By Racquel Palmese
The concept of a green school is constantly evolving and adapting. Once thought of as buildings made from healthy, sustainable materials, high performance schools are now energy efficient campuses built to demanding green standards where environmental awareness prevails in the curriculum as well as the day-to-day management of the school itself. But this adaptation has to take into consideration what’s possible with extreme budget cuts and ever expanding technologies.
Steve Murphy is not only MEP director for Blach Construction Company but is also co-chair of the Green Schools Committee for the U.S. Green building Council’s Northern California Chapter and a teacher of sustainable construction and energy management at Cabrillo Community College. In an interview with Green Technology, he takes advantage of his three-way overview on green schools to discuss the state of the art – what’s possible now and what’s on the way.
Murphy will be moderating the panel, “Greening K-12 Schools: ‘Collective Impact’ Energy Assessments & Workforce Training,” during the Green California Summit on April 27.
What inspired you to focus on sustainability and green schools?
I've always been passionate about it. In college I got involved in a lot of energy-related work, and then when I went out to start a career I got away from that and did more mechanical engineering for high tech electronics manufacturing and then biotech. Those industries are technically challenging, but after a while I wanted to get back into doing things that were more energy related. The opportunity came up with Blach [Construction Company], who was one of my clients over the years, to be their MEP, mechanical electrical and plumbing expert.
Blach has always had a big presence in the school market and also in the sustainable construction field. It was a way for me to pursue more of my original interest in energy systems and sustainable construction, which is revolutionizing the way people build now. I've been at Blach for 5 years, had my own consulting business for 15. This gives me an opportunity to work collaboratively with all the different people involved in construction and building industries, and I find it very stimulating and challenging.
Do you remember what got you excited about working with the environment?
When I was a kid, Bell Labs had a kit that they sent out that you could use for a lab project to make your own solar cell. That was in eighth grade. I was able to make that, put the wires together and see a fan blow around. It was neat
At CalPoly it expanded to wind energy and lots of different things. The real hook for me was alternative energy systems.
We have a big focus this year at the Green California Summit, a workshop on CalEPA’s Education and the Environment Initiative, a K-12 curriculum. Is it important to get kids inspired and knowledgeable about the environment?
Absolutely. Getting kids excited early is key. With all the outreach we're doing here at Blach, and through my work with the USGBC, you see how kids get affected at an early age. If you can get them excited about something, it will shape the way they look at their education and certainly what their careers can be. It's very impactful.
What's going on with green schools construction in California now?
It's very much regionalized. At Blach we have offices in Santa Clara Valley and in Stockton and then down in Monterey. There are new schools being built and a lot going on with projects like multi-purpose rooms and theaters. Many of those projects are getting funded by general obligation bonds that also finance modernization for existing schools.
Monies are there if the districts can get bonds passed. It's all hooked to property value. In the more affluent areas, like the Bay Area, homeowners recognize that the values of their homes are directly tied to the schools that they have, so they’re more apt to jump in and pass an election bond that will then provide monies for modernization of schools and even to build new schools. They will raise money to put in alternative energy systems, like solar PV for shade structures in parking lots and on the school buildings.
On the flip side, if you go to places in the Central Valley, where prices of homes have plummeted, it's very difficult for them. In those areas people might have a hesitancy to pass these bonds, and then the schools suffer. Certainly there's monies available from the state if you're doing high performance type schools.
The state provides matching funds for high performance school construction, doesn't it?
Yes. There is some money for modernization also, but you have to be very smart; your design team and your contractors have to be aware of how to access those funds. For example, this summer we have a whole bunch of work going on up in Belmont Redwood Shores. They passed a big bond a year ago, and now they're going to use that money.
The middle school campus is getting some matching funds because they're using some high performance approaches for their buildings and systems. They will get some money back from the state, but then the district’s elementary schools are not generally getting matching funds because they didn't see that they could do the same type of work there. It's interesting in that they have these different approaches in this one district.
It sounds like from what you're saying that there is a lot of work going on in green schools construction and modernization.
Yes, there is quite a lot actually. There's more modernization and upgrade-type work than new construction, but there's both. At Blach we're very fortunate that we have a lot of school work and a lot is directed towards green schools. There are also projects on improving infrastructure and ADA access and seismic upgrades - all the different things that schools need to do to stay functioning.
Are you finding push-back at the school district level when it comes to green schools? Is it difficult to convince school boards and administrators that there are benefits to energy efficiency upgrades and green building?
There’s always push-back, but you have to talk about value and convince districts that green building doesn't have to cost a lot more. It depends on how far you want to go. We talk about shades of green. You can do light green projects for not much more money. It's just a matter of being smart about it and having the right designers and builders that can help.
You have conversations early on and educate them on the process, explain the different levels of things that can be done. You can do energy modeling to demonstrate what the benefits will be down the road. The schools are going to be around for a long time, so districts are interested in durability. You want to keep it simple for them so they don't have maintenance headaches to worry about over the years. They look for things that are long-lasting.
Durability is a green solution as well, and with schools it's critical to be able to talk to them about that, because they are cutting their maintenance staffs. You have to be smart about how you help them spend their bond money. You have to give them lots of choices about what they can do with it. It's a very interesting process and something that we enjoy doing. It's just a matter of having open conversations with people upfront and you can make it work.
What are examples of durability solutions?
One of the biggest things is roofing products. You want to make sure to have a roofing system that is going to last for a long time. If you don't, you get water leaks and start getting into mold and mildew and all the nasty stuff that affects indoor air quality. You just don't want to go there.
Also, how the buildings are constructed - using materials that are going to last over time, that are easily available. If you want to get into carpeting, or if you get into flooring solutions that are linoleum or sealed concrete, you can choose things that are going to be able to last over time. Material selection is absolutely critical, knowing what the cost points are and what you can do to select materials that provide a good solution for the district.
When it comes to the mechanical, electric and plumbing systems, you want to stay with proven products. With plumbing systems. you can do a tremendous amount for not much more money with low flow fixtures. The kids are going to try to abuse just about everything, so you have to make sure that things are simple from a hardware standpoint and that they are going to last. Electrically, you try to do a lot of day lighting, different approaches to get light into spaces.
Natural ventilation, getting a lot of good fresh air into spaces, gives you an advantage on saving on air conditioning and heating. Keep it simple. There are a lot of simple things that can be done, but you have to make sure that everyone stays focused and you don't make things more complex than they need to be.
You wear several different hats. One of them is co-chair of the green schools committee at USGBC Northern California. What are you working on there?
There's a lot going on right now. Myself and John Diffenderfer from AEDIS, who is one of the architects that I work with, are the co-chairs. We're working on a bunch of different initiatives. Greenbuild is coming up for the USGBC in San Francisco this year - their big international conference. There’s a lot of focus nationally on the USGBC's Center for Green Schools. Their mission and message is greening all schools within this generation. We're working very closely with them to deliver that message through the five USGBC branches in Northern California - Sacramento, East Bay, Silicon Valley, Monterey Bay and Oakland/San Francisco. The regions are all a little different, but at we're trying to be consistent.
The focus of the talk I'm doing at the Green California Summit is on Collective Impact, which is something that came out of Stanford this past year. If you have many different people and different groups that want the same thing, how do you get there? It's a matter of working collectively to have an impact. The impact we want to have is green schools, so one of the things we're trying to do is engage community colleges, the UCs, CSUs and all the workforce training being done there to get their students to help with energy assessments or water assessments for the K-12 school districts. This gives them valuable work experience, and they're also getting college credit. Then they can ultimately work on LEED projects for schools and get that experience.
I read that you mobilized 20 schools advocates in partnership with community colleges to offer free green consulting services to underfunded schools. Is this part of your Collective Impact initiative?
That's one piece of it. For example, my USGBC affiliation is with the Monterey branch, and I teach at Cabrillo College. I have a lot of my students actively involved in work experience projects in the Monterey Bay area - some in Santa Cruz, some in Watsonville. They're out there helping the school districts assess what they've got and helping them come up with some solutions to make things better.
Monterey Bay has a green business certification program that applies to schools, so we're working with the schools to get certified as green businesses, which involves green purchasing, green cleaning and lots of different things. The students are actually helping to get these certifications done, so the staffs at the schools aren't stuck with doing it. It's a good way to get them trained. Hopefully some of the internships will become paid internships. Right now they're not, but it's just a matter of trying to come up with a solution that works for a lot of different people.
One last little piece - and it's exciting because it's the first time it's happening - September 29 is what’s called the Green Apple Day of Service, an offshoot of the International Day of Service. We're trying to get schools across the country focusing on doing some community service or cleanup of the schools or things like garden projects on that day. We're getting the word out through our branches to all the different schools to support this event.
One of the big problems in the school market in California are all these old portable classrooms. They are just terrible from an energy standpoint and from an indoor air quality standpoint, not very healthy places for kids to learn. We're toying with the idea of doing an "extreme makeover" for portable classrooms. If we can do something like that at one school in each of our branches, it would be an amazing story to tell.
An important aspect of what you do is that you are an adjunct professor of sustainable construction and energy management at Cabrillo College. Are your classes thriving? Are young people wanting to go into these fields?
Absolutely. They're bursting at the seams. At Cabrillo, it's called the CEM, Construction Energy Management Department. It's growing and expanding its certificate and course offerings. The classes are all over-full. Many of the other classes or certificates at Cabrillo have been shrinking or funds have been cut so they're forced to shrink, but we’re in sort of a magic time now because we're getting some grants and funding, so the CEM Department is growing significantly and classes are full. This year I started out with 48 students. Last year, I had 19. Kids love them. Not just young kids either, there’s a lot of retraining, re-entry people who have been out of work and trying to learn new skills. It's a real wide range of students in the classes.
We have a new center down in Watsonville that the CEM program is going to be moving into. It’s a LEED Platinum building that got funded with grant money. We'll take occupancy this next month. It will be great, and classes will be offered there in the fall.
Is there a message that you'd like to give to our government-related audience about the future of green schools in California?
It is the future and it's also happening now. The biggest message is to people who think that green building, sustainable construction has to cost more money, that it's too expensive. The single thing I always come back with is that it doesn't have to. You just have to hire the right people who know what they're doing, who have the experience to help districts and governments make good decisions on how to spend the money that's available.
There's really no reason not to build sustainably now. CALGreen, which is the minimum code now in California, has raised the bar now as far as what the minimum code is, so people have to get more comfortable with it. It's only been out for a year, but it's there. You just have to be smart about how you do it.