Bill Orr of CHPS at American Canyon High School
Richard Morgestein Bill Orr of CHPS at American Canyon High School

From late summer to early spring, more than 55 million children spend a significant part of their weekdays in K12 schools across the United States. Recognizing this, the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS, pronounced “chips”) seeks to make schools bettermeaning healthier, more efficient, and more comfortableplaces to learn. The nonprofit organization seeks to facilitate the design and construction of high-performance operation schools across the country, and has worked with a handful of states to create state-specific benchmarking criteria for high-performance schools that address site and materials selection, resource efficiency, and indoor environmental quality, among other construction and design considerations. In addition, the organization also offers two recognition programs (CHPS Designed, a self-certification system, and CHPS Verified, a third-party review and verification) for new construction and major renovations or modernizations; as well as a series of best practices manuals and assessment tools. recently spoke with Bill Orr, executive director of CHPS.

How would you define a high-performance K–12 school?

My “elevator” speech is that a high-performance school is a healthy and productive learning environment that conserves energy, water, and other natural resources, while also minimizing waste, pollution, and environmental degradation. From this, CHPS developed core criteria that elaborate on that definition. [See sidebar: “What is a High-Performance School?” on page 29.]

What do you think are the biggest factors influencing school design right now?

For schools that are under design right now, there is more of a focus on renovations and modernizations, and I think designers need to start thinking about how to incorporate high-performance features within the scope of those budgets. It’s one thing to have a $60 million or $100 million budget for a new school, but it’s another thing to design a renovation or modernization on a $3 million or $6 million budget. The improvement potential in these projects is immense, but the constraints are equally challenging. It creates an interesting design challenge to be able to do meaningful and holistic things when the scope of your project and its budget are restricted.

Another thing I’m seeing is an incredible amount of activity regarding modular classrooms and prefabricated buildings. I’ve been talking to manufacturers of relocatable and modular buildings for eight years and have been wondering: When are we going to have green, high-performance prefabricated modular classrooms? I think we’re finally at the point where it is going to happen. I really think we have critical mass and are going to see high-performance spaces that are no longer viewed as those dirty relocatables of the past.

Any other considerations?

A number of states are now faced with consolidation issues where, instead of expanding and building new schools, they’re going through the issue of how to close schools and consolidate school districts. Several CHPS districts are going through very severe issues as a result of declining enrollments. I think that’s a new variation on things. They are having to decide which schools to keep open, and there are a number of considerationspolitical, local, communityand facility condition is an important part of that discussion.

In April, CHPS released the Operations Report Card. What is this and how does it work?

The Operations Report Card (ORC) is a benchmarking and continual improvement tool for all existing schools, not just high-performance schools. It is a combination of field measurements and post-occupancy surveys. It looks at energy performance, thermal comfort, acoustics, indoor air quality, and lighting and daylighting. Essentially, it’s a tool that is designed so that a school’s facility person can take field measurements, send out post-occupancy surveys, and input the information they gather into our website. The system then generates a report card scoring the school on a 100-point scale in each of the five domains mentioned earlier. The report card also includes suggested improvements that are tiered-based on the level of difficulty and the associated cost, so there is low-hanging fruit on one end and things that may require capital investment on the other.

Schools also may be recognized for their scores. If the school’s score is greater than 70 in each of the five categories, it is eligible for recognition as a high-performance operations school. All schools, regardless of their scores, can be recognized as high-improvement schools if they improve their scores in at least three categories over time.

I think [the ORC] is a valuable tool for existing schools, some of which are now using it in conjunction with their master planning efforts. Some schools are using it to help develop support for local bond issues, others are using it to determine possible energy improvements and savings, and others are using it as a centerpiece to evaluate their high-performing schools. It’s a stand-alone tool, but CHPS also is looking to undertake a national performance study, and we’re looking at using the ORC as a tool for collecting much of that information.

We’re also working on developing a student and teacher engagement component. While it was originally designed for use by facilities staff, we’ve received questions as to why it’s not set up for students to conduct the field measurements and surveys. That way, they’re invested in the condition of their school and also are developing green-job skills.

For more information on CHPS, its programs, publications, and tools, visit

What is a high-performance school?

According to CHPS, a high-performance school is healthy; thermally, visually, and acoustically comfortable; efficient in its use of energy, materials, and water; easy to maintain and operate; environmentally responsive; commissioned; a teaching tool; safe and secure; a community resource; an example of stimulating architecture; and adaptable to changing needs.

To help schools meet these goals, CHPS has published a five-volume best practices resource manual. The volumes are Planning for High Performance Schools; Design for High Performance Schools; Criteria for High Performance Schools; Maintenance and Operations of High Performance Schools; Commissioning of High Performance Schools; and High Performance Relocatable Classrooms.

On a brick-and-mortar level, CHPS recommends that particular attention be paid to an integrated design process and features that affect occupant health and performance, such as lighting and daylighting for visual comfort and operable windows for thermal comfort. It also recommends focusing on features that affect resource efficiency, such a HVAC sizing and water-efficient appliances, and processes that reduce waste and environmental degradations, such as using rapidly renewable materials and maximizing construction waste recycling.

On a bigger scale, working off of recommendations in Criteria for High Performance Schools, CHPS developed the CHPS Criteria, a series of benchmarks that emphasize integrated design processes and have been thus far been adopted in in California, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York, the Northeast (New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont), Texas, and Washington. How CHPS criteria are integrated into state school construction programs varies by state, as do the specific program prerequisites and potential credits. CHPS also is working on a pilot program to create a high-performance national standard for K–12 schools.