The benefits of green buildings have been dutifully researched. They lower our carbon footprint, improve employees’ health, and save companies money. According to new research, they also teach kids to be better stewards of the planet.
Laura Cole, an assistant professor of architectural studies in the Missouri University College of Human Environmental Sciences, surveyed 399 children at five middle schools across the United States. Teachers administered paper forms that asked 30 questions, like how willing students were to use less water when brushing their teeth or bathing, turning lights off when not in use, picking up litter on school grounds, and composting at home. Cole found that students at buildings specifically designed to be “green”—meaning they have things like recycled building materials, open-air hallways, exposed structures that reveal how the space was constructed—exhibit higher levels of environmental awareness and environmentally friendly behaviors than students at conventional schools, but causality is fuzzy.
“Is sustainability a human behavior problem? I would say absolutely,” Cole says in an interview. “At the architectural scale, I talk about this because we can design the greenest building, but people will use it every day. They can be part of achieving high performance, but they can also negate it. There’s a strong argument about why a building user should be educated. There’s also a counterargument that it should be designed to be foolproof and override the user. My argument is that’s silly. An educated user can be a [sustainability] advocate wherever they go.”
It’s well known now that just because a building touts a checklist of energy- and resource-efficient features doesn’t mean it will live up to expected performance. Take the Bank of America Tower in Manhattan. Though the sustainability certification program LEED slapped a Platinum rating on the building, the highest rating available, it actually hogged more power than structures with lower ratings and structures built before the US Green Building Council instituted its (flawed) accreditation system. Users having better behavior in the first place may mean that there’s less need to mitigate bad habits in the future.
Cole is hesitant to issue a blanket recommend that all schools start installing solar panels, wind turbines, and other green features to improve students’ environmental aptitude. A Waldorf School housed in a conventional building but with a teaching-green landscape scored just as high as students at schools with teaching-green buildings. Cole argues that a landscape is a good place to start for schools that can’t afford renovations. “Where we need to build a school [with green features] is where environmentalism is not the dominant culture or where students aren’t getting as much exposure to the concept at home,” she says. “In those cases, the school going to be a big piece of the story and how they learn.” She goes on to conclude that this is a preliminary study and that further research is needed since there is lack of other research on this topic. Cole is already at work on more studies relating to the topic.
Considering that the Government Accountability Research Office found that 25,000 K-12 schools across the country are in dire need of upgrades, why not build them green? If not for the health and productivity of its inhabitants, than for the future of the planet.