High Performance Schools
The New Jewels of Los Angeles
by Racquel Palmese
The Los Angeles Unified School District spreads across 710 square miles of
inner cities, deserts, rolling hills and suburbs. Running from the endless vistas
of tract homes to the northern horizon of the San Fernando Valley,
then south and east through the ethnic enclaves of East LA,
Leimert Park Village,
Thai Town to the Towers of Watts, it
it ends at the canals and harbors of Long Beach, California.
second largest school district in the United States, it has been called a
behemoth, top heavy and inefficient, controversial and downright
impossible to manage. Maligned and magnificent, its numbers alone evoke
both wonder and disbelief.
District's 708,000 students, 73 percent are Hispanic, 11.4 percent are
Black, 3.8 percent are Asian and 8.8 percent are Caucasian.
the English language to almost half - 315,400 students - who speak 88
different languages. Many of its 13,000 buildings (1,059 schools) are in
disrepair. Most of them, built over a half century ago, have had little or
news stories recount the District's travails, but its achievements are
rarely noted. Perhaps the most unanticipated and impactful of its
activities one which only a school district of the size of LAUSD could
undertake is its
school construction and renovation program. This multi-year endeavor,
valued at almost $20 billion, is by far the largest ever undertaken by a
school district. By 2012 it will deliver approximately 180,000 new seats
in 145 new schools. Some 20,000 renovation projects will be completed.
The program came to life in 1997, when voters allocated $2.4 billion for
modernization of facilities and addition of classroom space. New bond
measures were passed in 1998 ($4 billion), 2002 ($3.5 billion from the
city and a portion of a $13.05 billion statewide bond), 2004 ($9.2
billion), 2005 ($3.985 billion).
Adding to that, in November 2006, a statewide K-12 and university
facilities bond act was passed providing an additional $10.41 billion (see
related article on Proposition 1D), which includes $100 million for
high performance (green) school construction statewide.
So far, 186 projects have been completed, including 65 new schools that
provide 2,650 classrooms; 64 schools are being designed or in approval
Let Them be Green!
To appreciate what Joseph "Guy" Mehula, LAUSD's chief facilities
executive, and the 5,000 people who work at the Facilities Support
Division, are trying to accomplish is to not only embrace the enormity of
the construction project, but to grasp that in the midst of this building
boom LAUSD decided that all its new schools must be high performance
schools. The District mandated that every school designed after the year
2003, about 64 schools, will be designed to meet the tough sustainability
standards set forth by the
Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS). [Click
here for related story.] LAUSD was the first district to
make such a declaration, to set such a mandate for its new school
construction. Since then a host of others have followed its lead.
At this writing, two CHPS "demonstration" schools have opened in Los
Charles H. Kim Elementary School in
Maywood Academy High School in Maywood. Most new projects are in the
design stages, with about 10 nearing construction. "Every one of these
schools," Mehula told an audience at a recent
Global Green schools conference, "is built to represent its community,
both by its unique design and by creating indoor and outdoor spaces that
are open to the community." This includes meeting rooms, theaters,
athletic fields, swimming pools.
"We call this
joint use," he said, "and it's a central part of our planning for all the
new schools. To create such healthy and beautiful schools has had the
effect of raising up the neighborhoods they're located in. People take
pride in them and know they are special.
"It's funny," he quips, "when you mention the school building program to
most people, they can only think of the Belmont Learning Center (whose
toxic problems cost taxpayers millions in cost overruns). But even that
school, now called Vista Hermosa, will be opening in September of '08.
"The biggest problem we have is getting the word out about all these
terrific new schools that are each a jewel in their communities."
Ying Wang heads up the high performance schools program at LAUSD,
reporting to Mehula. An architect who is passionate about green schools,
she helped structure the CHPS point system that leads to school
certification. "The best part of CHPS," she says, "is that if you
integrate it very early (in the design phase) it won't necessarily cost
As an example she cites
Central Region Elementary School (CRES) #18, which has been approved
Division of State Architect and is going out to bid with completion
expected in about 15 months. The design architect was able to meet the
school's budget without requiring any additional funding to meet the CHPS
requirements. On a typical project, the architect will be able to reach at
least 28 CHPS points, which was the minimum required to be certified as a
CHPS school since 2002 out of a maximum of 81. A new points system raises
the minimum to 32 and maximum to 85. Most projects currently average at
least 33 points.
This particular school got 45 points. Wang explains that this was
accomplished not only by complying with all the points the District
required, but by adding extras right from the beginning. The building was
oriented for optimal sun exposure, achieving energy efficiency that was 37
percent greater than
California Energy Commission standards. Recycled materials were used
as much as possible and construction waste was recycled again adding
points to their score.
"The building is well located and uses the site," Wang says. "They
designed it with an overhang which becomes a covered walkway. With a lot
of our buildings that are not built to sustainable standards, the
architect will design it the way he or she likes and then we'll have to
add on features for energy efficiency or other sustainable things, and
those become additional costs."
"These high performance schools provide a great opportunity for the school
itself to be an instructional tool," says Kevin Tyrrell, principal of
Quatro, the architectural firm that designed CRES #18. "As an example,
all the classrooms have cross ventilation; they all have lots of natural
light. There are things that are incorporated into the building that show
students how to work with the natural environment to do things that are
much more beneficial. These are all things that can be taught for science
and other classes."
CRES #18 is a 575 seat neighborhood elementary school that includes 23
classrooms, a library, administration, food services and a multi-purpose
room. Says Tyrrell, "Building it green not only didn't cost anything
extra, it probably saved money. For example, there are several ways you
can handle site drainage. You can have different areas collecting water
that are connected to a drain connected to a storm system. That's pretty
expensive. We have our site configured so we're using a combination of a
natural and created slope, so all water drains to our turf area on our
site which is used as a retention area. If there's a major rain event, the
water percolates down to the aquifer. We're reducing runoff, and we're not
adding to the storm water runoff demand. Gravity is doing the work instead
of pipes. So we saved a considerable amount of money by using natural
forces to work in our favor."
Overall, use of abundant natural light reduced the energy load for
lighting considerably and natural ventilation reduces the amount and size
of mechanical equipment needed for air conditioning. In traditional
schools, interior hallways have classrooms on each side, limiting air flow
and light. CRES 18 has an exterior walkway which eliminates almost all the
need for light or ventilation during the day and also reduces the volume
(hallway) that needs to be ventilated. This reduces energy consumption and
provides a more healthful air supply. Tyrrell says the building interacts
with the environment. Because the design group worked hard to integrate
all the sustainable functions into the overall design, "you don't really
know that the features are working at all the different levels."
Visual and Performing Arts Center on Grand Avenue will be a $100
million high performance high school that contains four small learning
academies. Gary Gidcumb, of
HMC Architects, is the lead architect on the project. He has been
working on green buildings for the past 17 years. Since 2002, he's been
designing green schools and says that green building is a "growing
emphasis of the firm." "Growing" is the operative word; Gidcumb
acknowledges that once you start designing green, "what it comes down to
is you can always do more."
At Grand Avenue, Gidcumb and his staff faced enormous challenges when it
came to energy efficiency. The theatrical academy, for example, has an
11,0000 square foot lobby and a 950 seat theater, plus a black box
experimental theater in the round. "These are large, open spaces," he
says, "difficult to air condition. There are also a lot of large classroom
spaces, like dance studios and the library. But we feel good about meeting
the challenges. We succeeded within a difficult arrangement."
As with CRES #18, the architect and the District accomplished the 45 point
CHPS score by incorporating many sustainability features directly into the
original design plan. The library, for example, with a 50 foot high
ceiling, utilizes glazed windows to stop solar heat gain.
The challenges that Gidcumb and his staff faced included working through
the many levels of such a large school district. "You're always going to
have folks that think the right way to do things is different from the way
you want to do it," he says. "What we've been able to do is work with all
of those camps to build consensus on what the right approach is." The
architect now gives talks to LAUSD design staff so they can communicate
with architects and emphasize the importance of initiating green design
from the earliest stages.
"For most of
architects we hire, it's their first time encountering a CHPS school,"
says Ying Wang. "They may have experience with sustainable design, so we
join the pre-design meetings and present written documents with our
requirements for things like energy, water and sound. We provide the
architects with a scorecard that has rating requirements they must meet
for these high performance schools."
"Go through the score sheet with the District," Gidcumb advises. "Take the
issues seriously, look at each point and ask yourself how can we make this
happen in this school? Sometimes it's not cost effective or not possible
for an individual school, but if you don't go through the exercise, you're
selling the project short."
Gidcumb feels that when it comes to building green schools, architects are
not getting up to speed as quickly as they should. "It's extremely
important," he says. "There's so much at stake and so much that architects
can do to make an impact. And that's on every project, no matter what the
budget is. The Visual and Performing Arts Center is on budget. It's not a
"showcase" project where grants or special funds have been allocated
specifically to get a high CHPS score, and we still managed it. Every
project should be a showcase project, and you shouldn't have to sacrifice
design quality or break the bank to do it. It's a real challenge to the
He says that the ultimate goal is to build
schools that are carbon neutral (emitting no net carbon dioxide into the
and net zero (producing as much energy as they consume). "That would be a
fantastic step forward for communities to see that. When I see the school
as a center of community and the things that happen there and kids who can
grow up in that sort of environment and then go home to their families who
see that they are part of the solution that's a terrific thing."
Building a Green School
The process of building a new school can take as much as five years,
sometimes more. It begins with LAUSD's
Real Estate Department. "The
biggest problem we have with LAUSD is we don't have that much land
available, so we have to use eminent domain to buy properties," says Wang,
"The nice thing is the newer schools cause real estate values to go up for
the local community."
Selecting a location for a new school takes into account district needs
including relieving overcrowding in existing schools, eliminating the need
for year-around schools and involuntary busing. The Real Estate Department
assesses where a new school needs to be situated based on these factors
and then acquires the necessary properties. It relocates private and
commercial residents when necessary. The more families that need to be
relocated, the more time the project can take. Thus far, over 1,200
parcels of land have been acquired, and 2,200 households and businesses
have been relocated to make way for school construction.
After a site has been selected, the
Community Outreach Department is
activated. Visits are made with residents and business owners, and
community meetings are held. (See sidebar:
Warming a Neighborhood to a New School).
Site selection also includes an assessment by the
Office of Environmental and Health Services
(OEHS) and the production of an Environmental Impact Report before the
site is claimed. That starts the funding and approval stage.
California Department of Education
decides how much state funding will go to the District. "Not everything
can qualify for funds," says Vincent Coffeen, LAUSD director of design
management . "The rest is paid for by local bonds. The state, in theory,
is supposed to fund 50 percent of construction, but now it's really more
like 35 percent because of escalation of construction costs."
Construction costs escalated 20 percent in 2006, causing some projects to
trim their budgets. The state is encouraging the building of CHPS schools
by the creation of a special unit within the Division of State Architect (DSA)
to handle high performance schools projects.
"We work with DSA on a plan check," explains Coffeen. "It can take a very
long time to work through that. It's always about 12-15 months for
architects to finish their drawings before we even get to the DSA, and
then we can have a project sitting there for another 10 months. But we
have an agreement with them now that is shortening the process. Our goal
is a six-month review at DSA."
Since the LAUSD loses $1 million for each month delay on a $60 million
high school, this new partnership agreement with DSA means significant
savings. The accelerated review period saved the LAUSD $6 million in 2006.
The staff shortfall at the DSA created by the explosion of LAUSD building
plan approvals is being addressed by a partnership agreement. The PA, as
it's called, created a team of mostly outside consultant reviewers for
LAUSD projects. LA now issues "look ahead" reports that include project
profiles sent to the DSA in advance, so the agency can be ready with
review teams waiting the submissions arrive. As of January, 2007, a new
law allows for "concurrent review," which means that DSA reviewers can
work throughout the design process, instead of waiting until plans are
drawn up and submitted. This is expected to shorten the process even more,
setting a efficient system in place for other districts as well.
"DSA is in major collaborating mode right now," says Mahendra Mehta,
transition manager at the DSA. "We are partnering with LAUSD. The key to
it is managing the timeline in planning and communications, getting
started early in the process and staying in communication all the way
through to approval." Wang agrees, "We can save five percent of regular
costs for a CHPS school by starting early with the state agencies. That's
very exciting, because after about five years of payback, these schools
start making money with energy savings."
During the DSA approval process, final drawings are also sent to CDE one
last time to verify square footage for a determination of state funding
for the project. Then the bidding process begins. Unlike many commercial
buildings that utilize design teams made up of architects and construction
contractors who work together from the onset of the design process, LAUSD
calls for a separation of the design and building processes. The award
goes to the contractor who submits the lowest bid.
Right now there are 16 green school projects in the pipeline, all of them
almost through the DSA process. In two years, says Wang, there will be 40.
What does all this mean for other districts? "It means their standards
will change," says Wang. "Other districts can use our experience." The
inexhaustible Wang also spends time giving presentations at conferences
and districts considering building green schools.
"We have all our information on our (LAUSD) website," she says. "I would
say to those districts, go grab it as much as you can. You are always
welcome to call me. There are a lot of paybacks in building green