It costs a great deal of money to raise and educate children with autism. Also, lest we forget, those children grow up to be adults with autism, who most often are unable to find work.  So, we can’t afford to not be sustainable. It just doesn’t make good fiscal sense.  With thoughtful buildings and renovations we can economize ongoing energy bills; it increases home values; for schools and offices it’s imperative.

It’s  fairly easy to avoid living with toxic “stuff”; from the foam in our sofas to the fibers in our carpets to our cleaning agents.  Those with autism often have higher sensory sensitivities to elements in their environments.  The reality is… toxins aren’t great for any of us.

People with autism are more prone to allergies. Roughly one out of every five Americans has allergies and/or asthma. Green buildings have healthier air andhealthier materials.  Resource:

What, how and where we build can make a difference.  Whether we are in a rural location and live and grow our own food or in an urban area where we walk to school and work, sustainability involves everything about how we live in our worlds.

This week I will explore green homes and schools.  Next week, I will address the ways that we furnish and live in these buildings.

Do sustainable buildings “look sustainable?”

Early in the green movement, sustainable homes and schools looked like the building equivalent of a Birkenstock.  That’s no longer true!  A lovely old Victorian or mid-century modern house can be made more sustainable and still stay in keeping with the original design.

For new structures, Fast Company reviewed The Greenest Home: Superinsulated and Passive House Design, a new book from Princeton Architectural Press. The book by Julie Torres Moskovitz illustrates how lovely contemporary, yet uber sustainable homes can be.  All are passive and some even generate more energy than they use.



Home in Little Compton, Rhode Island by ZeroEnergy Design.  “Uses 90% less heating energy than a typical house.”


Hudson Passive Project by Dennis Wedlick.  Based on several vernacular design themes.

Also, this is an excellent discussion about sustainability and beautiful architecture:

Doesn’t it cost more to build a sustainable house or school?

Creating a green facility does not necessarily cost more for either renovations or new structures.  The incremental cost increase can range from 2 to 10%.  These incremental costs can be offset by greatly reduced energy bills.

What are good resources?

I hold the US Green Building Council as the “gold standard” for sustainable building information; however, I also found The Sensible House website to be clear and compelling.  “While the initial impetus was driven by environmentally minded people, the ‘Green building’ movement has now reached the mainstream, because its ideas make sense to many people.  These main ideas are very simple, although each has many arguments and counter arguments.”

They discuss those arguments and counter arguments for each of these issues:

·        We need to stop wasting energy.

·        We need to stop building houses that make people sick.

·        We need to find a way to sustainably use materials.

·        Don’t just look at the initial cost.

·        The environmental impact of building is great.


The Green Building division of the EPA has a comprehensive approach to how we build and renovate our buildings and categorize the impacts on our environment as follows:

Aspects of Built Environment: Consumption: Environmental Effects: Ultimate Effects:
Natural Resources
Air pollution
Water pollution
Indoor pollution
Heat islands
Storm water runoff
Harm to Human Health
Environment Degradation
Loss of Resources

EPA has extensive programs and information on green building issues, including:


Can these changes be made incrementally?

Of course, any improvement or replacement made to your home, office or school can be made with an eye towards sustainability.

Can we trust the manufacturers?

“Green Wash” is everywhere.  Just pasting photos of green leaves or drawings of globes on the advertising or labels doesn’t necessarily mean that they are following green practices.  We have to do our homework and look at third party entities for testing and certification.

What about schools?

The nonprofit organization U.S. Green Building Council accredits LEED professionals, certifies buildings, and among other initiatives has begun the Green Schools Initiative.

“About 25 percent of the U.S. population goes to school every day in nearly 140,000 schools, colleges and universities. No one has ever counted the number of buildings, but thousands are barely built to code.

We know that fresh and clean air improves health; daylight boosts concentration, comfortable temperatures increase focus, and improved acoustics enable communication. By transforming the physical environment of a learning institution, we have the ability to impact how students, teachers and communities engage in their world.

A green school also serves as an interactive teaching tool, imparting lessons of stewardship and kinship, preparing students for life beyond its walls.

Studies have shown that green schools use less water and energy and can save an average of $100,000 a year on operational expenses. That is enough savings to hire at least one teacher, purchase 200 computers or buy 5,000 textbooks.”


Health, well-being and productivity are the key drivers to green schools according to the McGraw Hill Construction (and others) in the “New and Retrofit Green Schools:  The Cost Benefits and Influence of Green School on its Occupants.”  There is much creditable research and good case studies.


See my blog post:

What are good examples of successful projects?

Sweetwater Spectrum in Sonoma is getting some terrific, well-deserved press for their new campus.   “Designed to LEED Gold standards, the homes and community structures at Sweetwater Spectrum were constructed using durable, low-VOC building materials and finishes and feature radiant cooling and heating systems. To keep energy bills at a bare minimum, the buildings are also are topped with photovoltaic arrays and solar thermal collectors. In fact, the community, which broke ground in September 2011 and opened late last year, is a pilot project for the PG&E Net Zero Energy Pilot Program.”



Sweetwater Spectrum exterior.

This project represents a large capital investment and high monthly costs. At a more financially modest end of the scale is The Monarch School’s Chrysalis Building in Houston, Texas.  This a school for young children through young adults, age 27, and in 2011 was Texas’ greenest school!


In an interview with the head of school we learn:

Dr. Marty Webb: You know, we always wanted LEED certification but originally we were told that it would cost 10-15% more, and it was totally out of the question, we were really pinching pennies, as we have in almost every part of the Monarch program from the beginning and till today. So we were actually more than halfway through the construction design process with our architects when we met Mark and we learned that those percentages were way out of date and that at the time the costs were estimated to be just 2-5% more.

John Barone: Oh, that’s great!

Dr. Marty Webb: Yeah. And in fact, at the end of the day pursuing LEED certification added very little additional cost to our project and we will see a quick return on it financially, but just the health and environmental education benefits are priceless opportunities that never go away.

Link to interview:


Here are the photographs.  While I have not visited the school, and I applaud the work that they have done to both address the design of the interiors for the autistic population and for sustainability, there are elements that I might have done differently.


The Monarch School’s Chrysalis building exterior.


(Note: It seems that this site has an incorrect cost per square foot; by my calculation construction was approximately $408/sf.)

So what does this all really mean to our everyday lives?

We can no longer ignore the impact of our actions on our planet, our children and on future generations. It is about becoming informed, weighing one’s decisions and taking action.  The next step is advocacy.

Don’t you think that we all deserve to live in healthy buildings?

Nancy K. Harrod