Designing Healthy Schools

EPA’s 2010 Report, “Residential Construction Trends in America’s Metropolitan Regions”

Recent research suggests that a school’s physical environment can also play a major role in academic performance. Leaky roofs; problems with heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems (HVAC); insufficient cleaning or excessive use of cleaning chemicals; and other maintenance issues can trigger a host of health problems – including asthma and allergies – that increase absenteeism and reduce academic performance. Research links key environmental factors to health outcomes and students' ability to perform. Improvements in school environmental quality can enhance academic performance, as well as teacher and staff productivity and retention.

An updated U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report shows a continuing shift in development toward urban neighborhoods in the United States, despite a slow real estate market. This trend, described in EPA’s 2010 report, “Residential Construction Trends in America’s Metropolitan Regions,” shows that redevelopment continues in many urban neighborhoods. Taking advantage of opportunities to reuse land and to redevelop underused sites is a key smart growth strategy. It helps communities protect natural lands from being developed, strengthens the local economy, and puts new homes, stores, and jobs within easy reach of surrounding neighborhoods.

The data shows that, compared to the early 1990s, the share of construction in urban neighborhoods was up 28 percent in mid-sized metropolitan regions that have promoted redevelopment of underused sites and development around transit, such as Portland, Ore; Denver, Colo.; and Sacramento, Calif. For example, in 2008 Portland issued 38 percent of all the building permits within its region, compared to an average of 9 percent in the early 1990s; Denver accounted for 32 percent, up from 5 percent; and Sacramento accounted for 27 percent, up from 9 percent.

The latest report shows that an even stronger trend toward urban redevelopment in the largest metropolitan regions continued in 2008. New York City accounted for 63 percent of the building permits issued within its region. By comparison, the city averaged about 15 percent of regional building permits during the early 1990s. Similarly, Chicago now accounts for 45 percent of the building permits within its region, up from just 7 percent in the early 1990s. More information on the report.

The Association for Learning Environment’s IssueTraks are an excellent resource for anyone interested in designing healthy, high performance schools. Below are some sample resources:

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How are Healthy Schools Designed?

This report “High performance schools: Affordable green design for K-12 schools” by Patricia Plympton, John Brown, and Kara Stevens from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory shows how design can lead to huge energy savings. Read report at:

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What Community Benefits Does a Well-Designed Healthy School Bring?

The best healthy schools are designed by involving members of the school community in the design process. Learn more about healthy school design at

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