School Sustainability: From Activism To Curriculum

May 2018

Dick Moore and Kevin Sullivan

Introduction from Dick: I first met Kevin Sullivan in New Delhi, India where I was the Assistant Director of the American Embassy School (AES). Kevin was engaged by AES to complete an analysis of the school’s carbon footprint. This carbon footprint analysis became the benchmark for improvements the school initiated over the next five years. Kevin and I share a passion for the topic of school sustainability. We are both convinced schools should be incubators for change to an endurable future. We agreed to collaborate on this article to showcase this sustainability in schools and make the case that we all have an opportunity and an obligation to make sustainability a guiding principle in education.

DICK: Kevin, our ISS school clients are increasingly interested in launching sustainability focused international schools that are environmentally responsible. What do you think are the reasons behind this curiosity in sustainability?

KEVIN: I’ve seen several trends in the green school movement in the more than fifteen years of my career as a sustainability consultant, educator, and evangelist. Schools have many motivations for “going green.” But, I believe what is most important is the green journey itself. Wherever the school is on its journey, I try to meet them where they’re at and help them develop a holistic vision and “roadmap” of where they want to go.

The most common starting point for schools is the need to make resources go further in an era of tightening budgets. After staff salaries, the largest cost for schools is typically in facility operations. Reducing energy and water consumption, especially in countries with a high heating/cooling demand or water scarcity, is “low-hanging fruit” in terms of initiatives. This need for greater energy and water efficiency has been a primary driver for schools to embrace sustainability – but, there are others.

Schools have also sought to achieve an internationally-recognized certification like LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) to either demonstrate their philosophical and educational vision (i.e. “practice what they preach”) or to distinguish themselves in the competitive education market.

As a school consultant, I have also seen schools become increasingly concerned for student health and well-being. Urban air quality has reached a crisis point in many of the sprawling mega-cities across Asia – with China’s notoriously polluted cities leading the way, and India’s cities not far behind. Recently, New Delhi had to close all their primary schools for two weeks due to pollution levels that exceeded safe human health levels by 400 percent.

We are finding that our conventional approaches for addressing sustainability in schools, which have been primarily focused on the efficient use of energy, water and resources with school buildings, have proven woefully inadequate to deal with environmental air quality conditions affecting whole cities and regions.

DICK: I think most of us have heard of LEED certification. But, what does LEED really mean and why is the certification important?

KEVIN: According to the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), the organization that administers LEED certification program, there are nearly 100,000 LEED school projects in 165 countries. In response to this global interest by schools, the USGBC has developed a dedicated green schools program with a separate rating system (LEED for Schools) and the online resources of Center for Green Schools.

I served on the first voluntary LEED committees in the late 1990s in New York. Back then we were a diverse group of professionals, mainly designers and engineers, who were pioneering aspects of sustainable design and green building in our practices. Unfortunately, we had no common vocabulary or reference point to measure the impact of our projects. LEED certification, therefore, evolved from a grass roots, consensus-driven effort to define a consistent set of standards that would measure green building performance. This focus on objective performance was essential because we wanted the certification to have a common currency across industries and geographies.

I think LEED is important as a certification system because it has retained its original focus on professional input and consensus, despite its rapid growth as the leading global green standard. It has become much harder to maintain this grassroots ethos in an organization which now has tens of thousands of members; however, I think they make it inclusive and open to many voices and perspectives through their extensive committee and peer-review structures.

Although energy costs account for only 2 to 4 percent of school district expenditures, it is one of the few expenses that can be decreased without negatively affecting classroom instruction.

             – The Third Teacher


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DICK: LEED certification is most often associated with new buildings, but I remember our LEED application at American Embassy School, New Delhi included both our new high school and the school’s existing buildings. I don’t think many people are aware LEED can also be applied to existing buildings.

KEVIN: The US Green Building Council recognized the LEED standard must address not only new construction, but also the huge stock of aging buildings in the US and around the world. This was particularly evident following the 2008 financial crisis when new construction came to an abrupt stop and we were left with a crisis of crumbling and neglected buildings, especially homes. In my consulting company at the time, we were well prepared for this change because in my ten-year career in housing and community revitalization in New York City, we almost never built new homes. The 100+-year old brick tenements, row houses and brownstones in New York’s neighborhoods had perfectly good structural “bones,” but they needed extensive retrofitting and upgrading of systems.

We originally used the US Department of Energy’s “Energy Star Standard” to test the air tightness of our remodeled buildings to optimize energy efficiency. We later followed the LEED standard for existing buildings, the so-called Existing Building Operations and Maintenance (EBOM), in our larger multi-family apartments and commercial building projects.

The LEED EBOM is a tough standard, and quite different from the other design-based LEED programs for new buildings in that it requires the development of sustainability policies, such as green cleaning and purchasing, to be implemented and improved upon over time. This gives an existing school a lot of flexibility in shaping its own policy priorities. LEED EBOM has a new tool called ARC, which allows users to “live” benchmark their buildings against the standard and get feedback on how to improve their rating.

DICK: Kevin, you and I agree that being sustainable is so much more than achieving LEED certification. What do you think it means to be a sustainable school?

KEVIN: Sustainability can mean many things to many people. In fact, it lends itself to differing interpretations that can be confusing. For whom is it tenable? For how long? Should the school use current resources only? What is the role of technology? Most of the schools I have worked with have had a variety of sustainability initiatives and projects, from paper recycling to composting. However, they often end up asking themselves “What good are we really doing?” “How do we prioritize projects with the greatest impact?”

When designing new schools, we have several good building rating tools at national and international levels, LEED being one, to benchmark overall school performance in terms of energy, water, health, and resources. It is useful, for instance, to compare key sustainability metrics between two schools and know that, for instance, a new Gold-certified LEED school in China will perform more or less the same in terms of per square meter energy and consumption and CO2 emissions as a Gold-certified LEED school in California.

Achieving gold certification is only one piece of the sustainability puzzle, however. Having achieved such a standard, the school may not be so green after a few years of operations when student populations change, spaces are reconfigured or repurposed. I have worked with several such top-rated schools in different parts of the world where there were large investments in high-tech tools such as smart meters and building monitoring systems. These technical innovations scored high points in the green building design. Unfortunately, when these high-tech tools inevitably encounter malfunctions, it is considered expedient to bypass the automation and run critical equipment manually rather than undertake expensive fixes and recalibrations.

I think the most important step for a school intending to be sustainable is setting an intention or developing a vision that the community shares and supports with transparent goals, within a flexible framework for achieving specific and measurable outcomes. This usually begins with a comprehensive sustainability audit to create a baseline of key indicators (energy, water and waste on per square meter or per person basis). This auditing exercise will identify the major sources of your school’s total environmental impact. Once you have that, you can focus on the quick-wins in an integrated sustainability strategy that you can monitor through a set of key metrics on a yearly, quarterly or monthly basis.

DICK: Kevin, you mentioned the word “intention.” In your experience, how have schools made the connection between their mission/core values and their intention to follow sustainable practices?

KEVIN: Most of the schools for which I have consulted have something in their mission and vision statements about sustainability. It’s almost a reflexive prerequisite in this era of heightened awareness about the impact of climate change. However, it’s not enough to merely make well-meaning declarations. The good news is that many schools are trying to turn these declarations into action. I have found the most effective actions, and philosophically consistent, to be those that focus on issues close to home where the school community can see the benefits of change, especially when they are linked to other local initiatives.

For example, many schools have waste and paper recycling programs. But the most successful ones are those which are done in coordination and consultation with municipal authorities and local communities. A “go-it-alone” approach, though it may seem like the environmentally responsible thing to do, can have very real economic and ethical consequences in communities, for example, that rely on informal systems of waste collection. Unless students and staff understand all the visible (and invisible) connections their

school has to their local communities, they may be inadvertently taking jobs and income away from the very people they seek to help.

DICK: What do you think are the biggest myths about sustainability?

KEVIN: Many of the myths swirling around sustainability these days are not so much myths as misconceptions. People often mistake or conflate green building with sustainability when one is better understood as a subset of the other.

When schools ask how they can be more sustainable the reference point is often within the “Green Building” bubble. Green building labeling has become a recognized short-hand for sustainability, a kind of green good housekeeping stamp of approval. However, designing and operating a sustainable school can have meanings and benefits that go beyond a particular rating system. For example, there is a fairly common myth that green building design will necessarily lead to healthier working or learning conditions.

While there are specific credits in LEED and other rating systems that address occupant comfort and well-being – air quality, access to daylight and views, etc. – rating systems tend to prioritize concrete and measurable indicators of building performance like energy and water efficiency. Indeed, it is even possible to have a building that scores high on performance but does not optimize occupant well-being. How is that possible? Well, there is a tradeoff between providing the best possible indoor air quality, which may require delivering extra outdoor air, and optimizing energy since that extra air has to be filtered and conditioned. There are lots of these kinds of trade-offs in green building, which is why having an overarching sustainability vision is so important.

DICK: Many schools balk at investing in maintainable practices because they are concerned about the cost. Is this concern in the “bottom line” justified?

KEVIN: The myth I have most often faced is that going green costs more. It’s just not borne out by the facts. A study of LEED certified buildings in the US showed that Silver-rated buildings have no incremental costs at all, which means they are returning investments to owners the moment they begin operations. (Source: USGBC). Schools, unlike most commercial or residential buildings, tend to own and operate their facilities for many years. Therefore, they have a direct financial incentive to improve energy performance and reduce running costs.

The cost question is really three questions: What is the upfront or first cost? What is the cost of operations? And finally, the one most often overlooked is what is the long-term asset cost? Eventually aging schools will have to be sold or retrofitted and the equipment disposed of at the end of its useful life. These are all real costs and together represents what is called “life-cycle” costs. I always encourage schools to think of cost in terms of the life cycle of their buildings and make regular investments in energy efficiency as a strategy to preserve and enhance the value of these assets.

Between 2015 and 2018, LEED-certified buildings in the United States are estimated to reap $1.2 billion in energy savings, $149.5 million in water savings, $715.2 million in maintenance savings and $54.2 million in waste savings.

             – Center for Green Schools Alliance


DICK: Educators, of course, are very interested in sustainability as curriculum. Are there some examples where sustainable practice has been used as an opportunity for student learning?

KEVIN: I was involved as a consultant with a school in Singapore in the last few years that was struggling with how to responsibly manage the school’s generated waste. Singapore has a strictly centralized and regulated approach to resource management due to its small size, urban density and environmental vulnerability. Singapore has few sources of fresh water and it collects every drop of rainwater possible in an extensive system of drainage channels, which adds up to a lot of water in this rain-drenched tropical island. All of this collected rainwater is centrally treated and used for domestic purposes.

Singapore also manages its solid waste centrally and does not require citizens to separate their household or commercial waste at the source. This led school students to falsely believe there was no recycling because they did not see it happening in their classrooms or their campus. Some students started their own recycling initiative, while others asked their teachers and school administrators to arrange a meeting with the municipal waste authority. The authority was happy to meet the students and even brought the waste haulers and vendors in to explain how the whole system works. It turns out is it lucrative to recycle waste in Singapore. Much of it goes to the waste-to-energy plant that powers Singapore, and other types of waste are sold or recycled in neighboring countries.

This was a “teachable moment” for students. Once students understood the policies and why they were enacted by the government, they were able to frame a more informed set of questions about their school’s environmental impact. Where does their waste end up? What are the emissions from the waste-to-energy plant? Is there something they could do at source to facilitate efficient recycling? This led to an educated action plan that made sense in the context of their community and country and had the desired impact they were seeking.

DICK: In your opinion Kevin, what are the most concrete ways for schools to begin their journey towards sustainability?

KEVIN: We encourage schools to start the green journey by first conducting a sustainability audit that minimally looks at energy/water consumption and waste generation on an average annual per square meter (or square foot) and per person (staff and students) bases. The results in the “per unit” format can be benchmarked against common national or international environmental performance metrics for schools (kept by most nations’ energy departments, the International Energy Agency, or the International Partnership for Energy Efficiency Cooperation.

In parallel, the school should also conduct a “soft” audit of its sustainability activities, their leadership and impact. Green initiatives at schools tend to be driven by a passionate teacher or administrator who can make something a priority (the community garden, composting, recycling) through sheer force of will, even if it’s not the best or most economic use of the school’s resources. This creates the risk of “pet project” syndrome, where ad hoc projects rely too much on the efforts of one person and quickly wither when the person leaves. That’s why we recommend doing the energy, water and waste audit at the same time to see where the gaps are between effort and impact. Ideally, the school’s sustainability projects are having a direct positive impact on reducing waste or increasing efficiency where the consumption is the highest and something can be done about it.

DICK: Obviously, achieving school sustainability is complex. Schools wishing to navigate this complexity do have an important resource in The Whole-School Sustainability Framework: Guiding Principles for Integrating Sustainability into All Aspects of a School Organization (2014) published by the USGBC’s Center for Green Schools. This research-based framework presumes that sustainability can only be successful with a whole-school approach of individuals working together across the organization.

Cited in this document was a report prepared in 2004 by the Australian Research Institute in Education for Sustainability (ARIES) an Australian research team examined several current nationwide, whole-school initiatives that were developing around the world reflecting a variety of approaches to sustainability. Significantly, it concluded that a “Sustainable School is the focus of learning in the community. It involves all stakeholders in contributing to but all gaining from a partnership approach to Education for Sustainability.”

The report further redefined the role of schools and their relationship with the community. According to the report, school sustainability should no longer be limited to discussions about school building architecture or systems, or a curriculum of teaching sustainability. The report makes the case for making schools literally laboratories for sustainability. For those of us interested in making sustainability a mindset, these are some exciting ideas.

The Whole-School Sustainability Framework is organized into the three components:

  • organizational culture (shared values, social norms, and practices),
  • physical place (built environment and surrounding natural environment, and resources that flow through the school), and
  • educational program (connecting people, place, and purpose).

These three components have been further broken down into nine identifiable principles:


  • Vision & Mission Alignment – Schools have an inspiring vision of the future that engages the community
  • Interdepartmental Learning – Learning occurs across school disciplines in an authentic way.
  • Catalytic Communication – Schools use powerful messaging to inspire change.
  • Engaging & Active Design – The school’s built and natural environment is used as a teaching tool.
  • Progressive Efficiency – Schools progressively take steps to achieve efficiency and more effectively communicate those achievements to the community.
  • Health Systems – The school’s operations are guided by a purpose and focused on health.
  • Charismatic Champions – People in the school community who are personally devoted to sustainability and able to inspire others to change.
  • Connection to Place – Students are connected to the physical/natural environment, the history, and the culture of the surrounding community.
  • Student Powered – Schools put students at the center of the sustainability program where their energy, ideas, and passion can be harnessed.

One of the principles of this framework is the Charismatic Champion. When I think of Charismatic Champions I think of one our board members at AES who inspired us to make sustainability one of the school’s core values. She encouraged us to benchmark our school using carbon footprint. It was your carbon footprint analysis that allowed us to measure the results of our efforts to become a sustainable school. According to the framework, this was an example of another principle, Progressive Efficiency, where we changed our practices to reach ambitious reductions in carbon footprint and then communicated our progress to the school community.

Kevin, can you elaborate on ways the carbon footprint can be used as a metric in schools?

KEVIN: A carbon footprint refers to a calculation of resource use, whether it’s energy, water or specific materials or resources, as expressed in the CO2 emissions conversion equivalent. So, for example, a school might use 1 million kilowatt hours of electricity per month, which is supplied by the municipal grid. Here the carbon emission factor for the source of power in the grid is critical because a nuclear power plant emits much less carbon than a thermal coal-fired plant. Countries and most large cities publish carbon conversion factors based on the energy sources of grid power.

DICK: Our source of power in New Delhi was natural gas. Not only did natural gas have lower carbon emissions, but we generated our own power from natural gas we additionally benefitted from greatly reduced transmission losses – electrical power transmission has significant losses.

There are many resource uses beside energy sources of power that apply to the school environment. I remember the debate we had about serving red meat in the school cafeteria. Red meat has a higher carbon footprint than a white meat or vegetarian meal. We also compared the carbon footprint of school bus ridership versus the number of student riding in a privately-operated vehicle. Our efforts to persuade parents to send their students to school by bus made a huge difference in our carbon footprint.

KEVIN: Carbon emissions, or CO2e, is just a shorthand way of simplifying many types of environmental impacts (e.g. electricity, automobiles, gas, waste, etc.) into tons of carbon dioxide. But, like any one-size-fits-all measurement tool, it can sometime elude or evade some important environmental issues.

For example, I was hired by an international school in Japan to conduct a campus-wide sustainability audit and develop a resource-efficiency roadmap for the future. The fifty-year old campus had many energy-efficiency challenges like aging mechanical equipment, leaky windows, and a lack of demand controls. Nevertheless, when we converted the school’s annual energy consumption (kWh/m2/year) into a carbon footprint, it was remarkably low. How could that be? The explanation lay hidden in the carbon conversion factor, which for Japan, was heavily reliant on nuclear energy, which generates far less CO2 per unit of energy. So, when we presented the results to the school leadership team, we had to put their low carbon footprint in the proper context, which included a warning about the dangers of relying too much on nuclear power. How ironic that we delivered this cautionary report literally weeks before the Fukushima disaster nearly caused a catastrophic nuclear meltdown!

DICK: You mentioned before about the issue of urban air quality. As someone concerned with planning new schools in developing cities, what are the best practices for improving indoor air quality that you could recommend?

KEVIN: The issue of urban air quality and its impact on children is extremely pressing. In the last few international school conferences I’ve attended in Asia, I’ve had one school official after another approach me (many from China and India), and ask about how to mitigate air pollution infiltration in their schools.

It’s become such a national crisis in China’s big cities that schools are looking into literally “living-inside-a-bubble.” Expensive new technologies for retractable roofs which can seal off the school’s sport facilities from poisonous outdoor air are sprouting up every day in the market.

This “life-in-a-bubble” approach is understandable given circumstances where schools are desperate to find ways to protect vulnerable children and calm concerned parents. However, it’s certainly not a financially or environmentally sustainable solution for all schools. The approaches that cities like Delhi are taking are even worse. The sprawling Indian capital, which is poised to become the largest city in the world by 2030, now has the worst seasonal air quality of any city. It got so bad in the last few winters that the Delhi government was forced to close all its public schools, stating that the city had “become a gas chamber.”

We are working with a school in the Indonesia province of Sumatra, which has been hard hit by particulate pollution (haze) from the clearing and burning tropical forest to convert to palm oil plantations. We are enlisting the help of local farmers and gardeners to identify the best native species to use indoors to naturally do the work of filtering polluted air and increase oxygen levels. The best solutions to environmental problems rely on local knowledge and turn adversity into a learning opportunity for the whole community.


DICK: Another example of a local greenhouse-like solution is New Delhi’s Paharpur Business Center, which I was privileged to see when I was living there. Is this creative approach to indoor air quality a meaningful solution?

KEVIN: Yes, we have been advocating the Paharpur approach in our work with schools. The five story Paharpur Business Center, in the crowded heart of New Delhi, “grows its own fresh air” by providing over 1,200 plant species, approximately one per employee, which generate oxygen while at the same time absorbing air-born toxins. This “grow your own fresh air” idea is the brainchild of Kamal Meattle, an Indian environmental activist and CEO of Paharpur Business Centre & Software Technology Incubator Park based in New Delhi, India.

DICK: Mr. Meattle is a fascinating person – a real leader in the environmental movement. His passion for indoor air quality solutions was borne from his own battles with respiratory health in India. I was privileged to receive a guided tour of the Paharpur facility with Kamal and learn about the building’s systems and his vision of an improved environment.

Kevin and I are grateful for this opportunity to share our beliefs about sustainability. I hope is that the discussions we shared we help you with your discussion. Many thanks!



Kevin P. Sullivan

kevin-sullivanKevin Sullivan has been a carpenter, community organizer, educator, and environmental entrepreneur. In 2006, Kevin served as a Fulbright Scholar at India’s premier environmental think tank, The Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi. Before moving to India, Kevin was a Policy Director for one of the largest US community-based housing NGOs, where he pioneered the first low-cost urban green homes. Since 2008 he was the founder and CEO of two sustainable design consulting firms in India and Singapore. He is currently the Head of Commissioning in the Sustainability Division of KEO International Consultants, one of the largest design and engineering consultancies in the Middle East.

An expert on green schools, Kevin has worked with top international schools across Asia to create innovative, “living” campuses and integrate sustainability principles into school curricula. His projects have included innovative energy and resource strategies for over thirty international schools as well as the National University of Singapore.

Kevin is trained as an architect and urban planner and writes and speaks widely on urban and environmental issues. He has an MCP in Urban Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an MA in Urban History from Columbia University.

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Dick Moore

dick-mooreDick Moore is an ISS Senior Leadership Executive. A registered civil engineer, he began his career in schools as the Director of Capital Projects for a rapidly growing school district in Washington State (USA). Dick’s first international project was to direct the planning, design and construction of the new Woodlands campus for Singapore American School, which opened in 1996. Always intrigued by the learning environment, Dick moved to school administration having been recruited by the International School of Islamabad as the school’s Assistant Superintendent. He later served as Middle School Principal for the American International School of Johannesburg and the Assistant Director for the American Embassy School of New Delhi, India. While in New Delhi Dick completed his Doctorate of Curriculum and Instruction from Seattle Pacific University. Dick’s final overseas assignment was as Head of School for Nansha College Preparatory Academy in Southern China.

Dick has always been committed to environmental practice. He was an Environmental Officer in the United States Air Force in Alaska and for a time served on the Fairbanks-North Star Borough’s Pollution Control Commission. Under Dick’s leadership, Central Kitsap School District earned the Washington State Governor’s Award for Energy Conservation. Dick was also responsible for the American Embassy School’s various environmental programs including the school’s achievement of LEED Gold certification.

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  • Author (Ed.). (2010). The third teacher: 79 ways you can use design to transform teaching & learning. New York, NY: Abrams.
  • Henderson, K and Tilbury, D. (2004) Whole-School Approaches to Sustainability: An International Review of Sustainable School Programs. Report Prepared by the Australian Research Institute in Education for Sustainability (ARIES) for the Department of the Environment and Heritage, Australian Government.
  • Barr, S. K., Cross, J. E., and Dunbar, B. H. (2014) The Whole School Sustainability Framework: Guiding Principles for Integrating Sustainability into All Aspects of a School Organization. Report Prepared for the Center for Green Schools, United States Green Building Council.