Feb 21 2020

How Smart Buildings Are Helping Schools Go (and Save) Green

Smart building upgrades bring energy savings and cost-effective facilities management to K–12 schools.

The School District of Osceola County’s magnet high school NeoCity Academy, which opened in fall 2019, is arguably a modern marvel.

Power comes from a solar array. Sensors monitor indoor air quality and energy use, which are managed through a building automation system. Energy-efficient LED lighting provides illumination throughout, while cameras and access control cards help ensure security. It’s billed as the state’s first zero energy–consumption K–12 building.

“We collect data all the time to make sure we are staying on track,” says Marc Clinch, the Florida district’s chief facilities officer.

“We have a goal to achieve an Energy Use Intensity score of 20,” Clinch said, referring to the Environmental Protection Agency’s benchmark for determining its Energy Star ratings for buildings, “and we are tracking at about 16 right now, which is really low. Other buildings are in the range of 65 or more.”

While such smart building technologies are typically associated with college campuses or big commercial facilities, experts say that some of these emerging approaches could bring big savings to K–12 schools, which presently spend about $6 billion a year on utility costs, according to the Department of Energy.

In addition to saving energy, K–12 could leverage smart approaches to streamline building maintenance and enhance school safety.

The Technology Behind ‘Smart’ Schools

There are a number of emerging technologies in play around energy usage, climate control and other key areas of building management. For K–12 users, these may include:

  • HVAC: Smart HVAC controls can manage energy use, limiting consumption in unoccupied parts of a building and reducing usage during times of peak demand.
  • Lighting: Advanced lighting controls incorporate motion sensors, utilize longer-lasting bulbs to reduce maintenance and can deliver lighting tailored to specific functions.
  • Security: Video management systems can maximize how cameras detect possible unwanted activity, while artificial intelligence can help reduce the security workload by scanning for specific anomalies.
  • Automated system optimization: ASO collects and analyzes building systems performance data and can make changes in operations based on occupancy patterns, weather forecasts and utility rates.

MORE ON EDTECH: Read about how district leaders are integrating new tech into aging school facilities.

While all these can be leveraged in a K–12 setting, schools in particular can take advantage of certain aspects of the emerging smart building approach based on how their spaces are utilized.

Take, for instance, concerns about ventilation. “In K–12, they have so many variable-occupancy spaces,” says Sara Grant, a partner with Murphy Burnham & Buttrick Architects. “In a gym or an art room, they might have 30 kids comes in, and the next period it might be empty, so you don’t want to be dumping the same amount of conditioned air in there all through the day.” Smart controllers can help with that.

When Grant worked on the design for the Rodeph Sholom School in New York, security was top of mind. While she didn’t incorporate AI into that project, she sees a growing place for this approach in schools where security awareness is at a premium.

“AI can really help security personnel to better target their efforts,” she says. “During drop-off, you have a huge influx of people in a short time span. Both sets of doors are wide open, with a constant stream of people coming in. You need the ability to quickly assess any potential risks, and AI could certainly be helpful for that.”

$6 billion

The amount U.S. K–12 schools spend per year on utility costs, which is more than textbooks and computers combined

Source: energy.gov, “A Pathway to Zero Energy Schools,” Feb. 28, 2018

The Future of Facilities Management in Schools

Lighting, heating and cooling typically are the low-hanging fruit of a smart building upgrade; these are the areas where consumption is greatest and where ROI is easily measured.

K–12 schools may be especially well placed to take advantage of those savings, says Tomás Jiménez-Eliæson, a design principal with Little Diversified Architectural Consulting, which designed NeoCity Academy.

Because a school building is in use for only a limited set of hours and may lie mostly idle for several months out of the year, “they already have less energy consumption than a police station or some other public building that is continuously in use,” he says.

“From there, it just makes sense to see how much closer you can get to zero energy consumption. You will see the ROI for that in a relatively short length of time, and after that, you’re getting free energy for the next 50 years,” he says.

Beyond potential cost savings, smart upgrades could help improve operations and even enhance student learning.

DISCOVER: Find out how K –12 administrators can use artificial intelligence to address facility inefficiencies.

At Navigant Research, Senior Research Analyst Krystal Maxwell points to tunable LED lights as an example. With these, “you can change the color temperature of the lighting to help refocus students, depending on the kinds of tasks that they are engaged in,” she says.

Such lighting could be tied to advanced sensors, which could change light colors when triggered, increasing safety in schools. For example, lights could flash red to alert students and teachers of a potential threat on school grounds.

Some are looking beyond the school walls for potential smart upgrades. A fleet of battery-powered school buses, for instance, could use their excess energy capacity to help power a smart school. “This is one of the most exciting things happening in terms of smart upgrades in schools,” says Anna Stefanopoulou, director of University of Michigan’s Energy Institute.

For any of these potential enhancements, districts will likely have to strike a balance between the cost of the technology and the potential gains.

Rather than dig expensive geothermal wells, for example, Clinch opted to expand the capacity of NeoCity Academy’s cooling tower. Instead of spending $100,000 on high-tech triple glazing, he spent $9,000 to beef up the solar array, and got the same net result in terms of energy use.

“In K–12 schools, you are always looking at the trade-offs,” he says.

Si-Gal/Getty Images