Daylight in Schools



The squeeze is on for schools. Pressure to boost student test scores is up.  Budgets have been slashed.  Energy prices have gone through the roof.  Many facilities are aging and overcrowded.  More than ever before, school administrators are facing tough choices in order to provide the best learning environment for students.

Daylighting – or the strategic use of natural lighting techniques – has become a key component of school modernization projects.  More than just the latest design fad, effective daylighting allows school districts to achieve significant energy savings, be environmentally responsible, increase student attendance and test scores, and provide better overall facilities for students to learn and educators to work.  There are now a variety of programs in place to make it more affordable for school districts to reap the benefits of daylighting.  Additionally, the entire process can become a great environmental lesson for kids about the importance of saving energy.

A New Standard for Energy Efficiency

The Dalles Middle School (The Dalles, OR)
Boora Architects (Architect)

The Dalles Middle School, which opened in The Dalles, Ore., has been recognized by the U.S. Green Building Council as one of the most energy-efficient schools in the nation.  The district reduced its operating costs for the new middle school by more than 45 percent through energy saving technologies that included extensive use of daylighting.  Solatube Daylighting Systems were installed in the classrooms, along with lighting controls and sensors that adjusted the florescent lamps to supplement the natural light.  By collecting and distributing both direct and ambient light, the Solatube Daylighting Systems were able to effectively deliver natural lighting throughout the school even in the cloudy and rainy Oregon climate. This was Solatube International’s first multistory school project, before 90 degree elbows. As shown in the picture to the right, the lower floor units are placed close to the walls next to clerestory windows to spill daylight into the corridors.

Click here for more information about The Dalles Middle School Project

The Cost of Modernization

Most schools spend more money on energy than on books and supplies.  It is well-documented that effective daylighting can significantly lower this energy consumption in school buildings.  According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 72 percent of the cost of energy in educational buildings goes towards electricity, with the majority (56 percent) going toward electric lighting.  By utilizing effective daylighting strategies, in combination with lighting controls and dimming systems, schools can reduce or eliminate the need for heat-producing electric lights during the school day.  Additionally, this cooler, more energy-efficient daylighting reduces the demand on cooling systems, boosting the potential energy savings even further.  According to the Collaborative for High Performing Schools (CHPS), school energy costs average $100 per student per year, while effective design solutions can save up to $50 per student per year.  By reducing these operational costs, the savings can be redirected to improving education.

In addition to reducing energy expenditures, daylighting can provide an unexpected revenue source.  Studies have shown that improved school design, including the use of natural light, can reduce student absenteeism by several days per calendar year.  With school revenue limit rates directly dependent on Average Daily Attendance (ADA), even small increases in attendance can significantly impact school funding.

Consider this example from CHPS: Assume that a 500-student elementary school invests $4 per square foot on lighting and air conditioning improvements.  Based on the $4,300 revenue limit, an increase in average daily attendance of 1.75 percent would pay back all of the investments in only two years.  This doesn’t even take into account all of the utility savings from these energy-efficient improvements.

Government Sponsored Programs

California, which houses the largest school system in the nation, is leading the way in energy-efficient school design and programs to support its implementation.  California schools spend $700 million annually on energy, a figure which could be cut by 20 to 40 percent through increased energy efficiency measures, allowing desperately needed funds to be made available to educate students in a time of a state budget crisis.

Allegheny College
Richard J. Cook Center for Environmental Science
Perfido Weiskopf Wagstaff + Goettel (Architect)

The Bright Schools Program has been set up by the California Energy Commission to help new and existing schools identify, design and implement more cost-effective, energy-efficient lighting and HVAC systems.  The program works closely with schools to secure low-interest loans to provide all or a portion of the funds needed for energy-related deferred maintenance projects or to match modernization funding from other state programs.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s EnergySmart Schools campaign is another program that is helping schools get started with energy saving tools like daylighting.  The program offers free technical help and training to school districts as well as contacts in other communities who have already built or renovated using smart energy concepts.

School Bonds

School bonds have provided another valuable source of funding to integrate modern daylighting into classrooms.

In Sacramento, Calif., the Natomas Unified School District has experienced an unprecedented 18 percent growth rate (four percent would have been considered fast) and state funding has not been able to keep up with the pace.  Students have been placed into portable classrooms, 25-foot-by-40-foot dark tunnels that lack the natural light the district recognized as important for a productive learning environment.  As a result, a $300,000 bond was passed specifically to daylight the 121 portable classrooms with 267 Solatube Daylighting Systems, which were installed prior to the beginning of the 2003-2004 school year.

“With the economic pressures placed on districts today, schools are moving not only toward energy efficiency, but toward energy self sufficiency,” said Mike Mormon, director of facilities and planning for the Natomas Unified School District. “The benefits of daylighting extend beyond just providing a better learning environment for students, but to impacting the bottom-line for districts.”

Other Financing Strategies

According to the EnergySmart Schools campaign, an innovative approach to financing energy improvements that is gaining popularity is to consider the energy efficiency of your school facilities as a ready source of cash.  Like home equity, this “energy equity” can be used to leverage a loan or to directly finance both energy and other facility improvements.

Local and state utility companies may also provide rebates, incentive programs or grant opportunities to support energy-efficient projects.  Some states, including California, New York and North Carolina, also offer tax credits to help offset the cost of upgrades.  School districts can start researching opportunities in their area in the Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy (DSIRE) at

A Light Assignment – Daylighting Teaches Kids Valuable Lesson

Del Mar Elementary School (Morro Bay, CA)

At least one school has taken advantage of this “green” design tool to teach its students about the importance of energy conservation.  Del Mar Elementary School in Morro Bay, Calif., applied for and received a $15,000 conservation grant from the California Consumer Services Education Department to retrofit five classrooms with natural lighting.  Each classroom, approximately 920 square feet in size, was outfitted with six 21-inch Solatube Daylighting Systems.  Prior to the installation, a teacher followed a scientific approach to help the students measure the light levels in each room with the fluorescent lights on over the course of six days using a light meter.  After the Solatube Daylighting Systems were installed, they turned all the lights off and used the light meter to measure the light levels of only the natural light provided by the daylighting devices.  There was an overall sustained light increase of 25 percent.

“We are thrilled with the quality of the natural light.  It’s unbelievable.  Even on cloudy days, we still have enough light in the classroom,” said Cindy Vix, a Del Mar Elementary teacher who wrote the grant request.  “The students have become very energy conscious. They don’t want the electric lights on and are adamant about turning them off.  I wish every classroom could have Solatubes.”

Click here for more information about the Del Mar Elementary School Project

Modular School Buildings Move to Net Zero Energy


Gone are the days when students were subjected to learning in cramped modular schools with little access to daylight. Enter the modern modular school which not only floods classrooms with ample natural light but is frequently built to Net Zero Energy standards. So what exactly is a Net Zero Energy (NZE)?

In California, Net Zero Energy performance is defined as the amount of energy provided by on-site renewable energy sources as being equal to the amount of energy used by the building.

The great news for many students is that modular school buildings are pursuing NZE or, at a minimum, are considered energy efficient. Many of these schools are built by American Modular Systems and include:

• West Elementary School
• Brookside Elementary School
• Forest Hills Preschool and Campbell Care
• Lincoln Street School
• Regional Environmental Studies Center (NZE)
• MiraCosta College (NZE)
• Professional Learning Centers
• CampbellCare
• Oakmont High School
• PG&E Zero Net Energy Training Center (NZE)
• Bulldog Tech
• Robert Louis Stevenson Middle School
• Central Coast New Tech High School
• Brentwood School (NZE)
• Atwater Valley Community College
• Albany High School
• Bolsa Knolls Middle School

The benefits of NZE can be illustrated by taking a closer look at one of these modular schools:

Brentwood School in Los Angeles, K-12
Brentwood School opened its Gen7 high-performance modular classroom wing in January 2012, just one month after installation. It still remains ahead of the curve for school buildings. USGBC LEED Gold certified, the wing’s energy data demonstrates ZNE performance – it includes solar panels which generate enough power to fulfill 100 percent of yearly energy requirements. Additional sustainability features include daylighting using large low-energy view windows and Solatube Daylighting Systems. A dedicated outdoor ventilation system circulates 100-percent fresh, filtered air. Brentwood School details include:

• First Net Zero Energy prefab school in Los Angeles
• Awarded LEED Gold Certification
• 70 percent in energy savings
• A 50-year building lifecycle
• Tubular Daylighting Devices (TDDs): 16 750 DS units installed from Solatube International (4 per classroom)
• TDDs include Daylight Dimmers (so classrooms can “go dark” for movies)
• Built by American Modular Systems

The result is a better learning environment for students (studies have shown that exposure to natural light improves performance) and a more effective teaching environment for teachers. The trend toward NZEB will continue to grow as educators see the results of healthier and higher-performance classroom.

Solatube International’s Impact on Schools

Kinard Junior High School Project:

“Our goal in Kinard CARES is to spread awareness about our Energy Star school and our environmental programs. This video will give you a look at our use of natural daylight in our school. Letting as much natural sunlight in the building as possible helps to minimize our use of electricity and lessens our impact on the environment.”

Natural daylighting is a critical component of the high performance schools in Poudre School District. Kinard Junior High School is one of the latest examples of how Solatube products can enhance classrooms and corridors. By using Solatube Daylighting Systems in the upstairs corridors, they eliminated the need for electric lighting during daytime hours.

Click here for more information about the Kinard Junior High School Project

Richardsville Elementary School (Bowling Green, Kentucky)
Sherman-Carter-Bamhart (Architect)


Richardsville Elementary School is another school that has made the decision to “go green” by installing Solatube Daylighting Devices. The strategy for this school was to focus on energy conservation by designing a school that annually consumes 18 kBtu/sf/year. The school used many techniques to reduce energy consumption and lower costs. One way to reduce energy was by installing Solatube Daylighting Devices in the classrooms to provide beautiful daylight for the students. Richardsville Elementary School was the first Net Zero Public School in the country. The building produces as much clean energy with solar panels as it consumes in natural energy, operating without energy costs.

“Solatube has proved to be a very valuable part of the daylighting and Net Zero Energy projects and are a great way to bring daylight into interior spaces.”

-Brian Baumgartle, PE, LC, LEED AP BD+C, Principal, CMTA Consulting Engineers

Click here for more information about the Richardsville Elementary School Project

Success Stories

Green Ribbon Schools

The U.S. Department of Education recently announced its 2013 Green Ribbon School winners. The winning schools and districts honored with the recognition exemplify commitments to energy efficiency, sustainability and an overall healthy environment for students, faculty and staff.

“Awardees prove that any school or district can take simple steps to cut costs and improve the health, safety and educational adequacy of school facilities; ensure good nutrition and fitness practices for a lifetime of wellness, productivity and achievement; and use the environment as a lens to engage students in hands-on learning in STEM subjects, languages, social studies, arts and humanities,” said Andrea Suarez Falken, director of the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools and Facilities, Health and Environment Liaison, in a statement.

The winners are located throughout the country and include various schools using Solatube Daylighting Devices.

Click here for a list of 2013 Green Ribbon School winners