15 March 2012 – The greening of education facilities has the potential to dramatically shift our national productivity and wellbeing – possibly more than any other sustainable building initiative, according to Jonathan Dalton, director of sustainability consultancy, Viridis E3.

Speaking at Green Cities 2012, Dalton pointed to statistics that show Australia is falling behind in global education rankings despite Australian children spending more hours per day in the classroom than OECD students.

“Australia is often referred to as the knowledge nation. If we are, then why are we only ranked ninth in reading, 10th in science and 15th in maths,” Dalton said.

Poor indoor environment quality and high classroom occupancy levels are a significant contributor to our education performance.

“Research shows there is a direct relationship between ventilation and concentration.”

And the indoor environment requirements for children and young adults are very different to those for adults. Compared to adults, children:

  • breathe twice as much and so exposure to poor air quality is higher
  • have a much higher tolerance to noise but can’t filter out background noise
  • have increased absorption and accumulation levels of substances
  • can’t express why they are tired or can’t concentrate

The average occupancy level for offices is 10 square metres to 15 sq m per person. For schools it is about a quarter of that – 2.5 sq m to 3 sq m per person.

“We think children are smaller so they need less space – in fact when you look at their breathing and absorption rates it is the opposite,” says Dalton.

Regulations are not helping. The Building Code of Australia requires five per cent of floor area in schools to have access to openable windows. But this is not enough for children’s needs.

Carbon dioxide levels, measured in parts per million (ppm) are used as a measure for suitable indoor air quality. In submarines, with occupant densities similar to our classrooms, the level is 600 ppm. Currently,  Dalton said, the safe measure for classrooms in Europe, the US and Australia is set at 1000 ppm. Under this level is considered “hygienically harmless”, at 1500 ppm people are adversely affected, 2000 ppm is considered unsafe and 2300 induces oxygen deprivation.

“The required level is 1000ppm or below and yet a study in Canada found that 45 per cent of classrooms there had carbon dioxide levels of well over 1000 parts per million. A similar study in Sweden found levels were between 400 and 2000 ppm,” Dalton said.

The effects of high carbon dioxide levels include faster breathing, headaches, lethargy and eventually calcium deposits in soft tissue. Studies have shown that at levels of 1000 ppm of carbon dioxide 50 per cent of the population is affected by these symptoms and at 1500 ppm 100 per cent are affected.

Typical standards for the amount of natural air brought into classrooms room is also inadequate.

Jonathan Dalton

“If we look at a typical naturally ventilated room in the UK, the ventilation is achieving something like three litres per second of outside air, maintaining carbon dioxide levels of 2000 parts per million. That level of outside air is not enough to provide a good level of carbon dioxide. We really need to be bringing in seven litres per second to get to levels of 1000 parts per million.”

To allow for volatile organic compounds we need to provide nine litres of outside air per second and if other hydrocarbons are factored in, around 13 litres per second. And if we want to get it down to the level considered safe for submarines we need to bring in 19 litres of outdoor air per second, Dalton said.

Currently, Australian standards require less than seven litres of outside air per second and buildings that have reported sick building syndrome have usually met these standards.

“Natural ventilation does not just happen. Air, like little children, does not follow the instruction manual.”

“This means natural ventilations needs to be designed very carefully and we need to go beyond the BCA requirement for five per cent of floor area to have access to openable windows.”

The increased installation of air conditioning in schools and the sealing up of rooms to create higher energy efficiency has exacerbated the problem.

Lighting and acoustics are also critical. With good lighting people can learn 20 to 25 per cent faster, while acoustics dramatically affect students’ ability to correctly decipher information.

“The other thing that affects our wellbeing is external views. We’ve found students have a better concentration span when they are able to see outside. Views of nature are the premium but you can also use the structured environment and receive very good benefits,” said Dalton.

“Teachers are the other aspect of the indoor environment in schools. Yes you can have good teachers but if you provide the right environment they will do their job much better.”

Dalton cited a project at Golf Creek Primary School in Canberra, which achieved 6 Star Green Star Education Design. The design focuses on controlling heat by keeping the sun out of rooms and using natural ventilation. High ceilings and ceiling fans are incorporated to encourage airflow.

“The aim is to keep what is outside out and what is inside in. So when it is hot outside keeping the heat out and when it is cold outside keeping the warmth in.”

The next step in ensuring better indoor environment quality in schools is for rating tools to set a benchmark. The Green Building Council has stepped up in this area, said Dalton, including external views in its points system and increasing the weighting for indoor environment quality.

But out of 40 schools that are certified under Green Star only 20 had received points for IEQ.  “Why do we have half our schools not providing extra fresh air?” asked Dalton.

And if benefiting children’s learning and wellbeing is not enough of an incentive to make changes, there are the financial incentives. The cost effectiveness of greening schools is high said Dalton – 30 to 40 per cent improvements in energy efficiency as a result of low cost initiatives.

In terms of real estate, good schools are so sought after that property values in the surrounding areas are pushed up.

“As a community we owe a duty of care to our kids. And as engineers and architects you have a duty of care to provide the best level of indoor environment that you can,” said Dalton.

lblundell@thefifthestate.com.au