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Wed 22 Oct 2008 04:00 AM

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Taaleem's first LEED-accredited school in Dubailand will showcase best practice in green school buildings, a move designed to reduce consumption and enrich its curriculum.

Taaleem's first LEED-accredited school in Dubailand will showcase best practice in green school buildings, a move designed to reduce consumption and enrich its curriculum.

Sun pipes, native trees, and hybrid cars are some of the features that will define Taaleem's flagship project in Dubailand as one of the region's first LEED-accredited schools. The 250,000 square metre project is currently under construction, with the first phase to be completed by September 2009.

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is an American-based ratings system which assesses a building's environmental performance against specific benchmarks. It sets rules for the types of materials to be used in construction, the amount of natural daylight inside the building, and energy conservation, to name a few.

The trick is to be ahead of the game, to look at what the environment is like and to maximise our green initiatives.

Certification is awarded at four levels - certified, silver, gold and platinum. Taaleem's schools are aiming to achieve silver status, impacting upon their construction, design and maintenance.

Children who are educated in a sustainable school will gain a greater understanding of the environment, says Sadru Damji, academic development director at Taaleem. "Our children must live in a sustainable world, so if a school practises sustainability, that'll be a better world for all of us."

Recyclable materials will be used when building the schools, and any refuse created must be stored. The issue of outdoor comfort, a major problem in the searing summer months, will be addressed in the design stage.

Students who spend time outdoors usually have to contend with the hot sun above, hard surfaces around them, and reflective heat coming from the ground below, says Nicholas Lander, regional head of sustainability at Atkins, the international architecture firm contracted to design Taaleem's schools.

But groundcover and landscaping, he continues, will go a long way in alleviating the discomfort caused by the heat. "If you change the type of groundcover you've got, you don't get that reflective heat, and if you have some shading on top, then you don't get the heat from the sun, so all there is then is the air temperature."

The schools will also feature shaded walkways and sun pipes, which will ‘pipe' in sunlight to classrooms and corridors with minimal light throughout the day.  "When combined with native trees which require minimum water, and recycling water for all our needs, then we've substantially cut down on the amount of energy and water we use," says Damji.

Solar, electric and pedal-powered vehicles are also being considered for mobility within the school. "The trick is to be ahead of the game," Damji says, "to look at what the environment is like and to maximise our green initiatives."Yet green building regulations such as LEED, originally designed with an American or British environment in mind, cause occasional difficulties in the Middle East. "They say you have to meet a minimum daylight limit," explains Lander, "which is great, but they don't specify a maximum daylight limit."

This results in designers trying to get as much daylight into a room as possible. In a region where sunlight is abundant, however, too much can result in glare. "So then you shut your blinds, your lights go back on, and you lose the energy saving," he adds.

Other LEED regulations require buildings to source a percentage of their energy from renewable resources, a realistic option in the US or Britain. "It's very difficult to implement green power here," says Lander, citing the lack of wind and solar energy as examples. Yet LEED standards are being revised, and an international version offering schools more flexibility in meeting certification criteria will be released in 2009.

There's no other way of doing it. Energy supplies are going to change, and we've got to prepare our children for the future.

Based on regulations that are realistically applicable, achieving silver status will increase Taaleem's building costs by 5 to 10%. "We'll cover that in a period of 10 to 15 years," says Damji, "and beyond that it's all savings."

A building's financial viability is usually determined by three factors - the initial costs, the break-even period, and the turn-around period, when all the initial costs have been recouped and savings start. "In the life of a project," he continues, "10 to 15 years for the turnaround period is actually a fantastic saving."

Because LEED-certified buildings are quite new in the Middle East, their initial costs tend to be higher, says Lander. "The costs are higher now," he adds, "but that's because the materials aren't readily available.  In the US, LEED silver is actually cost neutral." Given the increase in the number of LEED-certified buildings in the region in recent years, he continues, "the market will respond, and that's going to have a positive effect on costs."

"We see costs in the long term," says Damji. "There's no other way of doing it; energy supplies are going to change and we've really got to prepare our children for the future."

Yet investment in sustainability, no matter how beneficial for the environment, must still be able to yield returns in a realistic time frame.  Solar panels, despite their obvious environmental benefits, are still too costly to be commercially viable. "At the moment," says Damji, "the costs are too prohibitive, but once the systems get better and more efficient, we'll start to implement them in our schools."

Another problem with solar panels, Lander continues, is uncertainty about their exact effectiveness in this region. "One of the first things we set out to do was use solar panels, because we thought it was crazy not to.  But we weren't getting information from suppliers in the Middle East, because they didn't have it."

Potentially, the biggest costs in setting up sustainable schools come from investment in renewable energy; in most cases, this technology is still considered too new to be viable. Yet the biggest savings schools can make come from what Lander calls ‘passive efficiency' - strategies which even existing schools can take advantage of.

"The first things we do when we design," he says, "is look at the passive strategies to improve the building. Sealing it so you don't get hot air coming in, having good insulation, enough shading - those ideas will apply anywhere."Automatic lights which turn off when a room is not being used, air-conditioning that is set at a warmer temperature when the building is not occupied, and insulated swimming pools with thick covers are other easily-implemented ways of saving energy.

Complying with sustainability standards also has a positive effect on children's learning, says Lander. "Learning in an environment with good levels of daylight definitely benefits a student's learning ability."

Melissa Jarvinen, Taaleem's marketing manager, points to other environmental factors that influence children's learning. "There are a lot of studies based on the colour that you paint the walls of the classroom, the open spaces you have. We take in a lot of these psychological factors, to make sure that the schools are designed with learning in mind."

Integrating the environment into the curriculum should be just as important to a school's sustainability drive as its buildings, says Damji. "It's not only the things you do physically, it's the teaching that takes place in the classroom." Though Taaleem does not use solar panels and wind power commercially, its students still use them in their learning. Tree planting activities take place regularly, and all its schools also serve as recycling centres.

"We want to make sure that environment education does not happen in an isolated way," Damji continues, using recycling as an example. "Talking about it is one thing, but putting it into practice, with the parents as partners in the exercise, is a wonderful initiative for schools."

When children reach secondary school age, furthermore, they begin to make connections between their school subjects and real world problems, a phenomenon schools should take advantage of, says Damji. "Doing real world examples means that the community service and environmental projects that kids do are an integral part of their education; they're what make it a unique experience."

The International Baccalaureate programme taught at Taaleem, Jarvinen continues, motivates students to learn more about environmental sustainability. "It's very enquiry-based," she says, "so the children are actually drivers about what they want to learn. In many instances children are looking at these issues themselves, because it's very dear to their hearts."

Arguably, teachers play the most important role in nurturing children's attitudes towards the environment, making teacher training an essential part of a school's sustainability strategy.  Once the Dubailand project is completed, all of Taaleem's teachers will be taken there for on-site training.

"When we hire teachers, says Damji, "we make sure they have a commitment to the environment, and to the type of community we want to create. That's the driving force for us. When educators come with the passion and the commitment, then it's a much better place for them and it's a much better place for the children."

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