How Green are Our Schools? An Update on the Austin ISD Bond Programs
Q&A with Darien Clary, Sustainability Director
Austin Independent School District
Austin Independent School District has become an incubator for green schools among K-12 school districts by advancing and formalizing green building design and sustainable operations into district-wide standards. The results of this accomplishment are an anticipated 60 LEED and/or AEGB certified green buildings, many of which are made possible through city of Austin’s 2017 and 2022 bond programs.
We recently sat down with Darien Clary, Sustainability Director at Austin ISD, to discuss the progress to date and share insights from the school communities.
How many of the schools funded in the 2017 bond have been built to date?
All but one have been completed. The final school, Dr. General Marshall Middle School, is scheduled for completion in Fall 2023. You can view the full list of new and modernized schools from the 2017 Bond Program here. You may also view targeted improvements for schools that include HVAC, security/fire alarm, technology, electrical, upgrades, etc. here.
What kind of annual emissions offset would that represent?
Districtwide, Austin ISD has reduced energy consumption by 13,040 Metric Tons of CO2 equivalent since 2017 by constructing newer energy-efficient buildings, LED lighting retrofits, HVAC upgrades, and student and staff engagement campaigns. This is the equivalent of powering over 1,780 homes in Austin for one year. (sources for equivalencies: EPA and Austin Energy)
We are currently conducting energy studies on each newly constructed project to understand exactly how much is attributable to the new buildings. So far, we know that Govalle and Menchaca elementaries, both of which were modernized, saved $74,833 in utility costs in their first year of operation alone.
Govalle Elementary (picture right) is in the nation’s top 5% for energy performance in K–12 schools. Menchaca Elementary went from one of the least energy-efficient schools in the U.S.—ranked in the lowest 6% of K-12 schools nationwide—to the top 16%.
How many schools are or will be retrofits vs. new builds?
The 2017 bond included two new schools: Bear Creek Elementary and Dr. General Marshall Middle School. Regarding the modernized campuses, many of the projects are complete replacements, while others like Norman-Sims Elementary (pictured below) and Brentwood Elementary used as much of the existing building as possible and worked this into the redesign of the new school. The scale of construction was quite substantial so these are still considered “new” facilities, although much of the structure was repurposed.
There were also partial build/renovation projects, such as Austin High and Bowie High, that included a new addition or the first phase of major construction.
Lastly, there were targeted projects to address needed repairs to heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems, electrical, plumbing, roofing, safety systems, academic reinvention projects and other needs. There were many districtwide. A full list of projects for each campus in the 2017 bond book. The district has completed 87 targeted projects and is on track to complete an additional 23 projects in 2023.
What are the most common types of green-building approaches that have made the most significant impact on the projects?
Energy is the second highest cost to Austin ISD behind salaries, so building more energy-efficient buildings can have a big impact for Austin ISD, both environmentally and economically. We have seen that our new facilities have a lower energy use per square foot than the older buildings they have replaced.
We have also witnessed the improvements to the learning and school environment that come with connecting our students, teachers, and staff to the outdoors. Our new schools feature ample natural light, visual connections to outside, and outdoor learning spaces. (Ann Richards School pictured right)
All new schools include the following:
- LED lighting
- Native and adaptive landscapes that support local wildlife and reduce water use
- Green stormwater infrastructure
- Construction waste recycling
- Electric vehicle-ready parking or charging stations
- Solar-ready roofs
- Outdoor learning areas to foster connections to the natural environment
- High-efficiency HVAC systems
- High-performance windows
- Daylight and occupancy sensors
- Water use reduction
- Locally-sourced building materials to limit emissions associated with transportation
How have students and parents responded?
We’ve received positive feedback from our parents, students, teachers and community members. We have also seen that thoughtful and sustainable design not only helps us reduce operational costs, but it transfers directly to the student experience.
At the beginning of the 2017 bond, the concept of a “modernized” school was new and very different from what most were accustomed to. The new vision includes flexible learning spaces that educators and learners can configure as needed, technology distributed throughout and dedicated community spaces. Consideration of outside space is equally important as interior spaces for learning, increased sightlines and visible connections throughout.
Throughout the multi-year process of designing and building the modernized schools, parents, teachers, community members, students, and design professionals took their schools from ideas to drawings, through construction, and finally occupied spaces for teaching and learning. With such transformational results from the first round of modernizations, other school communities have been eager to see similar changes for their own schools through the voter-approved 2022 Bond Program.
Below are just some of the things we’ve heard from our students and staff:
“Having so much natural light in the building helps me focus and feel more positive throughout the day when I’m doing my schoolwork.”
Felix Luna, student at East Side Early College High School
“This school is focused on our children and being stewards of our environment. Kids want to be outside. The daylight brings that natural feel indoors and creates classrooms where our students want to learn.”
Veronica Sharp, Former Principal of T.A. Brown Elementary
“The best thing about the new building is the flexibility it gives our teachers. No building can replace a teacher, but it sure can help. If we can help our teachers by giving them spaces that allow them to collaborate and innovate, then we’ve succeeded.”
Alex Winslow, Hill Elementary parent
“In the new building, the classrooms are very spacious and it helps us concentrate. Because of all the different types of furniture, we can be comfortable while we work.”
Livio Wang, student at Hill Elementary
Additional thoughts from school principals about green building and connections to nature:
“Kids want to be outside. The daylight brings that natural feel indoors and creates classrooms where our students want to learn.”
“We watch the sunrise from the second floor window. It is a great way to connect our students to the natural world and to their own world of possibilities.”
“The flexible outdoor furniture helps teachers and students enjoy the reading labyrinth outside.”