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It’s Not Easy Being Green, Schools Find

Red tape and bureaucratic mazes add thousands to cost of schools

“Green” schools appear to be a growing trend in public education nationally and in North Carolina. But school systems are quickly finding out that green schools cost quite a bit of green money.

A recent Winston-Salem Journal editorial urged Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools to “take up a proposal that the system build more environmentally friendly schools. Such buildings could save money and help the environment — giving some valuable lessons along the way.”

The Journal’s editorial further urged WSFCS to pursue certification through the United States Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program. The Journal also urged the school system to pay for it.

“The school system should find a way to pay for the certification process. The system can’t afford to put each of its new buildings through this costly process, but doing it once would give the system valuable information about how it can make future buildings even more environmentally friendly, even if those buildings lack the green certification,” the Journal wrote.

After hearing that the certification process could cost $30,000 to $40,000, Gene Miller, WSFCS’ assistant superintendent, didn’t buy into it, literally and figuratively.

“Knowing our school board, knowing our superintendent and well, myself, I just don’t see the need to spend that much money to put a plaque on the wall,” Miller said in a phone interview. “We don’t feel like we ought to be using taxpayers’ money to fund something like this.”

Don’t get Miller wrong. He’s all for environmentally friendly schools and he thinks LEED is a fine program.

But he said WSFCS has been building environmentally friendly schools, with features such as south-facing orientation, energy-recovery ventilators, and metered water for years without the oversight and expense of LEED certification.

“We’re on top of things,” Miller said.

Other school systems are resisting the trend. Guilford County School officials are proud of the new Northern Middle School, which would qualify for LEED certification, said Joe Hill, GCS’ facility planning consultant.

But GCS is “not requiring LEED certification of our projects primarily because of the costs associated with documentation and commissioning,” Hill wrote in an e-mail message.

In Iredell County, Third Creek Elementary School has received much notice as the nation’s first public school to have the LEED Gold certification. Third Creek was constructed with environmentally friendly features such as a south-facing orientation, a manmade wetland, waterless urinals, and specially certified hardwood doors.

According to the USGBC Web site, LEED certification helps buildings “establish recognized leadership in the green building sector, validate achievement through third party review, qualify for a growing array of state and local government incentives, contribute to a growing green building knowledge base and earn a LEED certification plaque and certificate.”

To earn LEED certification, applicants must satisfy all prerequisites and enclose the “corresponding fee.” If a project is denied LEED certification, then the applicants follow an appeals process.

USGBC spokeswoman Taryn Holowka said certification fees start at $1,250 for members and $1,500 for nonmembers for buildings less than 50,000 square feet. For larger projects, including those over 500,000 square feet, fees are capped at $17,500 for members and $22,500 for nonmembers.

Considering the expense and trouble, why buy into LEED certification?

“Because it’s the right thing to do. The world our kids live in is going to be substantially different from the world we live in today,” said Tom Hughes, vice president of Moseley Architects P.C., the firm that designed Third Creek. “It’s that testimony, if you will, that you did the things you said you were going to do at the level that you said you were going to do it, and there’s some way of measuring that accomplishment. LEED certification is that measurement.”

Hughes explained that while the initial certification is indeed a flat fee, materials, legwork, and third-party verifications drive costs up considerably.

“The process is as important as the end product,” Hughes said. “We’re constantly involved in the process of building the school. Third parties have moved into that field to make sure systems operate at the levels they’re supposed to. Just because it was designed that way doesn’t mean it was built that way.”

But Hughes is confident those costs will decrease as more systems go for LEED certification. As everyone becomes more familiar with the process, fees will more easily be estimated in upfront costs. Materials are already cheaper, Hughes said.

In the case of the PSC-certified doors, Hughes said, “We couldn’t find a manufacturer then. You can buy them in Home Depot today. The industry has moved to meet the demand. The stuff’s right out there, readily available and competitive.”

But it might be too late for the pioneer of LEED certification in North Carolina.

“LEED’s a very good program. But to say that I would use it on future schools, I don’t think so,” said Rob Jackson, director of construction Iredell/Statesville Schools. “I hate to be critical, but it’s just like any other bureaucratic process. There’s a lot of red tape and a lot of paperwork. It’s very time-consuming and the more it gets out, the more it’s going to drive costs up. Your time of recovery gets stretched out.”

Jackson said the system paid a $2,000 flat fee for LEED certification in 2001. But the system racked up $130,000 to $140,000 in additional costs when building Third Creek, which cost a total of $10 million.

Third Creek did indeed recoup the extra costs in energy savings over the first two years.

But Jackson doesn’t see costs lowering as the market for LEED-certified schools increases. “As contractors become aware of the certifications, it’s going to drive the costs of construction up,” Jackson said. “Everybody wants to build an energy-efficient school, but how do you do it without affecting something else?”

Meanwhile, schools will continue to weigh the philosophy of Earth stewardship against the practicalities of waterless urinals.

You probably won’t see them in Forsyth County, though.

“We think water’s more effective,” Miller said.

Sam Hieb is a contributing editor of Carolina Journal.