Washington Sustainable Schools Program (WSSP) Pilot Phase

Washington Sustainable Schools Program (WSSP) Pilot Phase

In April 2005, the Governor of Washington signed historic legislation to require sustainable standards for all new schools receiving state funds based on the findings of a pilot program at five state schools. This article discusses the findings of the program and details some of the methods used.



In April 2005, the Governor of Washington, Christine Gregoire, signed historic legislation to require sustainable standards for all new schools receiving state funds. The legislation and supporting funding are the outcome of earlier research and planning.

In the fall of 2004, five Washington School Districts undertook a fast-paced, multi-disciplinary research project to evaluate the cost, environmental, and other impacts of implementing the newly developed Washington Sustainable Schools Program (WSSP) Protocol for High Performance School Facilities. The primary goal of the pilot was to provide meaningful, Washington-specific data to the State Legislature that would inform their decision about statewide implementation of these green building strategies in public K-12 schools.

The project itself was an outcome of hearings the Washington State Legislature held in 2003 to learn more about sustainability in schools following our earlier legislative proposal to require all schools receiving state funds to attain a LEED silver rating of the U.S. Green Building Council. The resulting legislative initiative, now known as the Washington Sustainable Schools Pilot Program (WSSP), provided $1.5 million funding to develop and test sustainable strategies tailored to K-12 public school construction in Washington State.

The WSSP Protocol

Since the pilot was essentially field testing the Draft WSSP Protocol, it's important to understand just what the Protocol is. The basis for the WSSP Protocol was a set of criteria created by a joint committee established by the Washington Chapter of the Council for Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI). The broad based committee included architects, engineers, school facility planners, and state education facilities. BetterBricks provided process facilitation and technical expertise to the committee.

The Protocol Committee reviewed a number of green building rating systems and determined it would work from California’s High Performance Schools criteria to come up with a "benchmarking tool that enables… all {Washington} schools, regardless of size or other variables, to achieve and measure sustainability." The result is a Protocol that addresses multiple aspects of high performance buildings in areas of site planning, water efficiency, materials, energy efficiency, and indoor environmental quality. In addition, there is an “Extra Credit” category, which provides opportunity to earn points for sustainable achievements not specifically addressed by the Protocol.

The Pilot Projects

Of the $1.5 million provided under the WSSP legislation, $1.25 million was designated to field test sustainable strategies and the Protocol in five Washington State public K-12 schools. Candidate schools were recruited in the summer of 2004 from all 296 school districts in the State, generating 24 proposals from 20 school districts across the State.

Narrowing the selection to only five projects proved very challenging, since many teams offered valuable data and perspectives. The final selections were driven by the importance of ensuring diversity in the construction type (new/renovation), climatic conditions, and district’s population density (urban, suburban, rural) along with meeting the technical goals of the project. The five pilot school districts were: Bethel, Northshore, Olympia, Spokane, and Tacoma.

The Pilot Project Results

In reviewing the results of the pilot projects, it is important to consider their limitations. These projects were short-term design studies, not evaluations of installed, functioning systems. A comprehensive approach would begin with early planning and continue through design, construction, commissioning, and occupancy. Results are specific to the pilot schools. In addition, the pilot projects took place during different stages of design. Schools earlier in the design phase had less detail upon which to base cost estimates. Despite these constraints, the pilot projects offer data never previously available in Washington. For those particularly interested in energy efficiency, there were some interesting results.

Bethel School District studied the energy use of different HVAC systems by comparing actual energy use at two existing, similar elementary schools with similar hydronic heat pump systems. The older school is equipped with a gas-fired boiler and closed loop cooling tower while the second uses a shallow horizontal ground-source heat exchange. The team concluded that the construction costs for the two systems were similar and that the ground-coupled system would provide 30-year life cycle savings of $2.45 per sq. ft.

Bethel also studied the impact of incorporating energy-efficient lighting, heating, cooling, building envelope, and controls at a third, similar school now under construction. The energy savings predicted for the new school as designed is 30%.

The Northshore School District pilot study evaluated sustainable, high performance school design strategies for the 425 student Cottage Lake Elementary Phase II. The team was able to estimate the cost savings associated with using an integrated design process by comparing Phase II with the earlier, conventionally-designed Phase I, completed in 2000. This study demonstrated a $32,000 (9%) savings in construction costs, annual energy and maintenance cost savings of $12,500, and an estimated 30 year life cycle cost savings for operations of $356,000 from features including integrating a natural, passive ventilation system using operable windows, louvered wall cabinets, thermal chimneys (also functioning as light shafts) and assist fans to reduce total net energy use and improve indoor air quality.

In addition, Northshore modeled the use of daylight responsive lighting controls coupled with indirect/direct pendant fluorescent fixtures for use in the classrooms and library. The team calculated that the controls have an initial cost premium of $1,200 per classroom with an annual energy savings of $500 per year. The 30 year life cycle cost would be saving $32,000.

The Olympia School District pilot study evaluated multiple high performance school design strategies for the 798 student, 100K sq.ft. Washington Middle School renovation and addition. The study compared radiant floor hydronic heating combined with heat-recovery ventilators to fin-tube hydronic heaters with built-in ventilators. They found that the initial cost of a radiant system, combined with classroom heat recovery ventilators, is comparable to the fin-tube system. Further, the study demonstrated a 7% (or $3,500) annual energy cost savings, an 83% reduction in maintenance costs, and a calculated 30 year life cycle savings of $196,000 for the radiant floor compared to a baseline hydronic system.

Olympia also evaluated displacement ventilation relative to the use of a conventional 20 ton air conditioning system to serve the library, presentation area, and other areas where natural ventilation was not possible. They concluded that displacement ventilation provides a high level of indoor air quality and is a cost effective solution for facilities that are not in session during the warmer summer months.

Olympia also estimated a 5% annual maintenance savings and a 5% energy savings through the use of an integrated Energy Management System.

The Spokane School District pilot study evaluated multiple high performance school design strategies for the new 550 student, K-5 Lincoln Heights Elementary School. First, they evaluated several HVAC systems and selected a geothermal heat pump system with indirect gas-fired ventilation air units. The team demonstrated that the geothermal heat pump system will yield a 23% energy cost savings (approximately $4,670 per year) over a baseline 4-pipe fan coil system. However, the high cost for the vertical installation at this site means that there is a 30-year life cycle cost premium for the geo-exchange system, calculated to be approximately $32,000. The additional filtration levels, improved building pressure control, and reduced maintenance and annual energy costs were enough to convince the Owner and design team to pursue this system.

Spokane also evaluated the initial and life cycle cost of a displacement ventilation system. The team compared the alternative to a conventional 4-pipe fan-coil system with a gas-fired boiler and cooling tower. Here, the displacement ventilation system entailed a $30,000 (3%) cost premium. The modeled energy savings of the displacement ventilation system was 9% or approximately $3,000 per year, yielding a 10 year simple payback. The estimated 30-year life cycle cost savings of the displacement ventilation system was estimated at $53,000.

Spokane also evaluated the use of daylighting strategies with lighting controls in conjunction with an integrated design element to reduce the energy cost of the overall design. For this project, the lighting controls cost an additional $30,400 and would reduce the building’s annual energy budget by 3%.

The Tacoma School District evaluated several sustainable strategies for the historic renovation of Lincoln High School in Tacoma. Energy strategies studied included replacing historic windows, adding attic insulation, and the use of daylight responsive electric lighting controls.

However, due to the historic nature of the building and other conditions of the existing structure, none of the retrofit measures proved cost-effective.

Other High-Performance Indicators

As mentioned above, in addition to energy, the Protocol addresses site, water, materials, and indoor environmental quality, as well as other innovations in policy and process. Here’s just a sample of the pilot project results in these areas:

Site: Spokane demonstrated that bio-retention, rain gardens, soil amendments, and other technologies to promote onsite infiltration and treatment of stormwater are cost effective strategies available to school districts. However, permitting process may take longer than for a conventional design, at least for the near term.

Water: The use of water-efficient fixtures for toilets, urinals and other indoor plumbing fixtures is expected to reduce life cycle costs by 32% at Washington Middle School in Olympia. Two projects studied the costs and benefits of using harvest rainwater for toilet flushing, which yields significant savings in potable water, but is economically viable only under limited conditions.

Next Steps

The studies conducted under this Pilot Program clearly demonstrated that many of the strategies covered by the Protocol offer the opportunity for both initial and life cycle costs savings and improvements to the quality of the learning environment. In addition, a survey of pilot project teams on the usefulness of the Protocol and its documents provided excellent feedback for finalizing the Protocol.

The Washington State Legislature passed legislation that requires K-12 schools to build to a LEED Silver Standard or meet the WSSP protocol. Funding of $6.5 million was also approved to help initiate statewide implementation. Funding is capped per school type with a limit of $250,000 per elementary school, $350,000 per middle school and $500,000 per high school.

More information on the pilot studies, the WSSP Protocol, and a planning workbook for High Performance School Facilities are available online.

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This article has been reprinted courtesy of BetterBricks. It was first published in May 2005.