High Performance Schools: Northeast States Paving The Way For This And Future Generations

Each year, K-12 schools spend around $8 billion on energy nationwide. They use 10% of the energy used by all commercial buildings and are the third biggest energy user of all commercial building types (U.S. EPA, 2011). What if these schools were built to be more energy-efficient and sustainable? What if building and operating high-performance school buildings were a natural part of the school design and construction practice?

Carolyn Sarno Goldthwaite, Senior Program Manager for the Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships (NEEP) and Chair of the CHPS Board of Directors, says that creating a pathway for K-12 schools to become healthy and energy efficient has long been considered among the “low hanging fruit in the energy efficiency world and represents one of the greatest opportunities to reduce energy and environmental impacts.” According to an EPA report, improving energy efficiency in K-12 schools can save an estimated $2 billion, money that can be used to purchase new textbooks or to serve other educational missions. Investing in clean energy-related improvements in K-12 schools not only offers financial benefits from lower energy bills and maintenance costs but also provides environmental and health benefits. Most importantly, commitments to energy efficiency in buildings in which children spend eight hours a day can help empower both students and teachers to become responsible energy consumers and advocates, a lasting impact that can be multiplied over years.

In an effort to capture these benefits, NEEP purchased a license in 2006 from the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS), a national non-profit organization dedicated to making every school an ideal place to learn, and created a standard that fit the building codes, climate, and educational priorities of the Northeast. With support and input from regional stakeholders, NEEP developed the Northeast Collaborative for High Performance Schools (NE-CHPS) Criteria for interested groups, states and school districts to use as a roadmap for sustainable school design and for those states that wanted to take it a step further they could create a state-specific addendum enabling them to go further with their energy and environmental goals.

Currently, CHPS represents over 13 states with regional or state-specific criteria, 41 school districts with CHPS Resolutions to use the high performance building standard, and over 130 school districts with membership status, which is free for schools and districts availing them of many free resources. Out of the 13 participating states, seven states are located in the Northeast and six states have available for use NE-CHPS, with Massachusetts being the most recent to adopt NE-CHPS as their state version (in place of MA-CHPS). The NE-CHPS effort comes after multiple measures that set it apart from other green building rating systems. To mention a few, NE-CHPS requires the 2012 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) as the base and an additional 10% energy efficiency beyond that. It also includes the use of the Zero Energy Performance Index (zEPI), a scale that marks key national energy measurement milestones and the performance of individual projects and policies. It also requires that schools prioritize energy efficiency and have a target Energy Use Intensity (EUI) of 40 before adding any renewables. The recently updated NE-CHPS v3 (2014) includes impressive new revisions such as crime prevention through environmental design, greater occupant engagement focus, enhanced commissioning requirements, and performance benchmarking for energy use.

The benefits of CHPS are easy to see in schools designed to the guidelines. The Merrimack Valley High School in Penacook, NH improved its building envelope and added a wood chip powered hydronic heat distribution system based on an earlier version of NE-CHPS and was able to reduce energy costs by 61%. To date, over 300 schools have been built to CHPS’s high performance school standards across America and there are approximately 200 schools currently seeking CHPS recognition.

Not all schools interested in using CHPS end up adopting the criteria. Some states and jurisdictions hesitate because they think they don’t have the time or resources to create their own state-specific criteria. CHPS wanted to address this misconception for some time, so in 2014, CHPS published the US-CHPS Criteria, a national version of the rating system that can be used without additional customization or public comment in school districts and for projects not covered by a regional version of the criteria. The US-CHPS Criteria integrates national benchmarks developed by ASHRAE, ASTM, and many more.

Goldthwaite says CHPS’s goal is not just to improve the design, construction, and operation of schools, and that these are not just additional construction projects for CHPS and NEEP.

“CHPS’s primary goal is to help facilitate and inspire fundamental change in our educational system to: protect students and faculty health; enhance the learning environments of school children everywhere; conserve energy, water, and other natural resources; reduce waste, pollution, and environmental degradation; and to multiply these benefits by teaching children with living examples in which they learn.”

For additional CHPS K-12 resources, please visit: