Saturday, October 28, 2006


Lost amidst the brutal fight for control of L.A.’s public schools is one of the most innovative programs for sustainable design in the entire country

by Mitch Paradise | Los Angeles City Beat

October 26, 2006 - Andy Lipkis still remembers that moment in late 1997 when he got his first introduction to the inner workings of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Lipkis, the founder and president of the L.A.-based environmental organization, TreePeople, was meeting with Steve Soboroff, then a senior advisor to Mayor Richard Riordan, and the new chairman of the Proposition BB Blue Ribbon Citizens’ Oversight Committee, the group that would ride herd on how the newly raised $2.4 billion in local bond money was going to be spent on school construction.

“I had just finished a multi-year research project on the possibility of retrofitting L.A. so that it could work better,” Lipkis explained, “and I thought schools would be a good place to start.” After their chat, Soboroff decided that, as a gesture, he would give Lipkis a copy of what was being done at his child’s school, Grand View Elementary in Mar Vista.

“He pulled out the Prop. BB budget, which was roughly the size of the Oxford English Dictionary and really, to be a nice guy, Xeroxed for me the page that detailed how $1.5 million was going to be spent upgrading Grand View. That night I’m reading the page, and I go, ‘Wait a minute, this has to be a mistake.’ Half the money was for re-asphalting surfaces. My wife had just raised $20-30,000 to have asphalt removed from that school. I nearly broke my wrist getting back on the phone with Steve.”

Not only was the figure not a typo, but was, multiplied by 400 schools, part of an astounding $200 million for 60 million square feet of blacktop. “Basically, they took the total land area of the district,” Soboroff said, “deducted out the current green space, the buildings, and building paths, and said everything left was asphalt, and it all needed to be replaced. No thought was being given to replacing some of the asphalt with green.”

At the time, Soboroff also happened to be the chairman of the Recreation and Parks Department; “green” was something he understood. He and Lipkis organized a plan to mitigate some of that asphalting, and at only his second Oversight Committee meeting, that plan was overwhelmingly well-received before being shot down by the Maintenance and Operations people. The district, under the perennial pressure of budget cuts, was down to six gardeners for 400 elementary schools. There was no money for any greening program.

Scrutinizing the budget, the two men quickly got to the line that read $250 million for air conditioning. “The money was only for the buying and installation of the air conditioning units,” said Lipkis. “There was nothing for the cost of running them, which would be the single largest cost associated with the classroom.” Lipkis was able to demonstrate to the school board that shading alone, by the strategic planting of trees, could lower energy costs 12 to 18 percent. That televised board meeting generated such enormous public response that the committee was able to stop the process cold, and Soboroff ultimately brokered a deal to green one-third of the original asphalt with trees, flowers, shrubs, and permeable surfaces – 20 million square feet. The greening of L.A. Unified had begun.

Beginning well before the year 2000, when former Colorado Governor Roy Romer took over as superintendent of the LAUSD, the public has heard little but bad news about the state of the district – especially during this summer’s bruising fight over Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s ambitious plan to take control of the schools. During that time, however, the district has moved inexorably into the forefront of green, energy-efficient, sustainable development in its massive building program. Even as new, sustainable schools continue to come on line – 57 so far, and 10 more this fall – the talk surrounding L.A. Unified is dominated by poor student performance and the legal battle over the mayoral control issue. Sadly, the design standards that have established the LAUSD building program as a national showcase have gone virtually unnoticed.

“Sustainability,” as defined in a landmark 1987 report by the U.N.’s World Commission on Environment and Development, means “to meet the needs of present generations without compromising the capacity of future generations to satisfy their own.” To the question of how sustainability is applied to education, Soboroff had a couple of ideas: green the school grounds, and in the evenings and on weekends let the public use the facilities under agreements between LAUSD and Recreation and Parks. It’s called “joint use,” and “in 10 years of talking about it, they’d done three joint-use agreements,” Soboroff said. After the greening resolution, “we signed 30 agreements in 60 days.”

DWP has had another answer. In 1999-2000, along with TreePeople, the L.A. Conservation Corps, and the Hollywood Beautification Team, DWP funded the removal of tons of asphalt at both Multnomah Highly Gifted Center downtown and Broadous Elementary Math/Science Magnet Center in Pacoima through its Adopt-A-School program. At Multnomah, a cistern system now provides recycled irrigation water for extensive green areas and flower gardens. At Broadous, water filtration technology can capture and reclaim up to a half-million gallons of rainwater, while the value produced by flood prevention and groundwater recharge paid for a new soccer field. Both schools use green areas for study programs; both cut down on playground injuries, and it may be a coincidence, but Broadous’s test scores for the state’s Academic Performance Index rose 80 points in 2002, one of the largest gains in the district.

The LAUSD is enormous – 947 campuses and centers to accommodate K-12 enrollment of roughly 720,000 with another 160,000 adult, occupational, and other students, yet prior to 2002, there had been practically no construction for a quarter century, with no major expansion since post World War II. The exploding enrollment that necessitated 1997’s Proposition BB and a succession of state and local bond issues required a plan for 150,000 new seats. While most citizens equate optimal learning conditions with class size, textbooks, and teacher preparation, an enlightened corps of architects, engineers, environmental scientists, project managers, and energy professionals have persuaded the local educational hierarchy of much more: the maximum efficient use of daylighting; the optimizing of thermal, visual, and acoustic comfort; the reduction of heat islands through shading and lighter paving materials; managing storm water runoff; incorporating high-performance HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) systems; as well as the maximum use of recycling in both construction and demolition – in short, high performance schools.

Under the new rubric of a certification panel called the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS, and referred to as “chips”), a high performance school is one that is healthy; thermally, visually, and acoustically comfortable; energy, material, and water efficient; easy to maintain and operate; environmentally responsive; and conducive to learning. A high performance school is also safe and secure – a community resource that is adaptable to changing needs, architecturally stimulating and sensitive to its surrounding environment, and whose very existence instructs by example. Of the roughly 150 schools the district is building over the current decade, the majority will meet the CHPS program standards.

California educates one of every eight students in the country, in the process spending nearly $750 million annually on energy – more than the combined cost of supplies and books. By concentrating on CHPS standards, districts can save 30-40 percent on annual utility costs for new schools and 20 percent or more on renovated buildings. Student performance increases as well. A 1999 study by the respected Heschong Mahone Group, a consulting firm in the field of building energy efficiency, found that students in classrooms with the most daylight showed an improvement in learning rates of as much as 26 percent in reading and 20 percent in math compared to students in classrooms with the least, and did as much as 25 percent better on standardized tests.

This fall, the LAUSD will open two “showcase” schools, Charles H. Kim Elementary in Koreatown, and the Maywood Academy in Maywood. In general, CHPS goals exceed California’s mandated energy efficiency guidelines, as established under Title 24, the State Energy Code, by at least 10 percent; these showcase schools will exceed those state guidelines by 35 and 30 percent, respectively. They feature, for example, “open ceiling” lighting plans that penetrate three stories at once and new, sophisticated dust and pollutant control systems.


A little background reveals the elegant evolution of the CHPS program.

In the early ’90s, David Gottfried, a Bay Area developer with a green entrepreneurial vision, re-examined the entire building industry with a holistic eye. “What I saw was a need for a coalition of all the sectors of the industry with the manufacturers and environmental organizations book-ending the rest of the professions – design professionals, utilities, developers, etc. Instead of suing each other, [we’d] all work together … to accelerate green building in the U.S.

Out of this vision came the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), with Gottfried the first president. The USGBC in turn created LEED – Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design – a formal yardstick by which the sustainability of the building process could be evaluated and a common framework imposed.

LEED broke down the process into five categories: 1) sustainable sites, 2) water usage, 3) energy consumption, 4) materials, and 5) indoor environmental quality. Under LEED, the USGBC would provide building certification, professional accreditation for industry professionals, and a variety of resources in state-of-the-art strategies for sustainable development. The CHPS panel, which specifically certifies schools as being sustainable, would adapt LEED criteria, using the same five categories.

“Most of the ’80s and ’90s, people involved in this pursuit bounced around with one idea or another about what could be done,” says Dennis Bottum, then an architect with Fields Devereaux and founding partner with James Wiener of its design unit, GreenWorks, which was involved in several of the new school designs. “But there was no way to integrate this idea into the practice of architecture and engineering in a comprehensive way. People would throw in a couple of low-flush toilets and call it sustainable development.”

On a parallel track, the California Energy Commission, along with several state agencies, as well as city utilities, the Gas Company and LADWP, also saw the pupil explosion as an opportunity to increase the energy efficiency of school buildings. Randall Higa, a senior marketing consultant specializing in energy efficient programs with the Southern California Gas Co., had consulted with designers and engineers on school development in the past, but had always had a difficult time getting the sustainability message across. That all changed when Higa became the Gas Company’s representative on the board of CHPS. “Once initial objectives were hammered out, it was decided that what was needed was to get involved as quickly as possible with the entire design and funding process.” Their immediate answer was to produce “best practice manuals” for building construction in three categories – Planning, Design, and Criteria.

At the time, Higa, and Gregg Ander, chief architect at Southern California Edison, were also members of the LAUSD’s new High Performance Working Group, where Angelo Bellomo, the newly-hired director of Environmental Health and Safety, was in the process of putting together guidelines of his own. Bellomo, the first environmental scientist to hold his position, sat in on Proposition BB Advisory Committee meetings and saw first-hand an enormous bureaucracy with entrenched resistance to new ideas. Just as the greening advocates were having to educate the Maintenance and Operations people at the district, so Bellomo, today a member of the CHPS board as well, was having to educate his own department when it came to asthma awareness, indoor air quality, and skin cancer risk from sun exposure.

“A lot of people [outside the district] were focused on this issue, but you had a school district that was very much focused on the imperative for new school construction with limited funds. What we wanted to do by bringing this work group together was to show that if we merely think about sustainable building design, we can at minimal cost build in a design that will not only make these schools safer and more healthy, but much more conducive to learning.”

Despite bureaucratic impediments, greening, sustainability, and the LAUSD came together, as Randall Higa says, “like a perfect storm.”

That storm fell largely on Kathy Littman, who became the LAUSD’s deputy chief executive for School Building Planning in 1999. Littman’s degree is in English Literature and Child Psychology, a discipline she readily admits comes in handy in the construction field, where she learned her craft on jobs like the ill-fated DreamWorks campus at Playa Vista. At Gensler and Associates, one of the largest architectural firms in the world, she worked on the Gap headquarters building in San Francisco and a Fanny Mae-funded residential community in Arizona, both of which were sustainable projects. Astoundingly, when the district took on the role of general contractor for its own multi-billion dollar building program, it had no one in her position prior to hiring her.

“I realized I was going to have to come into the system if I was going to make a change,” she said, and she would proceed to oversee 80 new schools heading into design and construction, bringing a comprehensive, no-nonsense project manager mentality to a bureaucracy desperate for someone with her expertise. “While, prior to BB, there may have been a district architect or two interested in daylighting, [sustainability] hadn’t been implemented into any of the programs. For new construction, there were a hodgepodge of specs as much as a dozen years old, and here was an opportunity to start from scratch and imprint a new approach onto the process.”

She had David Gottfried, then the DreamWorks green consultant at Playa Vista, and Charles Eley, whose San Francisco architectural firm had been hired to administrate the CHPS program, come south in late 2000 to co-facilitate an event on sustainability for her new team at the Gas Company’s Energy Resource Center. Deborah Weintraub, then project manager at Edison’s Energy Efficiency Group, now L.A.’s deputy city engineer, says, “Among the several school projects we did was work on the design of a demonstration portable classroom. A third of L.A. Unified students spend their time in portables. We showed you could build a three-part portable in an energy efficient manner and had it built and installed in the parking lot at Edison’s facility in Irwindale.”

It soon became apparent to everyone involved that CHPS was going to be the vehicle to drive the LAUSD into the 21st Century. By the fall of 2000, a first draft of the Best Practices Manuals was ready for review, but there was no mandate at the district that they would have to follow this path.

On February 13, 2001, Julie Korenstein, who years earlier had voted for the cutbacks that nearly thwarted the greening program, introduced a resolution – drafted by Michael Lehrer, President of the Prop. BB Committee, and Bellomo’s working group – at the LAUSD Board of Education that began as follows: “Whereas students learn best in an environment that is comfortable, healthy, naturally lit and well maintained, and studies indicate that student achievement is greater and attendance higher when these conditions are met … ” and required CHPS standards be adopted for all new construction. It passed unanimously.

Superintendent Romer then turned his considerable political skills to persuading a bureaucracy long-entrenched in an existing system of the long-term efficiency of the sustainable approach. “We have to conserve if we are to sustain this planet,” said Romer. “Increasing numbers of people and limited supplies of resources require us to look at alternative energy sources. We must incorporate this thinking in the approaches we take in designing our schools.”

As the current board has done with its choice for a new superintendent, Romer turned to the military to shake things up. His first new hire was Facilities Chief James A. McConnell, Jr., whose previous job was as commanding officer at the Naval Construction Battalion Center at Port Hueneme, one of two Navy energy showcase bases and one that had LEED-certified buildings on site. McConnell in turn brought in Jim Delker, who had both military and private enterprise experience, as interim deputy chief executive for existing facilities. Delker soon had over $1 billion in ongoing renovation projects on his plate. With Delker came another ex-Navy hire, Guy Mehula at New Construction.

John Zinner, who had been former Mayor Tom Bradley’s energy coordinator, joined the district as a sustainable development consultant to help institutionalize CHPS at the LAUSD. He now chairs the High Performance Working Group. “In the beginning,” said Zinner of working CHPS into the design process, “schools were more or less rating themselves. To rate ?20 yourself under LEED is a time-consuming and expensive process in which paperwork is submitted to the USGBC, which reviews a project’s qualifications and determines whether they get silver, gold, or platinum ratings. CHPS, by contrast, is self-certifying. It’s a pass/fail program.”

Pass, for CHPS, is 32 out of 81 points on a sustainability scorecard, and the new Charles H. Kim Elementary and Maywood Academy will rate as high as 45-50 points. Although the initial cost increase for CHPS-rated schools ranges from $120,000 for a primary center to $660,000 for a high school, these costs would be recouped in less than 10 years through savings in maintenance and operations and increased energy efficiency. The longer a building is in use, the more is saved through sustainable design.


With state and local bond measures providing the funding, sustainable development now enjoys broad-based support at the district and in the community. The mandate of the original BB Citizens’ Oversight Committee was renewed in 2002 with a new charter. Now known as the LAUSD Construction Bond Citizens’ Oversight Committee, it will continue to scrutinize all facets of development and renovation, and for the first time, its charter contains specific language that schools are to be “educationally and environmentally sound, [and shall] enhance their neighborhoods through design and programming as centers of community, and reflect the wise and efficient use of limited land and public resources.” The Gas Company is providing financial and technical assistance at Kim Elementary, while Edison is similarly involved in Maywood Academy. The Community College District has adopted LEED certification, as has the City of Los Angeles for all public buildings of at least 7,500 square feet.

This degree of attention to sustainable goals is not limited to construction. At Environmental Health and Safety, Angelo Bellomo spent much of 2002/2003 doing a “wall to wall” audit and inspection of more than 900 campuses, inventorying problems. His Safe School plan is the model for the new Healthy Seats program developed by the federal EPA, and his school Health and Safety Inspection scorecard is now posted on the web for all to see: the good, the bad, and the ugly. “The only way you’re going to make progress is for everyone to see where the holes are,” he said. “Significant reforms have always been preceded by public access and engagement.”

Today, Lipkis remains an environmental sentinel at TreePeople, but some of the original players have moved on. Steve Soboroff made an unsuccessful run for mayor in 2001, but as president of Playa Vista, he oversaw a development that can boast a 92 percent rate of recycling of all construction and demolition waste as well as innovative use of reclaimed water for all irrigation. Guy Mehula is the new district facilities chief, replacing McConnell, while Bruce Kendall, the prior director of Maintenance and Operations who oversaw the installing of MAXIMO, a computerized facilities management maintenance system, moves into Delker’s chair. Kathy Littman went back into the private sector for a while but is now back as the newly created staff executive for Small Learning Communities, a program that converts school populations into learning communities of 500 pupils or less.

The continuity of internal management has meant, according to Mehula, a vastly improved relationship with the contracting community. With $7 billion to spend upgrading existing facilities, and $11.7 billion on new ones, the district will be spending $350-550 million per quarter through 2009. In a city where construction is booming, the district has been able to keep top builders on its projects while winning more than 50 awards for its achievement in new building.

In April 2005, the district created a new position to oversee CHPS integration into all aspects of new construction and existing facilities. Architect Ying Wang also interfaces with other government agencies to tap appropriate available funding. Reporting to Wang, Global Green USA, a national, nonprofit organization that establishes collaborative partnerships with local governments and public and private agencies to facilitate sustainable policies, has established a partnership with the district to supervise and certify CHPS implementation in new schools. Global Green reviews the new school process four separate times during design, and also monitors construction, insuring that guidelines are met. John Zinner serves a similar role for new buildings on existing campuses.

On a local and state level, policy, legislation, and incentives are catching up with the district’s cutting-edge program. A new state bond bill, Prop. 1D on the November

Ballot, allocates $10.4 billion for K-12 new school construction, with an additional $100 million set aside as incentive money for high performance schools. L.A. Unified is well-positioned to capture a good amount of that money. As Ted Bardacke, the Global Green senior program associate working with the district, put it, “Early adopters are being rewarded.”

While its ballyhooed ban on soft drinks in 2004 got national, even international attention, the dynamic new schools being occupied in the coming years remain essentially mysteries to the larger community they will serve; yet these designs are every bit as exciting in their own sphere as the Disney Hall or the new downtown cathedral. From San Diego to New York, Washington state to Massachusetts, CHPS is the template being modified to local needs in school design. Said Randall Higa, “CHPS’ notoriety is far more than I would have expected. Considering the sheer bulk of the bureaucracy at LAUSD, I’m overall quite impressed with their attitudes and their interest and leadership.”

Today, CHPS has finished six manuals addressing various topics related to high performance design. Even many of the 80 Phase I schools, which were already in the design process and therefore not mandated to be CHPS-certified, will, according to Guy Mehula, come close to certifying under the 32-point scorecard, and all CHPS schools submitted to the Department of the State Architect since October 1, 2005, will surpass updated state energy codes standards.

Michael Lehrer put it this way, “Beauty is the sum total of solving lots of problems in an elegant and sustainable way. Why should you settle for something less? Why shouldn’t it be sustainable, and beautiful, and nurturing of the spirit, and a place where the quality of light and the quality of space ennobles the people using it? Architecture and good buildings make a difference in communities.”

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