildings, homes, and schools. When this issue of Current Health went to press, more than 675 elementary and secondary schools had registered seeking LEED certification, and 78 U.S. schools–including St. Catherine’s–had received it.

Only a handful of schools have been LEED-certified platinum. One of them, the Chartwell School in Seaside, Calif., features three small fog collectors that produce fresh water for classroom experiments, according to Douglas Atkins, the school’s executive director. The school also features a solar energy system. “There are days when we generate more electricity than we need,” Atkins says. Indeed, the electric meter sometimes runs backward, and the school gets a credit on its energy bill.

Hitting Home

For home owners, LEED certification is something of a status symbol. As this issue was going to press, only 56 U.S. homes had been awarded the highest ranking, platinum. Actor Leonardo DiCaprio has reportedly purchased an apartment in a New York City building that has been certified gold, the second-highest honor. The building boasts twice-filtered air, rotating solar panels that track the sun’s movements, and rooftop landscaping that manages storm water while it shades and insulates the building (keeping it cooler in summer and warmer in winter). Because plants absorb carbon dioxide and airborne pollutants, the roof also helps improve air quality.

Other home owners are following suit. In Stone Ridge, N.Y., 16-year-old Calum M. has helped his parents build a solar greenhouse. They’ll use it to grow pesticide-free produce–safeguarding their health while cutting food and gas bills. They’ve also installed a super-efficient woodstove that can heat their entire house with just one load of wood a day. “I’ve been chopping a lot of wood,” Calum laughs. A solar panel heats the family’s water. “I think it’s important for everybody to do everything they can to combat global warming,” he says.

The Need for Green Buildings

In this country, buildings are responsible for

12%  of the potable (drinkable) water use.
39%  of the carbon dioxide (C[O.sub.2]) released into the atmosphere.
39%  of total energy use.
70%  of the nation's electricity use.

Steps You Can Take

How can you make your home or school greener? For starters:

* Make small changes that add up. Switch to compact fluorescent lightbulbs. Turn off lights and appliances when they’re not being used. Hang laundry on a clothesline instead of using a dryer.

* Waste not, want not. Learn how to compost leftover food, and see whether your school cafeteria can do it too. You can use collected rainwater for washing vehicles and watering plants, instead of turning on the tap. Wherever possible, opt for recycled or repurposed materials, such as recycled paper. Use reusable bags for lunch and shopping.

* Shop smart. Urge your parents and school staff to use “green cleaning products that don’t harm people or the environment.

* Renovate wisely. Is your school or home being revamped? Ask for green options wherever possible. For example, by including a shower stall instead of a bathtub, you’ll help save water. You can also ask for solar-powered lighting or geothermal heating.


There’s an upside to the frequent foggy days along the coast of the Pacific Ocean. The Chartwell School in Seaside, Calif., uses fog collectors made of nylon mesh to catch condensation in the air. The water trickles into a tank, where it is saved for use in classroom experiments, says executive director Douglas Atkins.

When the weather is sunny, the school can generate so much power with its solar energy system that it sometimes doesn’t need any extra juice from the electric company. For innovations such as these. Chartwell has earned the highest ranking from the U.S. Green Building Council.


Health-care facilities such as the Franklin Woods Community Hospital  in Johnson City, Tenn., are also going green. That hospital is being built according to environmentally progressive standards to save money while creating a healthier environment for patients and employees. Among the “green” guidelines suggested for health-care facilities by the group Health Care Without Harm are eliminating mercury (found in thermometers and other hospital equipment), serving healthy food. banning the burning of hospital waste, and using materials that won’t trigger asthma attacks or increase the risk of cancer. Those steps can safeguard the health of people and the planet.


They Make House Calls

Each summer in California’s San Francisco Bay Area, some teens and young adults help people cut their energy use. Trained by the Rising Sun Energy Center, they make free house calls, installing energy-efficient lightbulbs, water-saving faucet heads, and retractable clotheslines while dispensing energy-saving tips. Jodi Pincus, currently the center’s executive director, learned about the program in 2002 when two young energy specialists told her she needed attic insulation. She followed their advice and now says, “I hardly ever need to use my heater.”

Program participant Corey C., 16, finds his job rewarding. “Every single thing we do impacts the environment in a positive way and helps people save money on their energy and water bills,” he exclaims. The job may even change Corey’s career path. “Now that I have learned how much energy efficiency will impact the world and the future, I realize this is a good field to pursue,” he declares.


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