Earning Top Marks

When it comes to school construction, building designers balance cost-effectiveness and functionality with the need to create positive learning environments for students. Wood is gaining recognition as a versatile way to achieve these objectives; to meet all code requirements for safety and performance, stay on budget and honor tight construction timelines — while delivering energy efficiencies that pay back for years to come. Additionally, though wood’s appearance has long been recognized for its natural cosmetic appeal, research shows that exposed wood in a room has positive effects on occupant well-being.

Environmental Impacts

For example, with the objective of making the most of school budgets, the Bethel School District (BSD) in Washington state makes energy efficiency a priority. The BSD was recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2011 as an ENERGY Star Leader, boasting an 81 percent ENERGY STAR rating overall, and credits much of this achievement to wood-frame construction at 23 of its elementary and middle schools. The use of wood-frame walls, floors and roofs easily accommodates inexpensive batt insulation, and since wood studs don’t transfer heat and cold the way metal studs do, wood helps improve the energy efficiency of the exterior envelope of the buildings as well.

Like many other school districts across America, BSD has a strict budget for its facilities. The energy efficiency achieved through the use of wood in its schools provides an environmental benefit while reducing the operational costs of facilities. Between 2004 and 2011, BSD reduced energy usage by more than 7.6 million kilowatts and saved $4.3 million in utility costs — equivalent to the cost of electricity for 15 of the District’s elementary schools for one year.

At El Dorado High School in Arkansas, the priority goals were cost, functionality and creating an environment that would encourage students to stay in school. The structure showcases a wide range of wood product applications, from the glulam bowstring trusses used in the ceiling of the basketball arena to dimensional lumber used in exterior and interior load-bearing walls. This extensive use of wood resulted in a $2.7 million savings for the 320,000-square-foot school, compared to its original concrete and masonry design.

The use of wood also reduced the school's carbon footprint — an objective that is growing in importance worldwide. Wood products continue to store carbon absorbed by the trees while growing, keeping them out of the atmosphere for the lifetime of the structure, or longer if the wood is reclaimed and reused or manufactured into other products. Wood products also require far less energy to produce than steel or concrete. For El Dorado High School, this equated to a total carbon benefit of 11,440 metric tons of CO2. That’s the equivalent of keeping 2,100 cars off the road for a year.

Student Well-being

Green building objectives have evolved to include more than just environmental effects. They now also recognize human health and well-being issues – an aspect that is particularly relevant for schools. Studies about biophilia, the innate attraction that humans have to living organisms and life-like processes, for instance, support the use of wood and natural building products in a learning environment.

One such study completed at the University of British Columbia and FPInnovations found that the presence of visual wood surfaces in a room lowered activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for physiological stress responses in humans. The study, authored by David Fell, Ph.D., concluded what many people have known intuitively: being around exposed wood makes people feel good.

This study has had tremendous implications for any building in which the performance of occupants can be enhanced through reduced stress responses, including schools and other learning environments, healthcare facilities and even retail projects, where customers might be encouraged to engage and shop longer.

For the design team at the Duke Schools in Durham, N.C., wood was primarily chosen for its aesthetic, biophilic benefits. In fact, one of the project leads from DTW Architects & Planners says their number one reason for using exposed wood for the schools was the aesthetic and, more specifically, how the warmth and beauty of wood could influence students.

Wood's adaptability has also proven beneficial. The school was designed with a canopy-covered area adjacent to the art room for outdoor learning. However, a year after the school was completed, officials decided that the indoor art room needed more capacity. Because of the wood-frame construction, it was a relatively easy fix to move the outside wall to the edge of the canopy.

Overall, the Duke Schools project included three wood-frame middle school buildings, two wood-frame lower school buildings, the renovation of four existing lower school buildings and a new steel-frame gymnasium, for a total of 79,204 square feet. This included tongue-and-groove wood decking, exterior wood studs with plywood sheathing, interior walls featuring wooden windows and wood studs with pressure-treated wood floor plates.

Locally sourced from sustainably managed forests, wood also helped meet the project's sustainability goals. In addition to being the only major building material that grows naturally and is renewable, lifecycle assessment studies also show that wood has environmental advantages over other common building materials in terms of embodied energy, air pollution and water pollution. In terms of operational energy, the Duke School's wood building system helped the facility to achieve a 25 percent reduction in energy use compared to typical schools.

Timber is an abundant material in North America, making wood an affordable and locally available resource for sustainable construction. The versatile building material can be used to create an enriching space for inspiration and learning. Given that, it is no surprise that wood-frame construction is earning top marks from school districts and designers nationwide.

Scott Lockyear is a national director of design and construction services for WoodWorks, which provides free support to architects and engineers related to the use of wood in non-residential and multifamily building types. Lockyear provides education and training sessions across the United States to assist with the design of wood-frame structures, and has been involved in codes and standards development with the American Wood Council. He can be reached at scott@woodworks.org, either to answer general questions or provide project assistance.

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