Sustainable Schools: 14 Smart Green Learning Facilities


These 14 school buildings, from a simple primary school in Cambodia to a high-tech university in Sweden, don’t just provide a learning environment for students – they’re also stunning examples of sustainability in architecture that can teach designers around the world to think green and beautiful. Green roofs, daylighting, renewable power, sun shades and local materials earn these structures high marks in environmental sensitivity and aesthetic standards alike.

Manassas Park Elementary School, Virginia


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Named by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) as one of America’s greenest schools, Manassas Park Elementary in Manassas Park, Virginia was built to cure “nature-deficit disorder” among schoolchildren. Architecture firm VMDO integrated the 140,000-square-foot building with the surrounding ecosystem, providing views of gardens and forests and including a number of outdoor learning spaces. The school, which achieved Gold LEED status from the U.S. Green Building Council, has a 79,000-gallon rainwater cistern, a daylighting system, geothermal heat and a weather-predictive automated system that flashes lights when it’s okay to open the windows. An unusual educational philosophy enables students to move between rooms unsupervised, studying in beanbags and sofas.

Green School, Bali, Indonesia


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Sit down at an open-air cafe in a stunning bamboo building in Bali, sipping a smoothie made with sugar cane grown on the premises, eating a snack wrapped in a banana leaf while listening to the sounds of nature. It sounds like paradise, but for many children in this corner of Indonesia, it’s just another day at school. The Green School opened in 2008 and includes the largest bamboo structure in the world; in fact, everything here is made of bamboo, a local renewable resource. Children eat produce that they grow themselves, and every facet of their education is infused with sustainability, creativity and physical interaction with the land. Bamboo is used to teach students about their effect on the environment – they plant new bamboo shoots to offset their carbon footprints.

Sidwell Friends Middle School, Washington D.C.


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Attended by President Obama’s daughter Malia, Sidwell Friends Middle School in Washington, D.C. is undoubtedly exclusive, and it’s not just the educational standards that are high. The middle school building at Sidwell Friends is among the greenest K-12 schools in America, with a constructed wetland to treat the school’s sewage on-site, water-efficient landscaping, photovoltaic panels and a passive solar design. The building was constructed with local and regional materials as well as recycled materials and Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood. Lots of daylight and natural ventilation keep energy costs down, and a green roof removes pollutants from rainwater and provides a mini ecosystem for wildlife. The school is noted among the AIA’s top ten green projects and received a Platinum LEED rating.

Martinet Primary School, Barcelona, Spain


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Barcelona’s Martinet Primary School is kept cool by an unusual honeycomb facade inset with multicolored tiles for visual interest. The facade acts as a sunscreen, keeping the harsh rays of the Spanish sun from heating up the building while also providing natural ventilation. The tiles are set at right angles to each other and the west-facing sides are glazed in three shades of green while the east-facing are painted in autumnal colors.

Hawaii Preparatory Academy, Hawaii


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At the Hawaii Preparatory Academy, a structure called the Energy Lab isn’t just green – it’s a certified Living Building. In addition to achieving LEED Platinum, the Energy Lab met the ‘Living Building Challenge’, using absolutely nothing that is toxic in production, use or disposal. Amazingly, incredibly high standards like using only steel or concrete from 1,000 miles away and wood from 3,000 miles away were met by the builders – despite the fact that the school is located in the middle of the ocean! The 6,112-square-foot Energy Lab facility features indoor and outdoor classroom areas, conference and project rooms and a full workshop on 216 acres of land.

The Bridge School, China


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Among five winners of the 2010 Aga Khan Award for Architecture, the Bridge School in Xiashi, China is located in a rural village and provides not only a place of learning but a public gathering spot and a way to cross the town’s river. The two-room schoolhouse, designed by Li Xiaodong, consists of a bamboo bridge connecting two historic toulou (circular castles made from packed dirt). Horizontal bamboo shutters and doors can open the school to the air when the weather is appropriate, and the north end of the school even functions as a stage for performances or other community projects when school is not in session.

Sra Pou Vocational School, Cambodia


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While red bricks made from local dirt provide the structural mass of the Sra Pou Vocational School in Cambodia, it’s the colorful handmade shutters, which can be opened or closed to control interior daylighting and ventilation, that make the building so cheerful and fun. The school was built entirely by hand by local laborers who received training on the job.

Green Mountain College, Poultney, Vermont


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Is this the greenest college of them all? The answer to that question is yes, according to the Sierra Club’s Sierra Magazine, which rated Vermont’s Green Mountain College at the top of its list of the nation’s most eco-friendly colleges. This four-year liberal arts college, which emphasizes environmental sustainability as an essential element of its course studies, is the first college in the nation to achieve climate neutrality. The college has its own biomass facility, uses electricity produced by extracting methane gas from manure on Vermont dairy farms, and grows its own organic produce.

Michael J. Homer Science and Student Life Center, Atherton, California


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The Michael J. Homer Science and Student Life Center in Atherton, California was the first school to obtain LEED Platinum certification under the LEED for Schools program. Part of Sacred Heart Schools, a Roman Catholic School for students in preschool through twelfth grade, this school uses 69% less energy than a typical school the same size. A living roof, a 40 kilowatt solar photovoltaic system, 73 skylights, water-efficient fixtures and drought-resistant native plantings are among the school’s notable green features. It also feeds students organic fruits and vegetables grown in an on-site garden.

Umeå University  Architecture Academy, Sweden


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Umeå University’s new Architecture Academy in Sweden has a bold locally-sourced larch wood envelope punctuated by seemingly off-kilter windows in various sizes that not only gives it visual punch, but lets in lots of light. The windows are strategically placed to allow sunlight to infiltrate the building throughout the day. An integrated HVAC system, along with overall energy efficiency, has helped minimize energy usage by 50% and fresh air is drawn into the building from under the floor and circulated throughout the interior using perforated pipes.

Maosi Ecological Demonstration Primary School, China


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The Ecological Demonstration Primary School in Maosi, China proves that eco-friendly schools be built in remote areas of the country for very little money. Built as an experiment by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, this cluster of 10 single-story classrooms is made of thick mud brick for thermal mass in the style of local traditional architecture. Other local materials like rubble, straw and reed were used as well as recycled roof tiles from around the village. The school won the Design for Asia Award for improving quality of life.

ASU Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, Phoenix, Arizona


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Certified LEED Silver and a stunning addition to downtown Phoenix, the ASU Walter Cronkite School of Journalism stands out for its smart protection from the desert sun as well as its multi-colored metal panels in a pattern inspired by the U.S. Radio Spectrum. The 6-story educational facility features sun screens on all four facades as well as a three-story-tall ‘front porch’ to keep the sun from heating up the building.

Howe Dell Primary School, Hatfield, U.K.


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The Howe Dell Primary School of Hatfield, England might just be the greenest building in the United Kingdom. An experiment in just how green a school can be, Howe Dell features a green roof planted with sedum, toilets that flush using rainwater, desks made of drain pipes, solar hot water and electricity and countertops made of recycled yogurt cups. But even among all of these impressive efforts – as well as a student “Eco Squad” that promotes sustainability on campus – one particular feature stands out: the world’s first Interseasonal Heat Transfer system, built beneath the school’s playground. The system takes the heat from sunshine that falls on the tarmac playground, stores it underground and then releases it during the winter.

School of Art, Design and Media at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore


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Few green roofs in the world can compete visually with the sweeping carpet of green that encircles the School of Art, Design and Media at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Completed in 2006, the five-story educational facility blurs the lines between organic and built environments, disguising the building altogether from certain angles. The green roof insulates the structure, creates open green space for gatherings, cools the surrounding air and harvests rainwater for landscaping irrigation. The building is oriented with the facades facing north and south to decrease solar gain.