San Rafael’s Steps on the Road to Sustainability

June 5, 2022


The persistent hum of construction and the groans of disgruntled teachers whose parking spots are constantly being snatched up by opportunistic students are a ceaseless reminder of the developments happening on the San Rafael High School (SRHS) campus. As the new Science Technology Engineering Art and Mathematics (STEAM) building is under construction, a question arose for my partner and me: How environmentally sustainable is our school, especially given its new additions?

The average student walking around campus would see classrooms with open windows, hear the buzz of overhead lights, and the sound of fans cranking cool air into desolate classrooms after school. This prompts several questions when thinking about the sustainability of a school. Energy expenditures account for a large portion of most school districts’ budgets and outdated buildings can cause unsafe learning environments while being costly to maintain. 

We started our research by investigating online. We found that the EPA and other government agencies have great swaths of data on the subject of sustainability of schools. There were articles, investigations, and long pdfs detailing the amount and cost of energy being used. A constant theme was apparent: how being more sustainable actually saves money. This was a great starting point because up until recently, it didn’t seem like environmental sustainability was a priority at SRHS.

The US Department of Energy reports, “K-12 school districts spend nearly $8 billion annually on energy costs, the second largest expense after teacher salaries. Aging facilities combined with limited school budgets result in deferred maintenance of facilities with an estimated $270 billion needed for infrastructure repairs.”

Outdated and under-maintained buildings result in unsafe learning environments. The National Education Association found that, “over 50% of school buildings in America are older than 50 years old, leading to unsafe conditions, not just related to air quality or cleanliness important to keeping our students and school staff healthy, but also the physical infrastructure.”

When students are forced to learn in sub-par conditions, the negative effects are profound and obvious. The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy references multiple studies, which found that spaces with lower ventilation rates, that is, less fresh air, result in higher rates of suspension, more instances of absence, and longer time to complete tasks.

SRHS, while undergoing an upgrade including a new student quad, commons area, and a new STEAM building, is not without its own older buildings. Those of which are not without their own shortcomings. 

The school’s resident Environmental Science teacher, Ms. Pikkarainen, or Ms. Pikk, as the students call her, said, “I mean just with any older buildings it’s going to be a problem, keeping things insulated…keeping warmth in or keeping warmth out I’m sure is a point of improvement on older parts of the school.”

The issue Ms. Pikk brought up is a part of the school’s plan for retrofitting, however due to expense, the school district is waiting for state or local grants and bonds. Usually, the retrofitting process would include updating the windows, heating and ventilation, and other features in the old buildings. These processes are not always cost effective which is often the reason that old buildings start to stagnate and deteriorate.

Many of the older parts of SRHS’ campus have single-paned windows, whose inefficient insulation is a major source of energy loss through heat. Coupled with Covid protocols that have ensured those windows stay open and ventilation remain on, energy usage has skyrocketed.

Dave Pedrolli, the Director of Maintenance and Facilities for SRCS, said, “The amount of energy has just gone through the roof because we are constantly pushing fresh, fresh air through the building, out the windows.”

This leads the school to its next dilemma, finding the right balance between environmental sustainability and effective, safe learning environments.

Pedrolli said, “There is a happy balance between LEED certified and CHPS, the high performance schools, there is a happy balance you have to hit between energy conservation and actual health.” 

The new buildings are CHPS certified, but not LEED certified, although they closely follow the requirements needed for LEED certification.

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a certification that ensures new buildings have been built following environmental standards that address carbon, energy, water, waste, transportation, materials, health and indoor environmental quality.

Collaborative for High Performance Schools, CHPS, is a set of protocols that support and create schools with good lighting, clean air, and comfortable classrooms that allow students to thrive and learn.

Pedroli was referring to all parts of the school, but particularly, he said adjustments had to be made in the new buildings. For example, the architects of the new buildings proposed airflow that would link each room to the next, saving energy. Pedroli quickly vetoed this saying, “No, not going to fly, everybody needs their own air supply… and that was before Covid.”

There will always be tradeoffs and compromises in school design that have to be both sustainable and safe. The protocols that SRCS tries to follow are great guidelines towards environmental sustainability, but as Pedrolli stated, the actual health of the students is more important.

These are steps in the right direction because there is great incentive to get a project LEED certified as the non-profit U.S. Green Building Council says, “LEED provides a framework for healthy, highly efficient, and cost-saving green buildings.”

SRCS recognizes and is working towards reaping the benefits of green building. When building using the LEED and CHPS standards as guidelines, not only will they last longer and be more sustainable, they will also save money and create a healthy environment for students and staff alike.

According to Lee Pollard of HY Architects, who designed the student commons and STEAM building, they were “designed with sustainability in mind.” As previously stated, both the new buildings are CHPS certified.

Pollard is particularly proud of the commons space. “It was designed with a radiant floor slab to provide heating, together with a system of computer operated window openers that provide a ‘night purge’ to cool the building off at night during hot weather, ceiling fans to circulate air, and solar shades that lower along the front to reduce heat load,” Pollard explained.

A night purge is the removal of excess warm air from the building during the night time. These types of natural and passive heating/cooling are energy efficient and smart. Reducing the cost both monetarily and environmentally was a clear and well thought out approach during the building of the new student commons and will be as the STEAM building is built.

The commons building was designed with a natural ventilation system to help reduce energy costs by allowing the building to naturally cool off. As well as an energy management system in both the commons and the STEAM buildings that tracks and manipulates the heating, cooling, and electricity. This is all in an effort to reduce electricity usage. 

Using a culmination of building and natural heating/cooling techniques, SRHS’s new additions have become energy efficient and environmentally friendly educational buildings. 

With energy improvements, our nation’s schools could save 25% on energy costs, which roughly equates to around 2 billion dollars a year according to the EPA’s Local Government Climate and Energy Strategy Series in 2011. Also each building will have low emitting finishes, which eliminates the emittance of volatile organic chemicals(VOC’s) and creates a healthier educational environment.

Going hand in hand with healthier educational environments, waste management is a large part of keeping a school clean and efficient. A host of negative effects come with the piles of trash that are left around campus. Not only does the rubbish increase the strain on custodians and administration, but it also harms the students.

As a student, trash on campus contributes to lower morale and school spirit. With low morale, student performance declines.

Ms. Pikk touched upon the blatantly obvious problem, waste management, at the start of our research. She said, “we are far behind in our waste management systems” and, “we are relying on students to manage recycling…” When compared to other schools in the area, such as Archie Williams, whose three bin waste management has set the standard, it is clear SRHS could make improvements.

Pedroli described his responsibility with the operation of the school “from roof to the grass.” He explained that, roughly, SRHS has a cost per student of about $4.60 per month for recycling while in comparison, at Vallecito Elementary School  it is around 60 cents per student. Pedroli told us that in high school, kids don’t recycle. “Vallecito kids do a great job recycling, but when they get to Terra Linda it stops.” He pointed out that it’s important from an ecological standpoint, but also an economic one.

Currently it costs more to process landfill trash than it does to recycle, says the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA). As some Off The Leash journalists have written, highschool students don’t recycle, let alone get their trash in the bin.

San Rafael High has recently put in place recycling and composting bins around the school. The distribution of the bins happened the day after our talk with Mr. Pedroli. According to Pedroli all classes should have recycling. For him, it is a challenge to get waste management standardized. Every place has different colored bins, he says. In addition, San Rafael City has a low temperature compost here, meaning you can’t compost your “compostable” utensils compared to Novato where more compostables are allowed.

Another question is, how are students supposed to learn what goes where? Part of the maintenance plan involves clear and effective signage. In addition to all this difficulty, students are in charge of the collection of recyclables. During advisory classes, the AVID students walk around to each class collecting recycling from each class. 

Sorting the recycling from the trash and compost is always a struggle and this difficulty in disposal is a major problem. To understand how difficult it can be to dispose of certain objects just look at paper towels. For this one item there are 3 different ways to dispose of them. Per Mr. Pedrolli, in the bathrooms, if a paper towel gets wet it goes in the compost, a normal dry paper towel goes in the recycle bins, and if you were to blow your nose or get a paper towel dirty then it would go in the trash. 

Another major part of the sustainability movement is the reduction and minimization of necessary water. However, many building designs are not focused on this aspect and instead go with the regular “fixes”. These fixes are timed faucets, less water intensive plants such as grass, and changes in irrigation schedules. Schools face the same water usage problems.

Schools typically use a lot of water and SRHS is no exception. Max Hattenbach, a journalist for SRHS, reported in Off the Leash about the water usage at SRHS. In his article, the grass soccer field was estimated to be using about 9,000 gallons of watering in a single night and Pedroli, (also quoted in Hattenbach’s article) estimated that a 250,000 gallon pool loses roughly around 1000 gallons a week just from evaporation. SRHS’ switch to the turf field had a positive effect. Pedrolli said in Hattenbach’s article, “It could’ve been 200,000 gallons a month out there.” 

SRHS has cut down their water usage in bathrooms. Timed faucets in the bathrooms and artificial turf for the football field has greatly reduced the school’s water usage. Throughout the school and its new buildings there is xeriscaping, which is replacing grassy lawns and water intensive plants with mulch, stones, rocks and more native, drought-tolerant, plant species. The parking lot is also designed using a method called bioretention, with water runoff being filtered through plants and dirt before reaching the storm drain.

One spot Pedroli decided to keep water flowing was in the urinals. He says they experimented with flushless urinals. The problem they encountered was that the flushless urinals had a chemical replacement every 2-3 months even though they guaranteed 6 months. Additionally, it would get clogged often and cleaning them wasn’t easy. He chose to reduce the chemicals and be more cost effective by sticking with regular urinals to achieve a more ideal, flushable situation. 

A frequent theme throughout our investigation has been the line between cost effectiveness and environmentally sustainability. Finding solutions that last, are affordable, and effective is something that the SRCS maintenance staff pushes for. “We’re getting past high maintenance items and into stuff that’s more durable and energy efficient,” said Pedroli.

Another problem that SRHS has faced is electricity usage and cost. LED lights provide an alternative to costly incandescent bulbs. Pedroli originally stayed away from them as they burnt out quicker and cost more per bulb. However LEDs now are worth the money as they require less energy and last longer.

He said SRHS has been switching over to LEDs in recent years. A feature in the new buildings is motion detection lights, such as those in the new commons building conference rooms. The lights automatically adjust to account for outside light and only use what is required to light the room. 

Many people are proponents of solar energy and SRHS’ new buildings’ roofs are solar ready. However, maintenance and the transportation of materials onto the roof is not worth the time or the money. Tracy Brawdy, the Supervisor of Maintenance and Operations for the district, mentioned that they are more open to doing a solar panel parking structure in the senior lot compared to the application of them to the school’s roofs. 

Of course with Covid, everything has exponentially worsened. “The amount of (chemical) cleaners has almost doubled, paper towels, things like that, has doubled,” said Pedroli. Especially in older buildings, as the cost to maintain and create a safer environment due to the pandemic has created an additional increase in cost. The recent upgrades have helped lessen the impact of SRHS’ aging infrastructure and has put the school in a better position to help with the ever present climate crisis.

It is clear that SRHS, and SRCS as a whole, are headed in the right direction. Their effort to work with architects who care about and understand sustainability will have a profoundly positive effect and set the precedent for what schools should work towards. Meeting environmental standards and creating safe learning environments need to be moved to the top of our priority both locally and nationally. Schools should be pillars of the communities that they reside in, providing education and being environmentally adept in our tumultuous times.

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