The right environment for a school building

The right environment for a school building

Achieving optimal levels in school buildings for air quality, lighting, temperature and acoustics through green improvements, can help students achieve their full potential, says a new report from the World Green Building Council

The World Green Build Council believes that schools should be designed and operated for children’s health, wellbeing and performance, as well as being energy efficient and with low greenhouse gas emissions.

As such, the World Green Building Council has released a report which summarises global research over the past two decades on indoor environments. It identifies lighting, indoor air quality, thermal comfort and acoustics as key areas where sustainable improvements can positively affect students.

“The environment of a school building has a tremendous impact on how a student learns,” said World Green Building Council CEO, Terri Wills. “It would seem obvious that if a student can’t hear their teacher, or is too hot to concentrate, that their performance would suffer, but many don’t realise that factors like CO2 levels and types of lighting, can also make a big difference on how students perform academically.

“By designing schools that are energy efficient, low carbon, and that
prioritise health and wellbeing, we can ensure students spend some of the most important days of their lives learning in truly green schools.”


Poor lighting in schools can have a negative affect on children’s health and academic performance.

Children have higher sensitivity to light because they have smaller pupils and less melatonin-suppression than adults, affecting their sleep/wake cycles and circadian rhythm. Students in the US showed a 36 per cent increase in oral reading fluency when exposed to high-intensity light, while those in standard lighting conditions increased by only 16 per cent.

Schools can improve their lighting through thoughtful school design which balances daylight and energy-efficient artificial light.

Exposure to daylight has proved to be beneficial to children, as it reduces low-activity time and increased weekend physical activity.

What’s more, blue spectrum LED light in the morning could make children more stimulated and alert at school compared to those exposed to dim light.

LED lights use significantly less energy than older technologies, thereby reducing building energy consumption.


Poor indoor air quality in schools can also have a negative affect on children’s health and academic performance. Indoor air quality is defined by the concentrations of various pollutants, including carbon dioxide (CO2), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), moulds, dusts and airborne fungi. Specific concentrations of these pollutants, as well as ventilation rates, have been linked to sick building syndrome (SBS), which can include symptoms like headaches and lethargy.

Children are more susceptible to SBS because they inhale more pollutants per body weight than adults, due to higher breathing rates.

What’s more, elevated CO2 levels have been linked to symptoms of wheezing among children and low ventilation rates have been associated with increase incidences of SBS and nurse visits.

Research shows that every 100 parts per million increase in CO2 was associated to a roughly one-half day per year reduction in UK school attendance. Good indoor air quality and low carbon emissions can be achieved through natural ventilation, when possible, which can refresh indoor air without increasing energy consumption, but this requires good outdoor air quality.

Hybrid or mechanical ventilation with appropriate filtration systems, can be powered using on-site and/or off-site renewable energy to reduce overall carbon emissions.

What’s more, low or zero-VOC furnishings, materials and cleaning products, can help reduce baseline IAQ levels.


Children are more sensitive to higher temperatures than adults because of their higher core body temperature and less developed thermoregulation capabilities. The right temperature in a classroom is therefore vital to children’s health and academic achievement.

Research backs this notion: students citing their classroom as ‘comfortable’ achieved four per cent more correct answers in a maths test compared to those who were hot, according to a survey of more than 4,000 Finnish students.

Schools need to keep optimum temperatures in schools. They can do that by setting temperature points to meet children’s needs, as opposed to adults’, which are generally lower than what adults prefer.

Natural ventilation from windows, if the outdoor air quality is good, can moderate the temperature and reduce energy needed for cooling and associated carbon emissions.
Otherwise schools can make use of energy-efficient and renewably-powered mechanical ventilation which can provide a comfortable temperature and humidity level.


Poor acoustics in classrooms can directly impact student health and behaviour. It can stimulate hearing loss, changes in heart rate, higher blood pressure, higher stress responses and ADHD.

Poor acoustics can also result in lower student achievement. Schools in Florida with loud HVAC systems compared to students in quieter classrooms had lower achievement rates.

Students in a UK school located in a flight path misheard one in four words, affecting language acquisition skills.

These disturbances can be reduced if new schools are located away from permanent external noise sources, and by optimising insulation in existing schools to reduce noise levels.


Optimising lighting, indoor air quality, thermal comfort and acoustics can not only help to improve students’ learning outcomes, but – depending on the strategy used – can reduce energy use and lower carbon emissions in schools. For example, providing ample windows and energy efficient LED lighting can reduce emissions and create a productive and healthy school environment.

Companies are putting principles of green school design into action. In partnership with Associated Architects and main contractor Speller Metcalfe, Saint-Gobain recently completed the build of a new multi‑purpose school hall for The King’s School in Worcester, which included building in all four key areas for optimal school environments; thermal comfort, visual comfort, acoustic comfort and indoor-air comfort.

Pascal Eveillard, deputy vice president for sustainable development and director for sustainable habitat at Saint-Gobain, said: “Buildings in general, and schools in particular, need to be designed and built for the wellbeing of each of us, while addressing the challenges of resource efficiency and climate change.”


A study, conducted by DLR Group in partnership with 11 schools in Barrington School District near Chicago examined elements of what they call “user comfort”, including acoustic satisfaction, thermal comfort, indoor air quality and visual comfort. This information, collected through student engagement with data logger equipment, armed the district to make data-driven decisions in appropriate tax dollars to improving their learning environments.

Among other things, it found that CO2 levels reached up to 2,500 parts per million in some cases, which is well beyond recommended levels for internal environments (of around 800ppm). And more than half of building occupants (65 per cent) reported being dissatisfied with the temperature inside their school.

According to the US Green Building Council, the average high school graduate has spent over 1.5 years of their life, 14,000 hours, inside a school building. And according to a study, one in five US schools has poor indoor environmental quality including high temperatures and humidity, air quality with high concentrations of various pollutants, exposure to loud noise sources, and inadequate lighting, all of which have been shown to negatively affect children’s health and behaviour, and in turn, their academic performance.

Whitney Austin Gray, senior vice president at Delos, a pioneer of health in buildings, said: “As schools are a place of learning and growing, we have to create safe and healthy environments for our future leaders. Schools thus become places to learn, and places in which we learn to live healthier lives.”

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