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Guest Blog: Making a Business Case for Healthy Schools

Grace Flack
  • May 07, 2018
  • 4 minute read
Healthy schools pay off in almost every way. “Almost” qualifies the statement since an investment is required to implement a systemic model with guaranteed returns. Once a system is in place, you can remove the “almost.”


Investment Incentive

In 2002, Bill Fisk of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), estimated national annual returns of improved indoor air quality “of $6 to $14 billion from reduced respiratory disease; $2 to $4 billion from reduced allergies and asthma; $15 to $40 billion from reduced symptoms of sick building syndrome; and $20 to $200 billion from direct improvements in worker performance…” and that fiscal returns of better indoor environments may exceed costs by 900 to 1,400 percent.

While the Fisk report applies to buildings generally, its value is amplified in the educational environment due to the vulnerable populations in K-12, high asthma rates in schools, and greater population density in both higher ed and primary school facilities. See also article, How Healthy Schools Save Money - Indoor Air Quality.

A May 2013 LBNL study found that increasing classroom ventilation rates may decrease “illness absence by 3.4 percent, increase attendance-linked funding to schools by $33 million annually, and increase costs only $4 million.”1

Modernizing HVAC systems − improving ventilation and comfort − costs money upfront, but saves money over time, especially when coupled with energy recovery stipulated by ASHRAE 90.1-2010 (the reference standard and code for commercial buildings).

Heat recovery ventilators (HRVs) and energy recovery ventilators (ERVs) recover much of the heating or cooling energy from stale exhausted air while transferring that energy to fresh air brought indoors.


Systems Pay

The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. This has been proven repeatedly by schools, for example, as with using an Energy Service Company or ESCO under a performance-based contract enabling a multifaceted, system approach. This is not to suggest all schools should use an ESCO, but contracted service companies perhaps best demonstrate how healthy buildings become profitable through systemic rather than part-smart change.

Hesperia Unified School District (HUSD), founded 1987 in San Bernardino County, California, hired an ESCO under an Energy Performance Contract to develop and deploy a modernized system across 22 campuses and the district office including:

  • Upgrading 300 classroom heating and cooling systems
  • Installing LED lighting, a computer power management system and building automation with motion sensor controls for HVAC and lighting

The project cost was $13 million, and the lifecycle savings were estimated to be $28 million. Three months after system installation, energy costs were reduced by 31 percent.

With payment contingent on performance, an ESCO is compelled to earn its money by saving the school money and providing other benefits such as reducing CO2 levels in classrooms.

A 2014 study published in the Journal of School Health found that for each 100 parts per million (PPM) decrease in carbon dioxide [CO2], there was a corresponding half day per year less absenteeism.2


Sound Decisions

A quiet classroom is important to learning. A 2014 study showed that each 10 decibel (dB) increase in noise, lowers math and language scores of students by 5.5 points.3

Check sound levels using a db meter (<$25) keeping background classroom sounds at or below 35dBa − a norm cited by LEED − and use a speech intelligibility test:

  • Recite a list of words from the back of the classroom and have students write down what they heard.
  • Tally the percent of correct words. The Acoustical Society of America (ASA) notes in some classrooms, speech intelligibility is 75 percent or less – equal to missing one out of four words spoken!

Ceiling, wall and flooring systems can be modified to absorb noise, enhance speech and reduce echo. The ASA offers a free download of ANSI Standard 12.60, Acoustical Performance Criteria, Design Requirements, and Guidelines for Schools.


Lighten Up

In a Pacific Gas and Electric company study, students in daylighted classrooms finished math tests 20 percent faster and reading tests 26 percent faster than pupils without daylighting. Also, students with access to light from larger windows progressed 15 to 23 percent faster in math and reading respectively. Students in classrooms with the most daylighting scored 7 to 18 percent higher than those with the lowest light.4

In a 2012 study, students in the US showed a 36 percent increase in oral reading fluency when exposed to high-intensity light, while those in standard lighting conditions increased by only 17 percent.5

Invest in lighting that most closely approximates natural light. Lighting consultants can help by identifying practical solutions that meet budget and site requirements.

When approached holistically, healthy schools do not cost, they pay off.




Allen Rathey is the principal of the Healthy Facilities Institute (HFI), director of the Indoor Wellness Council (IWC), and author of articles about best practices in cleaning and indoor environmental management. Linked In:



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