An Interview with Architect John Dale

September 23, 2016

Building on Research:
Toward Sustainable, High Performance Learning Environments

by Carl Smith

John Dale is Principal, Board Member and Pre-K-12 Studio Leader for Harley Ellis Devereaux. In 2007, he was named a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and is currently Chair of the Leadership Group of AIA’s National Committee on Architecture for Education. He is past President of the Board of Directors of the A+D (Architecture and Design) Museum in Los Angeles.

John’s projects have been honored with numerous awards at national, state and local levels. He has taught at USC, MIT, UCLA, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona and participated in symposia, design reviews and competition juries. His articles and projects have appeared in books and journals, including Architecture Magazine, Architectural Record, LA Architect /Form Magazine, Learning by Design, Spazio e Società (Space and Society), Faith & Form and the LA Forum for Architecture and Urban Design Newsletter (online).

In an interview with Green Technology, he discusses the prospect of zero net energy schools, as well as growing evidence that features that make a building “green” also support student performance.

[Note: Harley Ellis Devereaux will present a session on Zero Net Energy schools at the upcoming Green California Schools and Community Colleges Summit.]

As Chair of the AIA’s Committee on Architecture for Education, you have a broad perspective on the state of school design in the U.S. Have we arrived at a point where being “green” is not an add-0n, but a starting point for new construction?

The very best designs are inherently sustainable, are inherently “green,” because it’s part of a holistic way about looking at a learning environment. As I sit on awards juries and visit projects on tours around the country, the projects that stand out are ones that clearly have green thinking embedded in the way in which they’ve been created.

It’s not to say it’s happening everywhere but I think that, generally speaking, there’s a higher consciousness about what makes good design. Good design isn’t about tiny windows and sealed environments.

When I look at school projects, they fall into several different categories. You can have schools that are potentially grid-neutral. They have all the photovoltaics in the world, but they still aren’t great learning environments. They haven’t looked at all the potential principles that support a true high performance, sustainable environment.

There are schools which may not have a lot of active energy systems that are still inherently green because of their siting, their use of natural light and their ability to breathe. Some of those are driven more by regional considerations.

The ones that I think are moving to the top, the ones that we see and we recognize, really are holistic. They do have alternative energy systems which help get them to grid neutrality or perhaps to zero net energy. They do it because they’re looking at a whole lot of different factors all at once, and they see them being interrelated.

Are there any particular green school benefits that are driving things forward more than others – e.g. building health, student performance, savings in operation costs, emission reduction?

If I were to follow along the idea that maybe the schools that we see that are sustainable fall into a couple of categories, schools that have tiny windows and a lot of photovoltaics probably focus on saving energy. Those facilities are driven by facilities prerogatives, reducing operating costs, stretching a tight school budget. There is a lot of that going on, and it’s beneficial. It’s certainly not to be frowned at.

Where you get particularly informed groups of people who are trying to push the envelope with design, they’re actually building on emerging research. This is something that the Committee on Architecture for Education is really promoting. There’s more discussion about the research that’s out there, looking for more common ground, looking for more dialogue.

One of the most important research projects right now has been the Clever Classrooms project that developed at the University of Salford under Peter Barrett. He has amassed a great deal of evidence, looking at something like 164 classrooms in multiple schools. He was able to identify physical characteristics that connected directly to increased student performance. He was able to see accelerated learning as a result of environmental factors such as air quality, natural light, reduced visual clutter and superior room acoustics. All these physical factors are part of a holistic way of designing a high performance environment that really does contribute to better learning.

The districts that are really pushing the envelope, that are really thinking about their learning environments and thinking beyond 19th century models, are building on that idea. In these cases, you have an example of sustainability being hand-in-hand with high performance learning.

We seem to hear something new about the dangers of climate change almost weekly. Is this a concern among architects in the education sector?

It is. In the best schools we see, where a real effort is made to create a sustainable environment, the building and its site tends to be a demonstration environment. These things make a difference, whether a rain garden or windows with generous day lighting, or a very visible monitor that is explaining thermal solar systems and how they’re making live contributions to the energy grid.

All these things are visible and seen every day by the students. They are being used to teach students about stewardship. If architects working with teachers and administrators really take the time to build that story, it’s there every day, and it’s having a profound impact. Those students are getting that they have a responsibility. It’s being built into the way they think about things. When they go home, they’re telling their parents to recycle because they’re doing it at school.

It doesn’t always happen, but when it does happen the environments are so rich and there’s such a sense of purpose. It’s palpable when you visit those schools.

Existing buildings are a major focus in California. Have there been any developments that have expanded the possibilities for neglected facilities? Is it reasonable to expect that great things can be done at every site?

I would say absolutely. I’m a great proponent of putting new life to older buildings. If you look back to the 1950s and the 1960s, when so many of California’s schools were being built, think about what they were. They were open campuses. They were so-called “finger classroom” buildings. The architects were aware and were looking at major architectural magazines where these new prototypes were featured on a regular basis, and they were all about balanced, natural daylight, cross ventilation, shade where appropriate, views to gardens.

There are many, many schools in California that have those features, and they’ve been neglected. They’ve covered up the windows. They don’t open anymore. They’ve lowered the ceilings and blocked some of the windows out.

For a reasonable amount of money, you can transform those buildings. You can bring back the original features, and you can do it better, of course, because you can use better glass and better insulation and more efficient cooling systems in cases when you need active cooling.

I think it’s low-hanging fruit. I think it’s all around us. I think you don’t have to tear everything down. If you don’t tear buildings down, and you’re reusing the wood joists and the masonry or the stud walls, that’s a huge contribution to reducing the carbon footprint.

California is moving toward the goal of Zero Net Energy for every campus, new or old. Can this be achieved at a manageable cost? 

That’s an optimistic but realistic view of things. I have to believe it is possible. There are still a limited number of ZNE facilities but it’s growing. The New Buildings Institute has been doing a great job of tracking those trends, and there’s more and more evidence.

I think that you will hear, anecdotally, that if you start at the right point, if you start at the beginning, and you think holistically, ZNE doesn’t necessarily cost more to build. What costs more—and often as architects we’re forced to give this away—is that we do spend more time modeling and testing. Our clients need to understand that it may take more time to fully commission zero net energy buildings and tune them to make sure they’re working optimally. It’s very easy to undermine the design. For example, if you don’t have sensors everywhere and you turn on the cooling system when your windows are open, you’re wasting energy. Optimal use comes from understanding what you’re doing, being more aware of how sustainability works, understanding what the goals are.

I think we actually need more than encouragement. We need a mandate, so others start doing it.

My firm, Harley Ellis Devereaux, has been offering the possibility of ZNE master plans for school districts. Right now, we’re working with the William S. Hart school district on a ZNE master plan. If it can’t be all done by 2030, at least we should have master plans in place so that as we take down buildings or add new buildings or prioritize, we know where the energy hogs are, we know where the right kind of change can make a big difference. There are a lot of school districts that go through periods where they’re interested in energy and then periods where they’re interested in something else. The question is how do we get everybody to build it into their way of thinking all the time, and make it a requirement.

One of the things we’ve talked about is whether, when you design buildings, there should be a performance requirement. There’s a lot of focus on low fees, but there isn’t a lot of focus on life cycle costs and long-term performance. People talk about it, but there aren’t necessarily very real targets. I think the 2030 ZNE target may be a necessary mechanism. If it becomes mandatory, then everybody will adapt, and everybody will learn how to do this. At the moment we’re not there.

Not every green building has performed as expected, and in most cases it seems this is not a problem of design but one of operation. What will it take to create a passion for commissioning, including proper documentation and training of operations staff?

I suppose we live in a society where we expect each other to perform perfectly. We’re a litigious society. Everyone has to live with a certain amount of caution in everything we do. When you are doing work which is in effect prototypical, I think you have to go into it knowing that there’s going to be a learning curve. There are going to be some differences in the way you do things. Maybe you can’t have your classroom exactly 72 degrees all the time. Maybe in the new world of climate change where we’re getting prolonged heat waves in places that used to enjoy a very moderate climate, we need to recognize this change and we need to adapt to some extent. That has to be part of the mentality.

One of my colleagues from Germany, when we were commenting on the high expectations, pointed out the fact that these things tend to be journeys. Innovation doesn’t mean everything automatically works beautifully. It means there is some commissioning. There’s some education. There’s some adjustment.

He said, “In Germany, the commissioning period is five years.” That would shock a lot of people. That’s a long time. Imagine having that mentality, what that means. It means that when you are building a zero net energy facility, you have to be committed to the long haul. Think about it. You’ve got users that are changing every year. It means you have to continuously educate people. We have to continuously engage people in the purpose that has been added to this facility. It’s not just a teaching facility. It’s a facility which is helping us lower our carbon footprint. It’s helping to contribute to a state-wide sense of ethics about our globe, about our world.

We need much broader commitment, and I think policy could help. Along with policy there has to be a very realistic idea about what the policy means, where the effort is and where the real costs are.

There are costs in the education process and the commissioning process which aren’t necessarily covered by the most bottom line fees. There are also huge benefits if you are really able to be energy neutral on your campuses. That’s such a tremendous benefit. That’s money that could go to other things. That’s money that’s not being spent in a wasteful way.

I think this state is going in a good direction. The leadership of this state has set us a high bar, but we need to have better dialogues. We need to have interdisciplinary dialogues. We need to have the construction industry, the design professionals, the facilities people, the educators, administrators all talking on the same page. We need to find the right forum for that. We need to find a forum where people can be frank with each other and share issues, so that everybody can learn from each other.

In many areas, California is setting the pace for sustainable policy and practice. Are we at the leading edge in regard to schools?

The broad view is that California is very progressive. If you look at our schools, there are great schools and a lot of mediocre schools. There are a lot of people that are driven by the bottom line. My expectations for our state are high because we’ve got such a beneficial climate. We’ve got pretty enlightened government. There are a lot of things going for us. I think we need to take more advantage of that. I think we should be further ahead than we are.

In all honesty, I think that there are pockets all across the country where extraordinary things are being done. There are extraordinary things being done in California, in Texas, in the South, in the North, in the Northeast, in the Northwest. It’s like flowers blooming in pockets all over the country and responding to different conditions and different opportunities.

What do you find most exciting about current trends in school design?

What I find most exciting are the schools that really aim to be the best possible fit for a place, for a culture, for a region, that are sustainable because they are responding in the most appropriate way to the opportunities around them.

The schools that excite me are schools where the learning environments are dynamic. They’re flexible, but they’re specific. There’s a tremendous connection between the indoors and the outdoors, so people are living in their environments with a sense of heightened awareness. They are spaces that are filled with light, and are places of quality that are elevating the experience of their students.

If you go to the Committee on Architecture for Education website and you look at our awards program, you’ll see an amazingly high quality. You’ll see that the very best schools have the same quality as the very best college environments in terms of materials, in terms of glazing, in terms of furnishings, so that’s very exciting. All of these projects point the way.

The question is always how do you make that happen much more broadly; how do you raise the awareness so that there’s that very high place to start with? At the moment, there’s tremendous disparity across the country. Some people are going to school in unspeakably abysmal environments.

There are too many places like that, so I’m very excited to find myself sitting on panels that are really looking at very practical issues of infrastructure all across the country, looking at the disparities, and starting to think more deeply about the mechanisms that would support a more equalized approach at a high-level, everywhere.

We need a deeper and more authentic dialogue. We live in a world where we put enormous expectations on each other. We are forced to sell ideas, and we promise big deliverables. We need to create a much more collaborative environment, one where there is a goal that we all have to reach. The 2030 goal of carbon-neutral or zero-net facilities everywhere could be that goal. To really do that you have understand all aspects of what it will take so that it’s not just a pronouncement or a hit-or-miss thing that some people ignore.

I was at a meeting a few years ago as part of a group advising the California Department of Education. There was discussion about whether master plans should be mandatory for all school districts. One of the things I said at the meeting was that if master plans are mandatory, energy master plans should also be mandatory. How are you going to get to zero-net if you aren’t planning for it and you aren’t helping people understand the path to get there? What’s the path that gets everybody to the same place?

Answering that question requires a lot of transparency and honesty and more discussions like the kind of discussions we’ve been having about the commissioning process and the continuous education process. And a willingness to learn from each other.

That’s what we need to make these green goals reality. We can do it. We know how to do it. The only reason that there’s not more happening is because all the other static gets in the way.

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