Everybody wants to be green these days, but some businesses and governments try to cheat. They implement token measures for public relations reasons that don't significantly increase energy efficiency, reduce carbon emissions or clean the environment. Many in the environmental community call it "greenwashing," said Kristin Heinen, assistant director of the Collaborative of High Performance Schools (CHPS).

The CHPS, joining public utilities, government agencies and other industries, sets the standard for green schools in California. The organization started as a project of the California Energy Commission, joining public utilities to promote greener, healthier schools in 1999. In 2001, the CHPS became a nonprofit organization.

The CHPS promotes "high-performance" standards aimed at making schools greener, healthier and more academically beneficial. To prevent greenwashing, the CHPS requires schools to clear two bars before classifying them as high-performance schools.

First, the school must meet 11 baseline standards. For example, energy efficiency must be at least 10 percent above the state's normal code requirement. After the school meets the 11 standards, it faces a point system in which it must earn 32 points to win the CHPS's endorsement. Schools earn these points for measures they take, in addition to the 11 baseline requirements in six categories. The first category is further energy efficiency. The second category is sustainable site selection, i.e., efforts to reduce hazards like erosion from water runoff. The third category is material efficiency, meaning avoiding natural resources for construction. The fourth is water usage efficiency, and the fifth is indoor environmental quality. The sixth category is policy and operation - the measures to operate and maintain the school's high-performance features.

A school could accrue all 32 points from just a few of those categories, or from all of them.

"It's really flexible for school districts," Heinen said. "Something that is really easy in Los Angeles could be really difficult for school districts in the central valley or the [San Francisco] Bay Area. It allows school districts to choose which points or features work best for their climate or local priorities. Obviously water is a bigger issue in Los Angeles than in the Bay Area. Los Angeles might want to choose more water efficiency credits."

More than 25 CHPS schools have finished construction so far, with another 100 under way. Several other states now pursue the CHPS's guidance on school construction. The organization will go national in 2008.  

What's Considered "High Performance"
In addition to green efforts, the CHPS requires measures to promote a healthy environment, like using paint, carpet and flooring with low emissions of harmful toxins.

"We have some pretty strict standards on ventilation in the classroom to make sure there is plenty of fresh air coming in," Heinen said. "If you're in a classroom with 30 kids, and one of them is sick, with poor ventilation, there is a higher chance all the other kids will get sick."

The CHPS argues that this health aspect directly leads to financial benefit for the schools because the less kids are sick, the more days they attend school, leading to more funding.

"The school gets more money, the children are healthier, and they're performing better, so everyone's happy," Heinen said.

Another aspect of CHPS high-performance standards is academic performance. For example, the organization mandates certain acoustical standards for schools sited near a highway or train track.

Schools can also get CHPS points for installing mechanisms designed to fill classrooms with natural light, rather than electric.

"Natural light is a lot easier on the eyes. It's a matter of orienting the building - putting it in a position where you can take advantage of sunlight during the daytime."

The buildings also use "light shelves" to bounce more light onto the ceilings, illuminating classrooms even more.

Andy Opsahl  | 

Andy Opsahl is a former staff writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.