LEED for Schools: A Failing Grade?

The 1% Surprise

The US education construction market is huge, $90 billion per year in 2015.[i] From the inception of LEED version 2.0 in 2000, LEED has provided certification for both the K12 (elementary and secondary) and higher education (post-secondary) markets. That’s why a detailed look at LEED registrations and certifications in these markets for the past six years gives such a surprising result: less than 1 percent market penetration.

Let’s start with K12 schools.

Defining a Failing Grade

In the US, there are 132,000 K12 (elementary and secondary) schools.[ii] From 2010 through 2015, LEED certified less than 1 percent of these schools.[iii] That’s a failing grade, if you ask me, especially since it’s the older schools that need the most upgrading to become green. Indeed, in 2015 more than 98% of LEED for Schools certifications were for new construction and only one existing school was certified. Hello?

Why?

School construction is typically financed with bonds in a process that may begin several years before a school is built. Even modest inflation means that school construction is over-budget before it begins, so adding the (current) cost of LEED design elements, extra consultant fees and certification costs can be difficult. In addition, the political process of school construction means that pursuing more costly sustainability objectives is a nonstarter unless everyone in the process is convinced that it is both important and viable within the budget. That often means convincing the school board, the superintendent, facility manager and even capital projects manager.

Why Green School Buildings Don’t Happen

Despite USGBC’s intense focus for the past five years on the need for “green schools,” fewer than 1,400 such projects (1.1 percent of all US schools) were registered during the six-year period from 2010 through 2015 and less than 1,100 (0.8 percent) were certified (Figure 1) What’s worse, as we mentioned, nearly all of these green school building certifications were for new schools.

At the recent average LEED certification rate of about 200 schools per year (e.g., 193 were certified in 2015), one can see that the task of “greening the schools” not only will never be finished, but will fall farther behind each year.

The average LEED-certified school project size in 2015 was about 97,000 sq.ft. At a construction cost of $200 per sq.ft., LEED certified $3.7 billion of new schools and major renovations in 2015. To be sure, that’s a substantial chunk (about 15% to 20%) of about a $15-$30 billion annual K12 construction market, but without greening any existing schools, US schools will never reach their green potential.

USGBC created the Center for Green Schools in 2010,[iv] but since that time, use of LEED for Schools has declined by one-third. It’s clear that USGBC’s stated goal of “green schools for all within a generation” will never be met.

Many larger K12 school districts say that they are using LEED criteria in their designs,[v] but without some independent third-party review, odds are that anything “green” that adds cost will get “value engineered” out of the project before it is finished. So what have we gained?

Will anything change with the upcoming LEEDv4 for Schools?

Despite the promise of innovation in LEEDv4 for Schools, which is set to become the only rating system later this year, meaningful change is extremely unlikely. In fact, LEEDv4 for Schools contains considerably more prerequisites that will add costs, giving schools even further reasons not to pursue LEED certification.

A Recipe for Failure and A Time for Reinvention

The way I see it, f this were a class assignment – design a green building rating system that will be widely adopted by school districts, facility managers and education architects and that will serve existing schools as well as new construction – LEED would definitely receive a failing grade.

Isn’t it time to leave the rhetoric of “green schools within a generation” outside the schoolyard and focus instead on designing a new certification product that school districts, architects and facility managers will actually WANT to use?

Bottom line, I think that beyond a doubt, now is the time to “reinvent green building” for a new generation of schools, into something simpler, smarter and far more cost-effective. Then we could really talk about a future for green schools.

Figure 1. US LEED K12 Education Projects, 2010–2015[vi]

Figure 1. US LEED K12 Education Projects, 2010–2015[vi]

[i] https://www.census.gov/construction/c30/release.pdf, accessed January 20, 2016. November 2015 educational construction was at an annual rate of $90 billion vs. $80 billion in November 2014. Other sources give a lower rate for K12 construction: www.ncef.org/pubs/spm_2014.pdf.
[ii] https://www.edreform.com/2012/04/k-12-facts/#schools, accessed August 15, 2015.
[iii] LEED for Schools rating system has been around since November 2007, http://www.usgbc.org/Docs/Archive/General/Docs2593.pdf, accessed May 24, 2015, and the USGBC’s Center for Green Schools program began in 2010.
[iv] http://www.centerforgreenschools.org/newsroom.aspx, accessed May 24, 2015.
[v] During a public presentation at a Florida school facilities conference in 2014, I heard such a claim from the facilities director of a large urban school district.
[vi] Data source: LEED Project Directory, author’s analysis.