LEEDers in sustainable buildings

St. Catherine’s construction project cost $5.1 million; the LEED components only added $102,000 to that total.

By Marc Spooner

Montessori schools have long paid attention to design issues, but there appears to be growing interest in meeting Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards established by the United States Green Building Council.

St. Catherine’s Montessori School in Houston, TX, became the first Montessori school to achieve certification in 2007. Hilltop Montessori School in Birmingham, AL,  achieved it in 2008.

The LEED program constitutes a wide range of integrated planning and construction standards by which the environmental impact of a building may be measured and moderated.

The performance of the two construction projects was evaluated in six categories including “materials and resources,” “indoor environmental quality” and “innovation and design process.”

At least 18 Montessori schools are  seeking LEED certification.

St. Catherine’s student sorts jars for recycling. St. Catherine’s received LEED certification in 2007.

Faculty and staff at St. Catherine’s began to dream about a new school building in January 2000.  School representatives and an architect spent a day and a half discussing possibilities.

They envisioned a campus with large amounts of natural lighting, ready access to gardens, water collection and reuse facilities; they envisioned a functional recycling program and a commitment to the employment of reusable materials wherever possible; they envisioned the Montessori philosophy of education manifest in the school house itself, a carefully designed environment dedicated to experiential learning.

Judy McCullough, principal of St. Catherine’s, credited these ideals to Catholic and Montessori values such as stewardship of the land and mindful preparation of the environment.

The new facility would replace the existing one, which was originally used as a museum and looked like a fortress with few windows and one-foot-thick walls, said McCullough.

Two years later, while in attendance at a North American Montessori Teachers’ Association conference hosted by the University of Arizona’s architecture program and held at one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Phoenix homes, St. Catherine’s staff sharpened its focus on the benefits of conservation in building and preservation of construction sites.

Back home, an architect on the school’s parent committee explained the LEED standards to the group, which quickly  decided to follow the principles and register for certification.

Completed in April 2007, St. Catherine’s new building became the first LEED certified Montessori school in the country, as well as the first LEED certified K-12 school in Texas.

Hilltop Montessori’s planning committee followed a similar course of action. Executive Director Michele Scott explained its decision to pursue LEED certification with familiar rhetoric.

She cited the congruence of the Montessori philosophy with environmental education as one reason for going green. “We wanted to provide an environment for learning that reminded the children of that philosophy,” she said.

Additionally, the Hilltop educators valued the benefits of natural lighting on students’ academic performance, as well as the positive environmental repercussions of sustainable practices such as reliance on renewable energy sources.

Hilltop Montessori’s new building, completed and certified Aug. 28, 2008, was the second Montessori school in the nation to be certified under the LEED program.


Does LEED certification add substantially to project costs?

Not in these cases, despite attention to site management, recycling programs and  standards for energy use, air quality and acoustical performance.

Both St. Catherine’s and Hilltop increased fundraising efforts, but both also attracted support of  their communities.

St. Catherine’s construction project cost $5.1 million with an anticipated a five-percent overage for the green aspects of construction. In the end LEED components only  added two percent— $102,000.

“There is an absolute misconception about the cost of building green,” said McCullough. “Not only was the overage minimal, but foundations in Houston were excited to learn that we were building a sustainable building and wanted to support us.”

Considering reduced energy costs (as high as 50 percent reduction per month), savings from the reuse of materials and other tertiary benefits such as occupant health and facility longevity, McCullough believes that the performance of the new building will offset  additional costs  within a few years.

Hilltop funded its $2.5 million 1,600-square-foot facility with tuition, grants and donations. The Daniel Foundation and the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham both contributed, funds were raised by the Parent Teacher Organization and the school tapped its annual fundraising event “Hilltop on the Green,” a evening of dining and silent and live auctions.

Piedmont Green Building Solutions LLC, served as the lead consultants and Bill Segrest of HKW Associates was the architect.

“The next step is to educate others about how to build green,” Scott said. “It was easy to do, and the cost was not as much as people might think. The costs up front are a little higher, but it pays for itself with lower utility bills.”

Today and tomorrow

Both St. Catherine’s and Hilltop have begun to use their new facilities. At St. Catherine’s, according to McCullough, the immediate improvement was drastic. The new building, which has line-of-sight views to the outdoors in 90 percent of its occupied space,  is a vast improvement over the former fortress-like building.

Systems in place to increase productivity and well-being of building occupants include a carbon dioxide monitor that evaluates air quality and controls the ventilation systems, materials certified to contain low levels of volatile compounds and an advanced air conditioning system that maintains optimal indoor thermal conditions.

Students celebrated the opening of their new school by participating in an environmental conference hosted in the new facility entitled “Focus: The Nation.”

Twenty-four St. Catherine’s students presented a research project on climate change. Additionally, representatives from the gas and oil industries, the mayor of Houston and speakers from local green organizations held question-and-answer panels  with students and adults.

More than 300 members of the community were in attendance and four other local schools were represented.

St. Catherine’s administration has also partnered with local architectural studies programs, the “Solar Tour” (a free, Houston-based tour of solar equipped and green facilities) and Eco-Realty Firms to offer use of their new facility for demonstration and education in environmentally responsible construction.

McCullough is optimistic about the future of sustainability. “This can be replicated anywhere. It doesn’t matter how much money you have or what part of the country you live in; these are just habits we have and habits that we can change.”


US Green Building Council



LEED by the numbers:
St. Catherine’s new facility

percentage of energy used within the school generated by renewable sources.

percentage of occupied space inside the building with a direct view to the outdoors.

percentage of waste diverted away from landfills during construction.

percentage of water use reduction compared to old building.

percentage of building material manufactured locally.

pounds of carbon output eliminated due to use of wind-generated power.

gallons of water saved by use of low flow lavatories and showers.

feet to the two nearest bus stops to facilitate use of public transportation.

students served in a healthier, safer and more productive Montessori environment.

Statistics are for July 2006 – June 2007.

Montessori schools  registered for LEED status

Santa Cruz—Montessori Scotts Valley, El Rancho Site

Fernandina Beach—Amelia Island Montessori School
Jacksonville Beach—Discovery Montessori School
Jupiter—Turtle River Montessori School

Makawao—Montessori School of Maui

Lexington—Montessori Middle School of Kentucky

Kirkwood—Villa di Maria Montessori

Cincinnati—Clark Montessori High School; Dater Montessori; North Avondale Montessori; Pleasant Ridge Elementary School, Sands Montessori School; Winton Montessori
Cleveland Heights—Ruffing Montessori School Expansion
Dayton—Dayton Montessori (OSFC)

Dallas—St. Alcuin Montessori School
San Antonio—The Montessori School of San Antonio

Charlottesville—Montessori Community School

Source: USGBC, December, 2008.