Toward Healthier New Schools:
Halifax West Experience
When Halifax West
High School opened in January 2003, it was proclaimed the
in Canada. Building a healthy school didn't happen by chance.
With sick building problems plaguing many Nova Scotia schools, including
the old Halifax West, the Department of Education decided to strike a Healthy
Schools Construction Committee to guide the process of building the new
school. Every aspect of construction was evaluated for its health
impacts. Even with these considerations, the school was constructed on
schedule, and under budget. And an unexpected benefit is that many of the
lessons from Halifax West will form the basis for new design and construction
standards for future public buildings in Nova
Across the nation,
media report on new schools that are causing physical harm to occupants
from off gassing of new building materials and old schools with toxic molds,
combustion leaks, and other indoor air quality deficiencies that contribute
to poor health and lowered performance.
A study by Honeywell
in 1994, and more recent work by the US Environmental
and others have found impacts on academic performance add
to the health
concerns for young people attending worn-out, poorly maintained and generally
substandard school buildings. The size of the problem is just being recognized,
but in Nova Scotia and some other areas, resources are going into upgrading
and replacing worn out schools.
A new approach
is emerging - designing and building schools to attempt to ensure high
quality indoor environments without breaking the budget. The Nova Scotia
Department of Education decided to use the construction of a new Halifax
West High School to "raise the bar" in building schools that will be healthy
buildings from the day they open and remain healthy buildings for the long
term. It struck a Healthy Schools Construction Committee to guide the process.
The old Halifax
West was closed in August of 2000 because the school had outlived its lifespan
and had been causing significant health impacts on teachers and students
for several years.The old school and land was given back to the city, which
will demolish it and redevelop the site. In exchange, the city provided
10 acres of natural park land so that the new school would be located in
The new Halifax
West High School was a fast-tracked school. It took just under 2 years
from the time it was announced to the time it was completed. With
1500 students, it is the largest school Nova Scotia has built in at least
30 years. While breaking new ground in healthy school design and construction,
and with the extensive evaluation of construction methods and building
materials which took place at every stage, the school was still built on
time and below budget. In fact, the school was completed ahead of time,
and left empty for six to eight weeks in order to allow the building and
contents to off gas.
that healthy schools don't have to cost more takes away one of the common
arguments against modifying established building practices to accommodate
a burst pipe during a January cold snap showed that building for health
can also decrease costs from unexpected crises. Because lockers had been
built several inches off the floor for ease in cleaning, they did not incur
water damage. From this experience, a new wall design has been
developed to avoid water damage, and a procedure for quickly and effectively
dealing with flooding is being developed for use province-wide.
emphasizes quick action, so that mould does not have time togrow, and there
is no need for toxic anti-fungals to be used in cleanup. The health
benefits to students and staff in Nova Scotia's schools will not stop at
the doors of Halifax West. Many of the innovations incorporated into this
school will become part of the Design Requirements Manual (DRM),
a provincial government document which establishes building standards for
all public buildings in Nova Scotia.
What makes a healthy
school different? There are innumerable details. But for interest, here
are thirty examples of healthy school building practices which are incorporated
in the new Halifax West High School.
fossil fuels are used on site, (except a few Bunsen burners.) Instead
The list could go
on, including ways in which this school is a "green" school as well as
a healthy school. For example, with almost no fossil fuel consumption
it helps meet Canada's Kyoto commitments.
there is an innovative
heat recovery system for heating and cooling.
in existing schools cause many health problems.)
2. The gym floor
was finished months early and used less toxic finishes. This is a first
in NS and possibly Canada if not North America.
3. The ventilation
system exceeds American Society for Heating,
and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) Guidelines. Cleaner air indoors
than outdoors, once off gassing is complete, is the goal. There is a huge
filter system plus 100% fresh (unrecycled) air.
4. Extensive effort
went into product selection for health, including less
additives, glues, caulks, wall and floor finishes.
5. New low-emission
finishes for desks and furniture were required from the furniture supplier.
6. Ductwork was
required to be delivered varsol/oil free and stored clean
on site. Ducts
were well sealed daily during construction to keep dirt out, and the system
was left off until final cleanup was finished.
7. Careful attention
was paid to orientation of air intakes to avoid sucking used or polluted
air into the school.
8. Parking lots
are situated downwind (prevailing winds) and 50 ft. from
9. Halls are ventilated
to insure clean out of "dead" air from hall as well
as lockers, which
may be concentrated sources of pollutants.
10. A new locker
design raises lockers off the floor for ease of cleaning
and to prevent
build-up of mould-producing dirt under them over time.
11. All classrooms
have openable windows and screens, except drama (stage area).
12. There is clear
glazing in windows. Window orientation and shading
brightness and prevents overheating during hot
spectrum fluorescent lighting complements natural light for health, performance
13. There is no
CCA pressure treated wood (PTW) anywhere it could come in contact with
skin. Special care was taken in disposal of PTW sawdust and other toxic
materials such as solvents.
14. There is minimal
use of fabrics and other fleecy materials, including
15. There are
no plastic garbage cans, since pranksters occasionally set
fires in garbage
cans. Several teachers in Nova Scotia breathed toxic fumes from this in
the past year alone.
rooms are isolated and have separate ventilation.
17. Planning included
easy access for maintenance and cleaning. In this
was recognized as a component of maintaning a healthy environment.
18. Heavy ceiling
tiles minimize particle abrasion. The tiles selected
even though edges were not sealed .
and electronic boards plus low-emission cork boards were used.
field exposure was minimized by controls for EMF
exposure in the
computer rooms and locating wiring and electrical areas to minimize occupant
exposure throughout the school.
21. There are
no indoor plants or water fountains to reduce moulds. Water
coolers are lead
22. An extensive
radon system was installed, including mechanical exhaust of the foundation.
23. Kitchens are
mainly stainless steel.
24. Care was
taken not to allow sawdust or garbage to fall between walls or into block
walls. (One new school had to have a wall dismantled because of rotting
odours from this problem.) A special inspection was added to ensure no
debris was left above the ceiling T-bars.
25. No pesticides
were used during or after landscaping.
26. Least toxic
cleaning materials were used.
27. The on-site
inspector and construction heads were trained in healthy
issues. They in turn explained the goals to workers.
during construction, wet, damaged or unspecified materials
were turned away.
28. Building operators
received special training. Training of maintenance
video taped for refresher sessions or if there is staff
29. The finished
school underwent an extensive offgassing "flush-out"
period of several
weeks, with cabinets open, furniture and equipment,
computers, offgassing with ventilation running 24 hours/day.
preoccupancy testing and evaluation used residential rather than industry
standards for indoor air quality.
the Nova Scotia Department of Education, the designers and builders included
The Nova Scotia Department of Transportation and Public Works, WHW Architects,
Rideau Construction and many sub-contractors.
Robinson is a healthy schools advocate living in Halifax. She is
Chair of the Department of Education's Healthy Schools Construction Committee
(HSCC) and President of Citizens for A Safe Learning Environment (CASLE),
an organization that has been succeeding at improving school products,
practices and building conditions for nearly a decade.
More information on healthy school construction can be found
in the document Healthy School Design and Construction at
School Opens in Halifax
Lists for Healthy School Construction