Once upon a time, a healthy environment was one where the floors were swept, and the garbage was emptied occasionally. Fortunately, at least for some schools, we’ve come a long way since then.

A first step in the right direction was the addition of recycling – a radical concept at first, now thankfully accepted as an obvious, routine, respectful step toward conscientious living. But as it turns out, environmental awareness is a slippery slope, and we’ve been picking up speed ever since.

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) was one of the first comprehensive attempts to get things on track, and it continues to be a guiding light for green building. Put together by the Green Building Council, LEED put some teeth into the concept of environmental construction by establishing a certification process. Builders can earn prestigious LEED ratings (silver, gold and platinum) by taking great care in choosing materials, processes and maintenance procedures that are conscientious, cost-efficient, energy-efficient and sustainable. All laudable goals. The only real drawback is the cost of arranging evaluation and certification, but pursuing such recognition is a great way to do the right thing and prove to your clients, constituents and community that you take green building seriously. For more information on LEED, visit the Green Building Council at http://www.usgbc.org/leed


While LEED concepts make sense anywhere, designs can get pretty sophisticated in first world countries. Other locations usually have to approach projects from a much humbler perspective, working with basic, local materials by default. In some ways, they can’t avoid serving as models for LEED design, because they can’t even consider trucking in exotic materials from far away. Here’s a magnificent school built of bamboo worth taking a look at, from Indonesia (also pictured at the top of this blog):

Back in 2009, the World Bank pointed out that the planet would need 10 million new classrooms in the next half dozen years, while countless existing classrooms would also need serious attention. In response, the Open Architecture Network threw down the gauntlet, challenging designers and architects to show us how it could be done right. They got some great responses, available for viewing. You can contact OAN at challenge@architectureforhumanity.org. One response was a SMART school design, (Sustainable, Minimal, Adaptable, Responsive, and Thoughtful), submitted by Building Tomorrow, an international non-profit constructing schools in Uganda. They liked the concepts reflected in the SMART acronym, which simultaneously reinforced the school’s primary purpose – helping children to become smart in many ways. Key design principles were as follows:

Sustainability: They used low-impact, locally available and appropriate materials for a perma-cultural orientation – cisterns and swales were used for careful capture and treatment of water; trees were planted for shade and firewood; cob construction combined clay, sand, straw, water and earth into artful seating for an amphitheater; and a conscientious integration of indoor and outdoor spaces made good use of the environment.
Minimal: The design is deliberately replicable by the relatively unskilled labor readily available in rural Uganda, using materials to which they have reasonable access: “brick, cement, steel, some treated wood, and corrugated tin.”
Adaptable: The school design is flexible, so that it can be expanded to meet the demand, as well as to work with the local environment, including prevailing winds, solar exposure, rainfall and other water sources. Components can be oriented and connected in endless configurations, for maximum adjustability.
Responsive: The approach is sensitive to local budgets and materials, while adjusting truss designs for improved light access and brick work for greater ventilation. Local vocational training programs made it possible to integrate artfully “welded steel window grates and doors” into the final product.
Thoughtful: Local children and teachers were deeply engaged in the design process, making sure that the design was responsive to their needs.


You can find more details about this project at http://openarchitecturenetwork.org/projects/3611

In at least one respect, building in Uganda has a big advantage over most first world projects: an inherent, unavoidable, common-sense connection with the natural world. For the increasingly urban human population, that human connection to the natural world risks being lost – a tragic consequence of industrialized society and mass migration to cities worldwide. To counter that, a number of visionaries are promoting Biophilic Design, which enhances an innate human connection with nature. This movement goes beyond a general “back to nature” orientation with an evidence-based approach to using the natural world as a path to stress reduction, creativity enhancement, general well-being and expedited healing. The Biophilic approach builds on 14 patterns, which in turn can be grouped into a few subcategories: nature in the space, natural analogues, and the nature of the space. The first category looks at the direct integration of natural components into the design, that can be seen, felt, touched and interacted with. The second grouping, Analogues, looks at ways to replicate natural patterns into the design, and the third grouping, considers some perspectives that mesh nicely with CPTED and SHAPED concepts of surveillance and access. From the Biophilic perspective, the patterns to consider are prospect (what you can see), refuge (opportunities to retreat to safety), mystery (features that feed into our natural curiosity), and risk/peril (opportunities to test ourselves, ideally with built-in fail-safes, such as safety ropes while rock-climbing.) Learn more about biophilia at http://www.terrapinbrightgreen.com/reports/14-patterns/

The above approaches are pretty awe inspiring in their own right, but I want to toss in one more perspective, emphasizing individual, rather than environmental, health, but which keeps both themes close at hand. The WELL-building approach designs for “human comfort, health, stress-reduction, mental balance, social connection, purposefulness, and spiritual fulfillment,” by means of many of the features found with LEED, SMART, and Biophilic approaches, and then some. Read more about the WELL approach at http://archrecord.construction.com/tech/techfeatures/2015/1506-Well-Building-Standard.asp

Tod Schneider
Written by Tod Schneider

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