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February 2016

The VOC epidemic in schools

​The importance of low emitting finishes in schools

Volatile Organic Compounds are found in almost everything. On tables, chairs, flooring, adhesives, even that “new car smell”. Virtually everything in the built environment.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found concentrations of VOCs in indoor air to be as much as 5 times greater than in outdoor air and sometimes far greater. During certain activities indoor levels of VOCs may reach 1,000 times that of the outside air. New buildings especially, contribute to the highest level of VOC off-gassing in an indoor environment because of the abundant new materials generating VOC particles simultaneously in a short time period.

Because of this, new schools can become a hot bed of airborne toxins. In fact studies show that the air is unfit to breathe in nearly 15,000 schools. This is largely because schools aren’t built for health and comfort but rather are designed to achieve a basic level of performance at the lowest cost.

Children – the most at risk

VOCs are found to contribute to a number of health problems in adults but are particularly harmful to children. Children have higher metabolic rates than adults, so they breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults do. They also tend to engage in more physical activity. This increases their exposure to air particulates like VOCs.

One common and growing ailment in children that is exacerbated by VOCs is asthma. Asthma is the most common chronic disorder in childhood, currently affecting an estimated 6.2 million children under 18 years of age. Asthma is the leading cause of absenteeism, responsible for more than 20 million missed school days per year.

Add to this that children spend between 35-40 hours per week for 9-10 months of the year in schools. This means they are spending as much as three years during the most developmental parts of their lives in schools, exposed to chemicals.

Strategies to reduce exposure

A recent review by Carnegie Mellon of five separate studies evaluating the impact of improved indoor air quality on asthma found an average reduction of 38.5% in asthma in buildings with improved air quality. By limiting the amount of VOCs children are exposed to, we can help improve the indoor air quality of schools.

There are some strategies that we can employ when choosing flooring that can reduce the amount of VOCs in schools.

Low-emitting flooring

One easy way we can help reduce exposure is by only using flooring that is independently certified for low VOC emissions. Products should meet one of these standards:

  1. FloorScore
  2. CA 01350 Standard

Effectively they are the same thing and are recognized by LEED as a means of contributing to low emitting material credits. Both methods are widely accepted in North America as well as Europe and other parts of the world.

The test methods measure air concentration of materials in controlled environments and look to detect and measure known VOCs as well as TVOCs (total volatile organic compounds).

Products meeting these certifications are known to off gas at safe levels.

Low emitting adhesives

Just as we should use only low VOC emitting flooring, it’s equally important to install it with low VOC emitting adhesives or products that don’t use adhesives (loose lay, floating floors).

The CHPS Best Practices Manual recommends only the least toxic/lowest VOC product suitable for the application be used. Facilities should require the installer to use the smallest amount of adhesive necessary to fulfill the manufacturer’s performance specifications for that product.

Adhesives should meet the standards set by the SCAQMD rule 1168 (south coast air quality management district). This standard defines limits for safe VOC levels in adhesives. Products that have been independently tested to this standard are preferred.

Solvent-free adhesives are preferred as they have 99% less hazardous emissions than solvent adhesives, even though their emissions last much longer.

Low maintenance = low VOCs

Maintenance products also are significant sources of indoor air pollution. Avoid products that require frequent waxing, stripping, and other harsh chemicals to maintain as these chemicals off-gas as much or more than the floor itself.

Flooring with “low-maintenance” options should be preferred, not only to reduce VOCs but also to lower maintenance costs. It is important to ask manufacturers what chemicals are recommended to maintain their floors and at what frequency. These chemicals should be evaluated just as much as the flooring itself.

Green buildings

As schools are built to be more energy efficient the amount of air circulating through the building naturally (through leaks) is significantly less. This means that good ventilation is essential to maintaining a healthy and comfortable indoor environment.

For this reason the importance of using low emitting materials is even greater in new green buildings than it is in renovations. Finishes that meet and exceed emissions standards and use low VOC cleaning regimes are greatly preferred in these projects.

Download The VOC epidemic in schools PDF


Read more of our most recent designing for education blogs:

Posted: 2/12/2016 2:42:20 PM by Lea Charnley | with 0 comments

How to choose flooring for schools: and the things to consider

The flooring you choose for your school can have a tremendous influence on its learning environment. Determining the right product is important for serving the educational needs of students and for the long-term operating and maintenance budget. 

When choosing flooring for the classroom and flooring for the school you should consider: the cost, the durability of the product, its ability to block noise, safety and slip resistance as well as design. 

Prior to searching for flooring products a budget should be established both for the installation and the long term maintenance. Some things to factor in are life span and durability along with care and maintenance. Often a more upfront frugal option can have a higher back end cost and vice versa.

Durability and the life-cycle costs should be considered in the budget planning but some additional things to consider are:

•    Can the floor last for a long time under normal conditions and use?
•    Does the product suit the needs of high traffic areas such as classrooms, laboratories and corridors?
•    Can it resist stains, scratches and scuffs over a long period of time?

Vinyl composition tile (VTC) is often recommended for durability over its life span. 

Ability to block noise
Extra noise from outside or even inside the classroom can create a distraction to students and administrators alike. This negatively effects learning and has a direct impact on the students and the quality of education.

Safety and slip resistance 
If safety is of a concern, choosing flooring with slip resistance to reduce the risks of falls should be considered.

The design of a classroom and school plays a significant role in the learning environment for students. To view a great visual of this data, check out this awesome inforgraphic from elearning. 
In summary:
When choosing the best flooring options for your school(s) consider the following:

•    The importance of noise reduction 
•    How durable and easy to clean they need to be depending on traffic
•    The risk of falling in the area
•    The risk of spills and stains such as in science labs


Read more of our most recent designing for educations blogs:

Read our whitepaper: The VOC epidemic in schools

Posted: 3/1/2016 7:51:55 AM by Lea Charnley | with 0 comments

The rise of new school construction: The (two) billion dollar year

A $2 billion jump.

Highest totals since the 2008 market crash.

According to the 20th Annual College Construction Report, an annual analysis conducted by College Planning and Management Magazine, 2014 was a “boom year” for new construction - $9.5 billion total, and a $2 billion increase from 2013.

The report states that, since back-to-back  $10 billion years in 2006 and 2007, new construction went on a roller coaster, dropping by more than $1 billion in 2009, rising a mere $200,000 from 2010-2011 and then plummeting another billion in 2012. While totals haven’t reached those pre- market crash levels yet, the market is trending in the right direction - 2013 saw a modest increase of $500,000, and 2014 ended with that huge $2 billion jump.

Though not unexpected, high new construction completions come at a cost: decreased additions on existing buildings, and retrofits remaining stagnant.

The 2015 College Construction Report, College Planning and Management Magazine
General academic buildings reign supreme
College Planning and Management’s Annual College Construction report surveyed a number of colleges and universities with new construction currently underway as of 2015. Buildings classified as Academic  (mixed use)had the highest amount of projects at 79, with Science and Residential following at 45 and 32 projects, respectively - showing us that most new buildings are mixed use or dedicated science and residence halls. Academic buildings vary by school, as some will put classrooms, labs and even a dining hall in the same building, but other institutions will opt to dedicate buildings by specialty.

The 2015 College Construction Report, College Planning and Management Magazine


Read more of our most recent designing for education blogs:

Read our whitepaper: The VOC epidemic in schools

Posted: 2/23/2016 2:01:41 PM by Lea Charnley | with 0 comments

Shifting to 21st century education

As 2016 begins, an increasing number of schools are ready to invest in education. While these dollars will be split amongst many categories like technology, additional faculty, innovative programs and new equipment one area that is showing exceptional growth is the rehabilitation and construction of both old and new schools.
Why invest now? The United States education system is antiquated and has run on a foundation set in the 1960s. The traditional teaching and institutional environments are not conducive to 21st century learning and a dynamic shift must take place to give our youth the education they deserve -- and finally these needs seem to have been heard by receptive ears.
There are many principles new schools can use to build a modern environment. Some of these are; 

•    Increased use of natural light whenever possible
•    Varying room sizes for collaborative learning
•    Flexible furniture (and even wall) arrangements
•    Large common areas for socialization
•    Open concept spaces that blend hallways with library, cafeteria and even some classroom areas
•    Real-world technology settings throughout the school
•    Green space surrounding school for student use and outdoor classroom possibilities
•    Interior design that fosters a healthy environment
When rehabilitating an older, traditional setting school many of these principles may not be able to be implemented but, small changes can also have a tremendous impact on the environment. These schools should focus on;

•    Increasing technology where possible or utilizing wireless devices (tablets)
•    Replacing old furniture with new that welcomes team collaboration
•    Consider moving to a STEM (STEAM) education system
•    Allow multi-age learning to take place regularly
•    Enhance landscaping and allow for more outdoor interaction and lessons
•    Refresh the interior design and enhance color opportunities
Common elements for both new and old schools are centered in technology, student collaboration and interior aesthetic.  Studies* suggest that the interior design of the classroom can impact a child's academic progress by as much as 25% over the course of the school year.  As more studies are done, researchers are concluding that color is integral to student wellness, it provides visual stimulation for students and should be a staple in 21st century schools.
The built environment makes a big impact on our quality of life, learning and relationships. As research continues, it is imperative we make the shift from antiquated ideals to a modern, 21st century, vision and there is no better place to start than the schools and learning centers that foster the future of our nation.
Building, Construction and Design Magazine: K-12 schools
How Natural and Built Environments Impact Human Health by Nancy Wells; Cornell University 
Fast Company: Study Shows How Classroom Design Affects Student Learning
* Study conducted by University of Salford in conjunction with Nightingale Associates

Read our most recent designing for education blogs:

Read our whitepaper: The VOC epidemic in schools

Posted: 2/9/2016 8:42:33 PM by Lea Charnley | with 0 comments