George Lucas Educational Foundation

Going Green: Designing Eco-Friendly Schools

In Chicago's urban sprawl, an environmentally friendly school blooms.
By Evantheia Schibsted
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Top Soil:

On the third-story roof of Tarkington Elementary School, in Chicago, a garden of drought-resistant plants serves as a teaching tool -- and provides energy-saving insulation.

Credit: JJ Sulin Photography

Clad in a tailored gray suit and heels instead of her typical garb of jeans, steel-toed boots, and a hard hat, Julie Chamlin begins her tour of Tarkington Elementary School in the airy atrium. The loftlike space exudes a squeaky-clean feel, with its scuff-free floors and unsmudged windows. The morning sun floods the room with warmth.

As project manager of this newly opened K-8 school on Chicago's Southwest Side, Chamlin -- whose job includes making sure that the three-story, 134,000-square-foot building meets certain environmental standards -- quickly highlights the entryway's so-called green features: understated bluish-green floors made of recycled glass, elegant two-story-high windows that allow for natural lighting, and honeycolored maple ceilings made from wood logged in what she refers to as an "environmentally responsible" way (read: no clear-cutting).

These are just a few of the design elements that give Tarkington its bragging rights. It's the first campus in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the nation's third-largest school district, built to meet the stringent green standards established by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council, a coalition of 6,000 building-industry organizations that is considered the standard-bearer of greenness. Tarkington will also serve as a prototype for future Chicago public schools, which CPS officials say are all required to be green.

Bright Ideas:

Oversize windows and scuff-proof reflective floors made of recycled glass, plus a sensor system to reduce the need for artificial light, reduce the school's power use.

Credit: JJ Sulin Photography

Earning the USGBC's seal of approval, known as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification -- which Tarkington expects to officially receive soon -- requires looking at the building process through a different lens.

"It's like baking an oat-bran bagel instead of one with white flour," says Erin Lavin Cabonargi, managing architect for CPS's Department of Operations. (Previously, she worked at OWP/P Architects, the Chicago firm that handled the school's initial design phase.) "You're using the same recipe, only now the ingredients are organic."

And, just as any vegan will tell you, a healthy diet doesn't sacrifice taste. By borrowing from the Chicago palette of rich, durable materials, such as limestone and brick, and incorporating stainless steel hardware and oversize windows, Tarkington projects a rare combination of Midwestern heartiness and urban hip.

"A school is the anchor of the community," says Cabonargi. "Students need to think of it as a place of permanence. The architecture is a manifestation of that permanence."

Going Native:

Many of the building's construction materials, which come from within a 500-mile radius of the city, echo the Chicago palette.

Credit: JJ Sulin Photography

Fueling Curriculum

But schools are more than eye-pleasing assemblages. Beyond making school an aesthetically vibrant and environmentally friendly place, the ultimate goal of those involved with Tarkington, from the builders to the teaching staff, is to instill in students a sense of wonder as well as one of responsibility for their natural environment.

"Curriculum is key," Cabonargi says. "If we can teach students about sustainability, that's the highest praise we could possibly hope for."

Vincent Iturralde, Tarkington's principal, concurs. As a former science teacher, he is particularly excited by how having a green school shapes curriculum and consequently generates an interest in science among the facility's 900-plus students.

Enter Steven Cota, a charismatic science specialist, who with his thirty fellow teachers designs a green curriculum for all grade levels. At Tarkington, teaching science entails a collaborative effort between him and his colleagues. Instead of sending students off to science lab, teachers accompany their classes and team-teach the subject with Cota.

With an abundance of enthusiasm and ideas, he explains how a green school provides fertile ground for his hands-on teaching style. "To raise students' awareness, there must be a physical engagement," he says. "Teachers must make students aware of a reality they're not used to seeing."

Gym Dandy:

A point of pride for the elementary school kids is the regulation-size gymnasium, roomy enough for high school students.

Credit: JJ Sulin Photography

So, for instance, Cota encourages kids to see garbage in a new way by teaching a lesson on recycling. He might ask kids to keep all the garbage they generate at a picnic and consider the following: "What does trash look like? What are recyclable materials?" Kids get their hands dirty, so to speak, by separating the two. In one class, Cota created a math lesson by having students display their collective picnic garbage and multiply that amount by seven days.

Similarly, when Tarkington's solar panels are installed on the rooftop, Cota will teach students about alternative energy sources. Likewise, someday, when he has access to an electric car, he'll use the recharging stations already installed in the school's parking lot for hands-on demos.

Peter Templeton, the USGBC's vice president for education and research, considers the indoor environmental quality at schools their most important green feature: "We want to create the optimum environment for learning, one that ensures students can concentrate and be free from distractions."

These include indoor pollutants such as mold, bad air quality and circulation, which often cause drowsiness, and inadequate lighting, known to hamper learning by diminishing a child's ability to concentrate. Also, Tarkington's indoor air quality adheres to a higher standard because of the building's low-toxic paint, glues, and caulking.

In addition, classrooms contain extra-large windows that allow more natural light. Not only that, but sensors incorporated into the lighting system automatically adjust to the amount of sunlight entering the room, thus maximizing the use of natural energy.

Lofty Goals:

The maple ceilings are made using wood logged in environmentally responsible ways.

Credit: JJ Sulin Photography

The Windy City and Beyond

Tarkington is not the only school that, well, has seen the light when it comes to going green. In November 2002, Goodwillie Environmental School, in Ada Township, Michigan, and Third Creek Elementary School, in Statesville, North Carolina, both suburban public schools, became the first LEED-certified educational facilities. Since then, 14 others located from Massachusetts to Oregon have followed suit. Now, 145 K-12 schools are registered to earn the green seal of approval. Most, like the pioneering schools in Michigan and North Carolina, are in the suburbs, where construction of new buildings is more likely. That's what makes Tarkington -- located in an urban neighborhood with its fair share of fast food joints and convenience stores -- all the more unique and meaningful.

"To have a school like this built here on the South Side is fantastic," says Tarkington principal Iturralde. "It offers lots of possibilities to kids who really need it in this area."

In Her Element:

Project manager Julie Chamlin is in charge of making sure the 134,000-square-foot school meets the stringent standards of the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council.

Credit: JJ Sulin Photography

A Crowning Jewel

While green features exist throughout the building, the crowning green jewel of Tarkington rests atop its third story. Here, a roof garden of plants from the tundra (ever been to Chicago in the winter?) promises to bloom almost year-round. The plot serves practical purposes, too: This covering of vegetation offers insulation that helps moderate the building's temperature, which is expected to help the school save on cooling expenses in warm months and heating bills in the winter. Large windows open up to this area, allowing students to observe and learn about the life cycles of plants.

The garden covers one-third of the roof; the remainder consists of a white coating (as opposed to the typical black tarred surface) that reflects light and consequently prevents it from turning into heat. By reducing what's known as the urban-heat-island effect, a common problem plaguing cities, air-conditioning costs will be lower than usual. The roof also boasts a storm-water management system, with pipes that feed clean runoff water directly into a lagoon adjacent to the school.

From the initial planning phase, which began in early 2002, to the March 2003 ground-breaking ceremony to when the school doors opened this September, Tarkington's design and building team adhered to the USGBC's requirements. This checklist is designed to examine all aspects of a building to determine whether it uses natural resources efficiently and with little impact to the environment, while also providing an indoor environment that makes for healthy and productive occupants.

So, for example, at Tarkington, one-fourth of the building materials came from within a 500-mile radius of the school -- a requirement of LEED certification aimed to minimize transportation pollutants and fuel the local economy -- 90 percent of the structural steel is made of recycled metal, and a whopping 82 percent of the construction waste from the building was recycled. (LEED requires only half of this material to be processed for reuse.) In addition, the school anticipates using one-fifth less water than a regular building because of features such as low-flow toilets. Getting certified by the LEED also lends credence to a building's greenness, making it easier to secure grants in the future -- not an insignificant consideration for cash-strapped schools.

All this came with a $23 million price tag, roughly 6 percent more than a nongreen school would have cost. However, as green proponents argue, these upfront costs must be weighed against the savings of operating a sustainable building throughout the structure's lifetime. (A 2003 study conducted for California's Sustainable Building Task Force that examined the costs and benefits of thirty-three diverse LEED-certified buildings found that most green strategies paid for themselves within three years.) In the case of Tarkington, that life expectancy is a hundred years. If early indications prove true, it will be a very good century indeed.

Evantheia Schibsted is a contributing writer to Edutopia.

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Liz's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello this is liz and i go to tarkington.I think that our school is so the most perfect school in the city.Tarkington rocks. Ones you go in side you will like it its so pretty nice i love all the teachers inside because they are not that mean and you will learn alot. I also love tarkington because that principal Mr.iturralde is the best principal in the world in my opinion because ones he sees that their in no probles or any violence some like that when their is a special holyday coming up he lets us celebrate it and have dances. Tarkington is the first school that i whent that let us have dances.Like we have dances of valentines day, earth day some like that, and lots more etc.. We also have fun raisers, christmass dance, Out of uniform days, twin day, Pj day etc...
But to have does privleges you need to earn your points.Well i love tarkington alot and i think is the #1 best school in my opinion and you will get along with everyone because they are all friendly people. Ones you go often you are ganna feel like coming back everyday. And also we have lots of partys and you are going to enjoy it...
By:liz ?

Brenda & Brett Maas's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello Tarkington from Billings, MT. We are a family that has three kids in an elementary school that is bursting at the seams and have passed a bond to build a new school. However, part of that bond requires us to raise an additional sum of money to build. We really want to build a Green School but need to find an organization that may Grant us money in our quest. Any ideas? We would love to hear from you.

Brett and Brenda Maas

Carrie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

it sounds like you have a wonderful school. Congrats on all your success.
the reason for my message is that i have a son in kindergarten and i just recently joined the PTO. There have been talks of trying to make the school greener, and i was asked to coordinate it. But with very little budget, and not much knowledge on the matter, I am requesting any suggestions. ideas ect. any help would be greatly appreciated!

Yvette Kendall's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In recent years we have witnessed some of the world's worst disasters, Katrina tops the list for the most crippling domestic natural disasters we have ever seen in the United States, no sanitary conditions, weeks after the devastating event, people were still being evacuated; and for the ones having to stay, dealing with tainted water and food and toxic conditions were a real problem. But help is on the way, Cleencups, LLC. has developed new The World's First Anti-Bacterial Disposable Drinking Cups for when the next unfortunate event arises, this product can cut our chances of being afflicted with germs and disease while we eat and drink by more than half.

The Cleencups organization has developed a way involuntarily clean the hands of people without them really giving forth effort to it. Washing your hands with soap and water is always best to deter germs, but when you are in an un-opportune situation and cleanliness is mandatory Cleencups is there. Incorporating sanitizing into our daily life with the use of an everyday product can reduce ailments dramatically, who would have ever thought a 2 for 1 can be so good to use and so good for you.

Cleencups are hot/cold paper cups that are disposable and bio-degradable and have been treated on the outside with an anti-bacterial coating that kills 99.9999% of dangerous gems, bacteria (only affects negative bacteria), pathogens, viruses, fungi, MERSA, as well as HIV and it's ready to use. This coating is not alcohol based; it is non-toxic, has no allergens, water soluble and safe for children and adults alike and the active ingredient is FDA Approved.

I have seen countless times, people at work or at home walk out of the restroom without washing their hands and directly pick up a water cup or a coffee cup and ensue drinking (as well as touch door knobs and microwave doors). We all unconsciously touch our faces or cough and sneeze into our hands, then touch objects and other people; a story was just showcased on the news about your keyboard at your desk being more contaminated than a public toilet. Let me ask you a question, Do you eat and drink at your desk? Sure you do, Are your hands clean? Let's give our lives a fighting chance, let's get tough on germs before they get tougher on us.

Disasters are not the only time or place to use Cleencups, think of schools, hospitals, and out-door activities and public places in general. Wouldn't you love the feeling of knowing your hands are clean and not trusting that the germs around you are not that bad. Germs are mutating everyday and science is running behind on effective ways to kill them, let us all give the world a hand and keep ourselves clean, we can stay clean together with Cleencups, "The Cleen Hands People!"

green always's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe this is a great article on going green. It is important for society to wake up and go green. If you don't know much about being green a great place to start is the Green Forum http:/// where you can learn about green energy, green buildings, green cars and just about everything else around being green. After all we only have one planet.

Mary Magillis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We recently got a shipment of complementary Cleencups Products in our school and they are wonderful! During this Swine Flu Epidemic we had no sick chidren or teachers, not only that we had a large decrease of general illnesses like colds and such as well. It's a great producf, Thanks Cleencups!

Norma Carlin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We are all trying to "Go Green" and help the world to be here just a little longer. we were at a teaching seminar and were given samples of Cleencups Anti-Bacterial Cups for our school to test out, this was about 3 weeks ago or so; these cups are unassuming and typical by the naked eye but proved to be fantastic. We work with children, so there are a frequent number of cases of typical communicable diseases passed around and then the attendance gets low. For the past several weeks, the illnesses were cut down to less than a fourth and were are able to competely recycle the product once were were done with it. We have nothing but praises for the Cleencups Products and their tremendous effort of "Going Green!" We were informed that the cups are their flagship product and will be introducing a line of disposable products later this year, all I can say is "Viva La Cleencups" and visit their site at or call 888-40-cleen.

Anne Roemke's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What kind of handsoap do you use in the classrooms and bathrooms? I am the Health Chairperson for a non-profit cooperative preschool (pre-K through K-4) in Milwaukee and would love to get rid of our excessive use of antibacterial soap. Do you have any suggestions?
Thank you!

Anne Roemke

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