News Brief

Can Buildings Teach Sustainable Behavior?

Recent studies explore whether school buildings designed for high performance help students learn to think and act sustainably.

June 5, 2018

Arlington Public Schools' Discovery Elementary School

Arlington Public Schools' Discovery Elementary School, designed by VMDO Architects, is the largest zero-energy school in the country and includes experiential learning features—like a building dashboard system—that engage students and promote environmental stewardship.

Photo: © Lincoln Barbour (Courtesy of VMDO Architects)
Previous research has shown that schools designed with sustainability features provide an environment conducive to learning, and support student health and performance. And many such schools include programs to teach students about nature and ecology.

But can students learn from these buildings, instead of just in them? Can school buildings designed for high performance also facilitate teaching for sustainability—an educational method designed to motivate and prepare students to change their behaviors and contribute to a more sustainable culture?

Green schools for green thinking?

One recent study addressed this question by surveying 275 students, ages 10 to 12, at seven primary schools in Victoria, Australia—three designed with sustainability features and four designed conventionally.

The researchers used adapted versions of the New Ecological Paradigm scale, which measures an individual’s level of endorsement of a pro-ecological worldview, and the General Ecological Behavior scale, which covers different types of ecological and social behavior.

The researchers found that the children at the schools designed for high performance had significantly more pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors than the children at the schools without a sustainability focus. 

However, another recent study, with a similar aim, produced less positive results and found that schools designed for high performance have room to improve when it comes to educating for sustainability.

A need for greater integration and engagement

A study of three primary schools in England, all designed with sustainability features, looked specifically at whether the incorporation of those features helped to educate students about sustainability and promote sustainable living practices.

Researchers conducted observational visits and interviews with the buildings’ users to assess their level of awareness of the incorporated sustainability features and the extent to which these were used in courses.

The researchers concluded that the schools in their study are not useful in affecting the attitudes or behaviors of students because the sustainability features of the buildings were not well integrated into the curriculum. Teachers unfamiliar with sustainable design concepts were not provided with the resources needed to effectively instruct students about the building.

While the sustainability features of the schools successfully contribute to building energy performance and indoor environmental quality, the researchers argue that they do not support education for sustainability because the students are not directly engaged with them, nor do they understand the thinking behind them.

For example, the researchers note that sustainability features like solar panels, increased insulation, and double-glazed windows are not dynamic and do not require any interaction from the building’s occupants. Automatic features like motion sensor lighting can seem irrational if their purpose is not clearly explained. And feedback tools, like smart meters displaying the amount of energy generated by the solar panels, generally lacked context to make the information meaningful to students.

Environments that communicate

To remedy the issue, the researchers recommend that school designers and educators collaborate to ensure that a school’s sustainable building features can be used to support teaching for sustainability. Designers should incorporate sustainability features in ways that aid interpretation by teachers, allowing them to use the building to illustrate for students the connections between the built environment, personal behavior, and sustainability.

As a way to guide this process, the researchers reference a method commonly used in product design to embed “communication” into an object that helps the user understand how the object should be used and why. This approach, known as “Design with Intent,” is meant to help the user understand the intent of the designer. The researchers discuss how this approach could be applied to building design to promote sustainable behavior among occupants.

The researchers also suggest that design briefs should explicitly state that a desired function of school buildings targeting high performance is to aid education for sustainability, establishing it as an important goal at the outset of the design process and a requirement to be tracked throughout the project’s development.

For more information about strategies for using buildings as tools for sustainability education, see “The Teaching Green School Building: a framework for linking architecture and environmental education.

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