Reframing Sustainable Design in Education and Healthcare

Since 2008, the rate of construction for new public buildings, hospitals and public schools, has lagged significantly due to its capital intensive nature. What has this lag meant for sustainable design? What will the continuing yet slow economic recovery mean for sustainable design in the healthcare and education sectors specifically?

1. A wide view. Healthcare and education decision makers need to take a wide-view approach on how to achieve long-term goals such as, reducing life-cycle operating costs, attracting high-quality staff and faculty,  as well as improving patient wellness and student learning. Reducing capital investment expenses for improvements with the least amount of expenditure and expense to investors and/or tax paying citizens, remains a top priority. This set of conditions, coupled with federal and state governments formulating and enacting tighter energy codes and enforcing compliance, means sustainable design will continue to be a necessary part of the design equation.

Elementary school addition in Edgard Louisiana

2. Keep pushing the envelope. While many in the construction industry see the benefits of sustainable design, healthcare and education decision makers are often still reluctant to commit to building LEED certified buildings. Lagging unfamiliarity, perceived expense, and time involved with the certification process combined with stakeholder doubts, can undermine the pursuit of sustainable design. But, rapid improvements in applied technologies, planning strategies and sustainable design can also focus decision maker attention on developing capital project solutions that meet the growing demands of stakeholders and occupants for healthier buildings with lower long-term operating costs.

Children’s Hospital Addition in Birmingham, England. Photo by Elliot Brown.

3. Think adaptive reuse. Growing numbers of sustainable design projects in both healthcare and education  show increased benefits for building occupants that encourage decision makers to embrace sustainable design. It is now common to see projects that implement sustainable design goals without necessarily seeking LEED certification. Instead, these projects make use of other metrics to meet long term sustainability goals that decision makers set for their project. In a recovering economy where decision makers find it difficult to repeat the “Bilbao-effect” of a few years ago, many are addressing capital improvements needs through additions, adaptive reuse, and renovations of existing building stocks. Adaptive reuse in particular (2010 study), has enabled education and healthcare decision makers to continue improving operating goals with less-capital intensive projects over the lifetime of the institution, while also implementing low-cost technologies and passive strategies to existing building stocks. In the U.S. and abroad, design professionals, industries representatives, and academia are actively integrating sustainable design across disciplines to address the growing need for sustainable design solutions.

Nokia Headquarters – Adaptive Reuse in Sydney, Australia

In summary, sustainable design is no longer just a marketing trend. Instead, it provides a serious design methodology and framework that can be utilized by decision makers to help deliver healthier buildings in a market with tighter construction budgets and schedules, increasing construction costs, rising energy prices and climate change impacts. As a result, sustainable design continues to improve and inform the design process to deliver buildings serving the long-term goals of decision makers and provide better working, living, and learning environments for all.

How will you embed sustainable design into your next project?

William G. Petersen
Images by author except where noted.

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