Sitting outside of Baghdad, shortly after midnight, going through his routine of calming his mind before a military operation, former Navy Seal Tim Cole solidified three sustainability goals for Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS).
“My mind just settled on big picture thoughts; like why are we here, and the consequences of our actions, and then my mind focused on sustainability,” said Cole, a Virginia Tech graduate and architect by trade. He managed development of the National Weather Service’s first sustainable building before joining the school division 18 years ago as its first sustainability officer.
“I came to the realization that we can really have a much more significant impact on people if we take a much broader approach that extends beyond the built environment.”
It was at this moment that he developed the school division’s three sustainability goals:
- develop a sustainable building infrastructure;
- integrate sustainable practices throughout the school division; and
- educate the public about sustainability.
But it wasn’t just about earning an award or honor.
Today, VBCPS School Board policy calls for all buildings to be built according to LEED standards, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design – the most widely-used green building rating system in the world, according to the U.S. Green Building Council.
And while developing a sustainable building infrastructure was the first of Cole’s three sustainability goals, there were two others yet to address: integrating sustainable practices throughout the division and educating the public about the importance of sustainability.
So, in 2016, VBCPS leaders came together specifically to discuss developing a culture that values sustainability practices as a division.
That summit resulted in several divisionwide sustainability initiatives. One of those was a building manager program to put trade experts in schools to better manage the division’s assets. Others were expanding sustainable transportation and Food Service practices, which the division is now addressing through the purchases of propane buses and less polluting vehicles as well as the launch of scratch cooking to increase participation in healthy eating and reduce cafeteria waste.
All the while, work on building sustainable schools continued.
“Renaissance Academy was the first building where we started taking a hard look at how can you use rainwater catchment for the building, use geothermal for heating and cooling, or bring natural daylight into spaces,” Cole added.
Now that building or modernizing schools according to LEED standards had become woven into the district’s construction program, the facilities team took it up a notch with the construction of Kellam High School and Old Donation School, involving staff and students in planning by looking at integrating collaborative learning spaces and how a building can better support today’s educational environment.
“I think you’ll see Thoroughgood Elementary and Princess Anne Middle schools will be just as successful,” Cole stated.
To date, VBCPS has nine LEED-certified buildings and four more in progress.
VBCPS is now recognized leader in sustainability, earning the 2018 Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence, a 2017 Green School Division honor and the ENERGY Star Partner of the Year distinction for two consecutive years for reducing its energy use by 27 percent while increasing building space by 9 percent.
“With sustainability, we are trying to educate students about the interconnectedness or interdependency of all systems – the triple bottom line (TBL) in regards to social, economic and environmental impacts,” Cole emphasized. “If we can get a student to understand those basic concepts, then we will be light years ahead of where we were before. We will be sending students into the real world to be politicians or heads of business and they will have this TBL mindset that will, hopefully, alter the current trajectory that we are on. We need to lead by example.”