Putting the “I” in IAQ
Erika and Monica go back to school to understand the dire state of indoor air quality in the buildings at the heart of the Healthy Buildings Movement: U.S. K–12 schools. They connect with healthy schools advocates around the country and talk to Tracy Washington Enger at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about the rock stars who are making an impact in their school districts.
- At Perkins&Will, we are translating the research into design strategies with “Healthy Schools by Design.” Check out our research summaries for outdoor siting, circulation space, materials, and look out for new research released each month.
- Learn about child health and the built environment from the Children’s Environmental Health Network.
- Get the healthy and green school design standard at Collaborative for High Performance Schools Criteria.
- Schoolyards need design strategies too. Go to Green Schoolyards America for inspiring precedents and design guides.
- Plan and share an activity for National Healthy Schools Day, celebrating its 20th year!
- Call on this guide from 21st Century School Fund to engage your community in modernizing your public school facilities. Consult its Adequate & Equitable U.S. PK–12 Infrastructure report for 55 priorities for systemic reform.
The White House administration shared on March 2, 2022, that it will provide a Clean Air in Buildings Checklist to improve indoor ventilation and air filtration. However, this effort still requires funding from Congress, so write to your local representative to support this effort.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, indoor air quality is “air quality within and around buildings and structures, especially as it relates to the health and comfort of building occupants.”
Indoor air is not one thing. Many sources contribute to its quality.
Common indoor pollutants include:
There is a robust body of research showing that school buildings can affect student health, thinking, and performance. As a member of Harvard’s Healthy Buildings Program, our very own host Erika wrote about this research in the 2017 Schools for Health Report.
Currently there are no enforceable indoor air environmental standards. Talk about a lack of policy in light of research!
- 15,000 hours: how long most of us spend in a school building from kindergarten through 12th grade
- 1 in 6 Americans: how many people enter a school building in the U.S. daily as a student, teacher, or staff member
- 98,000 schools: how many public facilities are touching those 1 in 6 Americans every day in the U.S.
- 60 years: roughly how long ago 48 percent of our public school buildings were built; accounting for modernization, repairs, additions, and new construction, the puts the average age of public school buildings at 44 years old
Here’s one more for good measure:
- 62 million K–12 students: the number of children across North America physically absent from school for 13 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, of which 1 to 3 million were “lost” by school district officials.
Here is our favorite history of school design and indoor standards by Lindsay Baker and the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities. This Bloomberg CityLab article from 2020 provides a more recent history of the inequities in the quality of our school building environments.
School Design Era 1: 1900s–1930s | The Open Air Movement
- Mary Packard and Ellen Stone were trailblazing scientists. Learn more about their story and the revolution they set in motion.
- Study up on how the Open Air Movement helped protect kids from tuberculosis.
- Hear more from Perkins&Will’s co-founder Larry Perkins in the oral history archived at the Art Institute of Chicago.
- Celebrate the legacy of the Crow Island School by reading this 2015 Bloomberg CityLab article on its 75th anniversary.
School Design Era 2: 1940s–1960s | Postwar Building Boom
- “$20 billion was spent on new educational facilities from the end of World War II through 1964,” according to Lindsay Baker in her history of school design and indoor environments for the National Institute of Building Sciences.
- In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education I determined the racial segregation of public schools unconstitutional. However, federal and Supreme Court decisions in subsequent decades undermined the powerful impact of Brown v. Board on public school education. This 2014 Economic Policy Institute report shows that we still have work to do to create equitable schools.
- In 1967 the New York Times remembered former federal School Housing Section chief Ray Hamon for his school advocacy. During his tenure, he warned about school-building shortages and highlighted the need for updated ventilation thresholds in schools.
School Design Era 3: 1970s | Canary in the Coal Mine
- Get the specifics on the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). See also Inhabit Episode 2: “Love in the Time of PFAS.”
- Let’s broaden the scope: This article published by the Australian Institute of Architects tracks how learning experiences and pedagogy have changed between 1970 and today.
- Two decades after Brown v. Board made desegregation the law of the land, “white flight” to the suburbs resulted in the inequitable distribution of high environmental quality in schools. We are still feeling the impact of that inequity today.
School Design Era 4: 1990s | Clear and Committed
- 1993: Noncompliance with asbestos requirements kept over 1,000 New York City schools closed for the first 11 days of the school year.
- 1995: The U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) report School Facilities: Condition of America’s Schools found that “heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems were the most frequently reported building feature in need of … repair.”
- 1996: The U.S. GAO report School Facilities: America’s Schools Report Differing Conditions estimates that 13 percent of schools reported five or more unsatisfactory conditions: Acoustics for noise control, ventilation, and physical security top the list.
- 1997: The U.S. GAO report School Facilities: Reported Condition and Costs to Repair Schools Funded by Bureau of Indian Affairs finds that tribal schools, compared to schools nationally, are “generally in poorer physical condition, have more unsatisfactory environmental factors, more often lack key facilities requirements for education reform, and are less able to support computer and communications technology.”
- Listen to President Clinton’s full State of the Union Address from 1997.
- 1999: The National Center for Education Statistics report Condition of America’s Public School Facilities finds that “schools with the highest concentration of poverty were more likely to report at least one unsatisfactory environmental condition than were schools with the lowest concentration of poverty (55 percent compared with 38 percent).”
School Design Era 5: 2000s–Now | More Evidence for Urgent Action
- 2001: Check out the language in the Healthy and High-Performance Schools Act.
- 2004: A study out of the UCLA School of Public Health calls attention to the terrible air quality found in “portable classrooms”—that’s right, trailers!
- 2006: A UNC School of Public Health study finds that kids in high-poverty, high-minority neighborhoods have reduced access to recreational facilities, which was associated with lower physical activity and a higher number of overweight kids.
- 2009–2010: According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the U.S. school capital outlay expenditures rose only 1 percent between 2009–10 and 2017–18, despite inflation and increasing cost of maintenance.
- 2011: A University of Michigan study of Michigan school finds that schools with the highest air-pollution levels had the lowest attendance rates and performance outcomes.
- 2013: A Philadelphia public school student dies from an asthma attack in school because there was no full-time nurse on duty to call.
- 2016: 95 percent of Detroit’s public schools are closed as teachers hold “sick outs” to protest the terrible building conditions.
- In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers graded U.S. schools a D+. The Center for Green Schools projected that the national investment in public schools falls short by $46 billion a year.
- 2018: The National School Nurse Association estimates that only 60 percent of U.S. schools employed a full-time nurse.
- 2019: In January, seasonal influenza results in school closures and student deaths in New York City and 18 U.S. states. Also in January, the Rebuild America’s Schools Act is introduced, intended to “fund $70 billion in grants and $30 billion in bonds to help address critical physical and digital infrastructure needs in schools across the country.” The bill is discharged in December 2020.
- 2020: The U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that 54 percent of public school districts need to replace or modernize multiple building systems, including HVAC, roofing, and structural integrity.
- 2021: The State of Our Schools report estimates that the U.S. is underinvesting in our schools by $85 billion each year. Later that same year, the $100 billion allocated for school modernization is cut from the infrastructure package.
Tracy Washington Enger is passionate about improving public health by evoking the leadership that resides in all of us. Over the last 25 years with the Indoor Environments Division of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Tracy has dedicated herself to helping communities control asthma and create safe, healthy homes and schools. She works with communities around the country and internationally, facilitating events to generate action to address a variety of critical health, environmental, and equity issues. She received her B.S. and M.S. in journalism from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. After graduate school, she taught English literature and language in Sierra Leone, West Africa, with the Peace Corps. Additionally, Tracy is an alumna of the Newfield Network international coaching program and the Georgetown Facilitation Certificate Program.
Research and Resources from the U.S. EPA:
I would like to make our schools healthier by building the understanding of what a school needs to be today and really needed to be when you and I were in schools. It needs to be a place where students and staff want to go.
Will Anderson, Chief Operations Office, Richland School District 2, Columbia, South Carolina
My Dear and Esteemed Legislative Colleagues,
Please make our schools healthier and greener by increasing budget allocations for the Massachusetts School Building Authority and also by passing legislation like the Healthy and Green Public Schools Act that will help our schools be cleaner and greener now and into the future.
Senator Joanne M. Comerford, Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester County, Massachusetts
I would like you to make our schools healthier by asking you to support funding initiatives that go beyond maintenance and upkeep. We treat schools like old cars. Sometimes we run them into the ground until we need a new one. They are civic incubators, and we should be treating them with that type of care.
Patrick Cunningham, Principal, Perkins&Will, Boston Studio
Dear Children All over the World,
I would like you to make our schools healthier by being active citizens and holding adults’ feet to the fire. We really need your help in understanding what you need and what you want.
Rachael Dumas, K–12 Knowledge Manager, Perkins&Will, Chicago Studio
I would like you to make our schools healthier by doing reconstruction where there aren’t any rats or where there’s no mold and where there are bathrooms for everyone.
Olivia Fox, High School Senior
Dear Federal Government and Any Elected Official That Has Power and Influence over School Funding,
I would like you to make our schools healthier by dismantling the current funding system for public education in the United States and make the funding equitable. There has to be a way to do it.
Andy Hatton, Associate Superintendent of Learning & Leadership, Upper Arlington Schools, Delaware, Ohio
I would like you to make our schools healthier by wholeheartedly and lovingly supporting investments in school buildings, so that all school buildings can be healthy places to teach and learn.
Anisa Heming, Director, Cener for Green Schools, U.S. Green Building Council
I would make the school healthier by maybe having a greenhouse and growing vegetables and fruits.
I would make the school healthier by walking around while doing your work. Like with the clipboard or even make a walking desk.
As a parent of two elementary-age students, I would like you to provide us with a building health report of our elementary schools. And make a curriculum change where there would be a health class for our students—especially elementary-age students—to learn more about what is a healthy choice and how to make healthy choices.
Ajal Parikh, Parent of Ria and Rutu
Dear Policymakers, School Officials, especially Business Officials,
I want you to make schools healthier by not using the incoming federal dollars as a stopgap and to think strategically about how to use that funding for long-term gains, so that we stop tripping over dollar bills to pick up pennies when it comes to the health of the students.”
Carolyn Sarno Goldthwaite, Healthy and Energy-Efficient Schools Expert
I would like you to help make our schools healthier by holding our policymakers accountable and making education a national priority.
Craig Schiller, Executive Director, Collaborative for High Performance Schools
Dear Grown-Ups—Not Just One Person, Not Just One Administration—All of Us,
We have unhealthy buildings, because we’ve made decisions when it wasn’t the most important thing in our budgets. I think we need all of it. We need aids in classrooms. We need health insurance… But there has to be some wiggle room to figure out how we prioritize facilities as one of those have-to-haves, not necessarily a nice-to-have like we’ve done in the past.
Kenneth Wertz, Executive Director, Massachusetts Facilities Administrators Association
- Oral history of Lawrence Bradford Perkins, F.A.I.A. / interviewed by Betty J. Blum, compiled under the auspices of the Chicago Architects Oral History Project, the Ernest R. Graham Study Center for Architectural Drawings, Department of Architecture, the Art Institute of Chicago. © 1986-2000 The Art Institute of Chicago, used with permission.
- 1997 State of the Union Address, courtesy of the Clinton Presidential Library.
This episode features music courtesy of Epidemic Sound:
- “Zig and Zag” by Alexandra Woodward
- “Icy You” by Jerry Lacey
- “Powerlines” and “Night Shifts” by Jones Meadow
- “Topaz” by Lucention
- “Shimmer” by Lishuid
- “Sparkle and Swirl” by Raymond Grouse
- “It’s Not Me” by Arthur Benson
[Fade in children’s voices, bus engine, whistle at a crosswalk, then hurried footsteps, bus engine fades out, as a door opens. Indoor voices fade in, followed by slower footsteps. A second door opens. A chair creaks, the computer powers up, and typing begins.]
Will Anderson: Dear Taxpayer, I would like to make our schools healthier by building the understanding of what a school needs to be today and really needed to be when you and I were in schools.
[“Zig and Zag” by Alexandra Woodward / Epidemic Sound cues in, followed by the sound of a printer printing, underneath the voice.]
There’s so much research that’s been done in the last 30 years that shows that not only is academic performance better, social, emotional, all the things we’re trying to build our children to be amazing citizens in the future. And so please just have an open mind, listen—
[Paper rustling and folding]
and help us together create these perfect spaces for our children.
[Pencil signing on paper in a pause between words]
My name is Will Anderson. I am the Chief Operations Officer for Richland School District Two in Columbia, South Carolina.
[Folding of envelope, footsteps]
So the buildings, the buses, food, security, all that good stuff.
[Letter deposit in metal mailbox, then school bell rings as “Zig and Zag” fades out.]
Erika and Monica, in unison: Inhabit
Erika Eitland: Hello, hello, Inhabit listeners.
Monica Kumar: We’re back with Episode 3 in our first season, where we’ve been making the case to you that design is a public health intervention. We’ve been getting into this thing called the Healthy buildings Movement, which is the idea that the built environment affects our health.
Erika Eitland: Last episode, we talked about the impact building materials have on your health—
Monica Kumar: —the chemistry of the surfaces and the materials that we interact with every day, right? Everything we touch. Now we’re going to take a look at the air we breathe.
Erika Eitland: That’s right: indoor air quality.
Monica Kumar: And we’re going—
[“Icy You” by Jerry Lacey / Epidemic Sound cues in]
back to school.
Ria Parikh: Dear Principal, I would make the school healthier by maybe having a greenhouse and growing vegetables and fruits, and, you know, eat it when it’s lunchtime.
Monica Kumar: Welcome to Inhabit. I’m Monica.
Erika Eitland: I’m Erika.
Rutu Parikh: Maybe you can walk around while doing your work with the clipboard or something.
Monica Kumar: We know two things that are true for everyone out there who’s listening right now. No. 1: You were a kid once.
Ria Parikh: My name’s Ria, and I’m in 5th grade.
Rutu Parikh: My name is Rutu, and I’m in 4th grade.
Monica Kumar: And No. 2: You spent most of your childhood in a school building. Erika, can you give us some stats to put that into perspective?
Erika Eitland: I got the numbers for you.
[“Icy You” melody and drums drop out to bass and instruments only]
First 15,000, OK? That’s how many hours most of us have spent in a school building from kindergarten all the way through 12th grade. Next 98,000—
[Chime in song sounds at 98,000]
That’s how many public school buildings there are in United States. That’s a lot of buildings. We got 1 in 6—
[Chime in song sounds at 6]
Americans enter school building every single day. And finally, 60:—
[Chime in song sounds at 60 as melody and drum tracks fade back in.]
the average age of a school building in the U.S. We’ll dive into why this age is so important later on in the episode.
Monica Kumar: So what I’m hearing is that we all have a stake in the quality of our school buildings.
Erika Eitland: Yes. And if we can start to fix what’s wrong with them, we can have lots of folks live healthier lives, as well as think to the future where we make better buildings for our kids. You know by now that indoor air quality isn’t the only component of a healthy school. But it’s one that has immediate and long-lasting impacts on our kids. You know how we roll on Inhabit: We’re going to reflect on how our schools got to be unhealthy—
Monica Kumar: And we’re going to get inspired by Tracy Enger at the EPA. She’s going to tell us about some of the unsung heroes who have been doing this work for decades.
Erika Eitland: The flip side of aspiration is the work.
[Final chime in the song sounds and “Icy You” cues out.
Let’s get into it.
[Typing fades in.]
Rachael Dumas: All right, Policymakers. I would like it if you could make our schools healthier by taking a week and going back to your childhood school so you can see what students today are facing and what they need as they go to school every day.
[Pencil signs on paper, paper folding]
Rachael Dumas, K–12 knowledge manager at Perkins&Will. The daughter of an educator. The mother of a 6-year-old named Tom.
[Letter deposited in mail slot]
Monica Kumar: Before we reflect on how we got here, Erika, help us speak IAQ.
[Freestanding chalkboard rolls across the floor]
Erika Eitland: So we’re gonna back up to the basics—
[Chalk writing on chalkboard]
three terms that will help you see the invisible stuff when you walk into a school building. 1. “Indoor air quality,” lovingly referred to as—you already said it, Monica—IAQ. 2. Ventilation. 3. Filtration. So, 1-2-3 let’s go.
[Chalk hits the board on the beat of 1, 2, 3 Let’s go.]
For IAQ, we turn to the Environmental Protection Agency, and I quote: “air quality within and around buildings and structures, especially as it relates to the health and comfort building occupants.”
Monica Kumar: OK, thanks, EPA. So it’s not just the air inside the buildings, but it’s also the air outside the buildings.
Erika Eitland: Plot twist! Indoor air quality isn’t just about indoor air. Pollutants outdoors can also migrate in through vents. This brings us to our next term: VENT-ilation. The way air moves in and out of our buildings is really important. Whether it’s natural or mechanical ventilation, it helps us achieve three things: 1. removing airborne pollutants; 2. diluting indoor air with outdoor air, even if it isn’t fresh; and 3. controlling temperature and humidity. Ventilation is really important, but so many schools are actually underventilated.
Monica Kumar: So you mentioned filtration. Where does that come in?
Erika Eitland: OK. If ventilation is the way air moves in and through a building filtration is a process of removing pollutants from that air. What if the outdoor air coming in is not fresh? Could pollen be blowing in through an open window? Are there signs that say that buses shouldn’t be idling out front? Improving filtration can make a school healthier regardless of whether the building is naturally or mechanically ventilated.
Monica Kumar: That makes sense. That all seems pretty straightforward. So I have a little niece and nephew and they’re the lights of my life. If I want to tell their parents what to watch out for when it comes to air quality, what should I be telling them?
Erika Eitland: We start with the sources. Products in our buildings can be one source. We learned that in our last episode.
Monica Kumar: True. We talked about the furniture, the chemicals inside of them—
Erika Eitland: Hashtag material health.
Monica Kumar: So I’m looking in the corners of the room for dirt and dust bunnies or crumbling building materials like asbestos—those can start to collect in one place—
Erika Eitland: As well as harsh cleaning products, remnants of pests like rats and cockroaches and signs of mold. Eww. All of these things can actually exacerbate asthma and are disproportionately present in our urban schools.
Monica Kumar: Oh gosh, that’s really scary. So how do I know if my niece’s school is underventilated?
Erika Eitland: Can you smell school supplies like markers or Wite-Out? Does it maybe smell a little musty? That might be a sign of hidden mold or moisture. Kids actually can be a source of indoor air pollution to be Oh is real, and trying to cover it up can make the pollution issue worse. Next time you’re at your niece’s school, keep an eye out for the facility manager or custodian. Ask them if the school has a mechanical ventilation system at all. And if they say yes, ask them, When did they last change their filters? Or what’s the efficiency of those filters? Or just simply ask if they had to add air purifiers during COVID.
Monica Kumar: It’s so powerful to know the questions to ask, especially in light of the statistics you gave earlier—that 1 in 6 Americans enters a school building every day. Indoor air quality in schools is affecting a lot of people.
[Paper rustles and snaps
Anisa Heming: Dear Taxpayer,
[Keyboard typing begins]
I would like you to make our schools healthier by wholeheartedly and lovingly supporting investments in school buildings so that all school buildings can be healthy places to teach and learn.
[Pencil signs on paper, letter folds] Anisa Heming, Director of the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council.
[Letter slot creaks as letter is deposited]
Erika Eitland: Public schools move at the speed of molasses on a cold day.
[“Powerlines” (instruments only) by Jones Meadow / Epidemic Sound cues in.]
Monica Kumar: History in 5 Key Dates.
Erika Eitland: It doesn’t matter if you’re leveraging the power of policy, design, or research. It takes years to change a public school, one school and we haven’t even talked about what happens when you add money, race, identity, or leadership into the equation.
Monica Kumar: It can be hard to pinpoint an exact moment of change.
Erika Eitland: So instead of specific dates this time, we’re going to choose periods of time when the design of our schools were responding to events in the world. As we move school designs forward, this segment will show you that we’re actually still leaving a ton of students behind.
Monica Kumar: I am already frustrated to hear that that’s where the segment is headed, but of course we need to know where we’ve come from to know where we’re going.
Erika Eitland: Exactly.
Monica Kumar: So where does our story start?
Erika Eitland: The Open Air Movement of school buildings: the 1900s to 1930s. Enter Drs. Mary Packard and Ellen Stone, two of the first female graduates of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. In 1908, after founding a summer camp for kids with tuberculosis, they remodel a Providence school—shout out to Rhode Island—to apply the same fresh-air approach during the school year with large floor-to-ceiling windows that can be completely opened. And this is the cool part: Lawrence Perkins—
Monica Kumar: Wait, Perkins, as in Perkins&Will?
Erika Eitland: Oh, yes. And—he actually went by Larry—so Larry Perkins was among the visionaries of school-building design who helped translate Drs. Packard and Stone’s findings into school buildings that emphasize the importance of daylighting, outdoor learning spaces, and indoor air quality. These principles informed Perkins&Will’s design of the Crow Island School in Winnetka, Illinois. He sat in classrooms, evaluated how students learned, and identified opportunities to improve health and well-being.
[Archival audio from Chicago Architects Oral History Project interview with Betty Blum, 1985, cues in]
Lawrence Perkins: I practically left the firm and moved out to Winnetka. And I went to school with the kids. And out of that three months, we evolved the engineering of the whole revolution that Crow Island symbolizes. If you have a room so designed that any position in any part of the room is adequately taken care of with light— these are the things that came out of my going to be an elementary-school teacher.
Erika Eitland: Sounds pretty great. But we know why every school isn’t a Crow Island.
[“Powerlines” track fade out.]
It’s part of a history of inequity that the love letters in this episode are calling us all to address.
[“Topaz” (melody and instruments only) by Lucention / Epidemic Sound fades in.]
And it brings us to Era No. 2: the Postwar Building Boom. An estimated 80 million people are born during this time, the 1940s to the 1960s. Schools are popping up practically overnight to meet the need.
Monica Kumar: Sounds like a little bit of a precarious situation, shall we say?
Erika Eitland: Yes. And these schools are built with subpar materials and construction techniques that are really prioritizing low cost and speed over the critical functionalities we saw in Crow Island. If that sounds like a long time ago, let me share with you that nearly 45 percent of the schools in use today are from that postwar boom.
Monica Kumar: Oh, wow. OK, so Erika, you mean to say that Packard and Stone’s principles for health fell to the wayside?
Erika Eitland: Mmhmm.
Monica Kumar: What happened to the air quality in these postwar schools?
Erika Eitland: Yes, so ventilation rates are cut threefold, even though advocates at the federal level are crying out for better ventilation standards. The air-quality research at the time is based on odor and not actually on child health or even school occupancy.
Monica Kumar: So basically, like a “if he smelt it, he dealt it” situation? Like, if it ain’t stinky, it’s not a problem?
Erika Eitland: Mmhmm, yes—resulting in more kids with itchy eyes, teachers with asthma, and staff experiencing headaches.
Monica Kumar: Uhhh, so here we have a whole generation with poor air quality. What happens next?
Erika Eitland: The 1970s. We’re making our first attempts to fix the air-quality problem.
Monica Kumar: Sounds familiar. In 1976, we have the Toxic Substance Control Act, or TSCA. And that bill starts to require safety testing for chemicals, including the chemicals that go into school buildings, but … the effects were already widespread and the policy came too late?
Erika Eitland: Yeah, exactly. Because most of our school buildings predate this policy. To date, there are still new reports that show that in Philadelphia, there are schools with asbestos and peeling paint; or inMalibu, there are teachers who are being diagnosed with cancer associated with these environmental exposures.
Monica Kumar: It kind of sounds like the ’70s and ’80s are, like, this boiling pot, and, you know, we’re the proverbial frog in the pot.
[“Topaz” tracks fade out. “Shimmer” (instrumently only) by Lishuid / Epidemic Sound cues in.]
And not to mention the energy crisis or white flight, which is redistributing the resources for public schools, including what got built, where, and how well. The heat is slowly turning up and it’s about to reach a crisis level.
Erika Eitland: Imagine like a pot just bubbling, bubbling over. We’re in a bad situation, people. For a moment, it seems like there’s actually a little bit of relief. You know, we’ve stirred the pot, somebody turned on the heat, and we enter the fourth era: the ’90s. We’re just clear and committed. Yes, the Baby Boom schools are starting to crumble. And we have national reports and school surveys in the ’90s, documenting this over and over again. In his 1997 State of the Union Address,
[Archival audio from the 1997 State of the Union Address cues in with audience clapping.]
former President Clinton calls out the disrepair of our school buildings.
President Bill Clinton: 7th. We cannot expect our children to raise themselves up in schools that are literally falling down. With the student population at an all-time high and record numbers of school buildings falling into disrepair, this has now become a serious national concern. Therefore, my budget includes new initiatives …
Monica Kumar: So far it sounds like lots of research and data, but not a lot of action.
Erika Eitland: It’s disappointing. But the good news is the evidence was mounting.
Monica Kumar: OK, but me, I’m impatient. Sagittarius, remember? Get me to the action.
[“Shimmer” track fades out. “Night Shifts” (drums and instruments tracks) by Jones Meadow / Epidemic Sound fades in.]
Erika Eitland:Well, that’s our fifth and final era: the 2000s to now. In the last 20 years, we have seen policy and research try to spur action to address these environmental challenges. In 2001, the Healthy and High Performance Schools Act is introduced in the Senate to get money to support repairs and for just healthy energy efficient schools. The bill goes nowhere. Meanwhile, research shows 1 in 3 students are learning in portable classrooms. What do I mean by this? A trailer!
Monica Kumar: I had to go to school in trailers! That is a real thing.
[“Night Shifts” drum tracks take drops out]
Erika Eitland: You know what, though? These short-term solutions become long-term fixes. Which brings us to the 2008 recession: Budget cuts are impacting the quality and maintenance of school buildings for years to come. Let’s be real clear: The budget cuts are not affecting everyone equally. Schools in Black and Latinx communities are more likely to be located in neighborhoods with high levels of air pollution and some of the oldest school buildings.
Monica Kumar: Back to that idea of your ZIP code determines how long you live.
Erika Eitland: And we have so many stories of this, Monica. A student in Philadelphia actually dies from an asthma attack because a part-time school nurse wasn’t there that day. It’s no wonder people are out in the streets. Because we have research.
[“Night Shifts” drum track kicks back in]
We have bills before Senate. We have teachers from Detroit to West Virginia, even Los Angeles, just demanding basic things like nurses, smaller class sizes, better environmental conditions, or health insurance.
Monica Kumar: And nothing is happening. And then—
[“Night shifts” instruments escalates up and then drops out, leaving just the drum track]
Erika Eitland: Our school buildings are not up to the challenge. Even a 2020 Congressional report said that one-third of our schools needed HVAC-system updates. We actually are still in buildings that need work done.
[“Night Shifts” drum track fades out. Paper rustles]
Kenneth Wertz: Dear Grown-ups, Stop screwing it up.
There’s so much at risk. And I think now the world has been put on notice that how we’ve been underfunding facilities and maintenance over the past couple of decades was completely flawed. And now there’s a hyperfocus on indoor air quality, but people are also understanding the complexities of how that’s actually improving the overall experience of people using a building.
[Paper folds, ballpoint pen scribbles]
Ken Wertz, I’m the executive director for the Mass. Facilities Administrators Association. We’re a nonprofit here in Massachusetts that supports all public facilities directors. I’m also a licensed plumber and a licensed construction supervisor here in the Commonwealth of Mass.
[Metal hinge creaks as letter is deposited]
Monica Kumar: This was not a feel-good History in 5 Key Dates. I feel pretty annoyed right now. Where is the action?
Erika Eitland: I know. It doesn’t make me feel good, either. But this is where we have to call in our Avengers. In this case, it’s going to be Captain Marvel herself:
[“Sparkle and Swirl” (instruments) by Raymond Grouse / Epidemic Sound cues in.]
Tracy Washington Enger from the Indoor Environments Division at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Tracy Washington Enger: Really, my passion for schools started as a Peace Corps volunteer. That’s really kind of how I backed my way into government.
Erika Eitland: Tracy is a giant in my mind, someone I truly admire. She has 30 years of experience working for the U.S. EPA. She’s a passionate advocate. She’s a coach for school districts who want to improve their indoor environments. But she’s much more than a fed—
Tracy Washington Enger: So I taught at a school in West Africa and discovered there that every parent, no matter where they are in the world, wants the exact same things for their kids. Everybody just wants a chance. Everybody wants their kid to be able to do a little bit better than they did.
Erika Eitland: We’re going to share just part of a conversation we had with Tracy about the national program she led to improve IAQ in schools known as the Tools for Schools Program. On our hero’s journey through the Healthy Buildings Movement, Tracy is the mentor we all need to overcome self-doubts and challenges and embrace our power as healthy-school advocates.
[“Sparkle and Swirl” fades out as interview begins.]
Erika Eitland: Tracy, we want to know, why is working on indoor air quality so important to you?
Tracy Washington Enger: Thanks, Erika. It’s great to be here. For me, when I have been able to see the impact that the educational facility has on all of the outcomes that we’re trying to achieve academically, performance wise, health wise, recognizing that—you know, we hear it all the time, but it’s so true, that where kids learn is just as important as what they learn. And what I’ve seen is that that school building is really a part of the curriculum. It is part of the pedagogy, you know, that’s going on for those students. It has a direct impact on how successfully educators are going to educate and how successfully students are going to matriculate through the educational process. So I’m just committed to making sure that the environment not only doesn’t impede their ability to succeed, but it supports and amplifies their ability to succeed.
Monica Kumar: So you spoke about your experience as a Peace Corps volunteer, seeing the impact of these buildings on education. Was there a moment where indoor air quality really started to rise above? You know, how did that realization enter into the picture?
Tracy Washington Enger: You know, I feel really fortunate that when I left Peace Corps, I started working directly for the Environmental Protection Agency. And when you come from an experience like Peace Corps, you can’t just go work anywhere. You know, you’rem you’re bitten by this—or at least I was—bitten by this public-service bug. So when I came into the Indoor Environments Division, we were just starting to launch Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools, which is our voluntary guidance for schools to help them put in place comprehensive indoor-air-quality management programs. You know and I got it. I saw all of the pieces. I was like so many people out there. I knew there were all these pieces, and we were trying to bring them together and create this, you know, this story about the importance of the indoor environment. So we did what government does, right? We created some guidance, and we thought we were being super innovative. And we were. Because instead of putting it in a book, you know, we put it in this cool box that had Velcro, and you opened it up and it made this very satisfying Ssschllkk sound, right? And inside were all of these checklists and, you know, and wheels and things, and we called it an “Action Kit.” It wasn’t just guidance. It was an Action Kit, right?
Monica Kumar: Very action oriented!
Tracy Washington Enger: Very action oriented! And we expected these things to just fly off the shelves. And when they didn’t, we were flummoxed, right? We were like, But we know you need this because the Government Accounting Office told us that you need it. And we know that schools are suffering from deferred maintenance. We know that you have indoor air quality problems. Why aren’t you playing with our kit? And so we did this really crazy thing for government where we actually went and, like, talked to people. And once we started to actually see the condition of schools and talked to the folks who were managing these facilities, the urgency for me? Then it became personal. You know, I remember going on a tour—so more directly to your point, Monica—I remember going on a tour. We were with one of our partner agencies. I believe it was folks we were working with from the American Lung Association. This particular school also had a preschool, and it was a Head Start in the basement of the building. And it was egregious. Everything that we were trying to address—mold and moisture issues, pest issues. We opened up a cabinet and— Everyone’s trying to do the very best they can, so what do you find there? You find pesticides. We found cleaning products. We found all kinds of things that just should not have been available to, you know, to preschool children. It was just this stunning moment where we realized, you know, This is real. And one of the women who was there with me on this tour grabbed my arm, and she looked at me and she’s like, “People send their babies here.” And they do. They entrust— We entrust our national treasure—our youth—to these buildings.
Monica Kumar: I love this example, because this is something Erika and I talk about often is, you know, you can produce as many toolkits and resources as you want. But what is that barrier between that knowledge and the implementation? So what did you guys learn when you were out there in the field? What’s, what’s the barrier?
Tracy Washington Enger: Oh, gosh, yeah. So that’s, that’s a great question. And we did learn a lot. So there are a number of barriers that are out there, right? And people often will say, “Oh, it’s the money. It’s the money. It’s the money.” Well, no, not so much. Because when you have an indoor air quality crisis, when someone finds mold or you lose a child to an asthma attack, all of a sudden the money is there. The money shows up, right? In arrears of things happening. So how do you get money to show up proactively? So it was really important for us to be able to move people from an understanding of the guidance to actually putting the guidance into practice. A kit on the shelf does us no good. They need to be able to take action on it. And so again we went out and we started to get feedback from the actual school districts. And we talked to the people who were putting it into action, who were getting results. And we said, OK, so what are you doing? And the power of where we’re positioned in a federal government program is we could talk to lots of school districts, and we could get lots of information back. And so when we started to see these patterns emerging, we did this other powerful thing, which was name it. Naming things has power. So we took all of these what appear to be disparate actions that people were taking, and we categorized them, and we named them, and we put them into a system, and then we gave it back to the community. It was sort of like a Rosetta Stone, right? That became our language for comprehensive indoor air quality management. We could coach school districts around that. We created champions from our school districts who would go out and talk to other mentor school districts and say, “Oh, well, that sounds like an assessment issue. Here’s how you use the kit to address that.” “Oh, that’s an evaluation issue. Here’s how you use the kit to address that.” And so it really was the roadmap for moving into action.
Erika Eitland: Who are the great people who have started to use this? You know, who are the rock star people that you are working with now who are continuing to teach you?
Tracy Washington Enger: So what we recognized was there were these pockets of excellence that were going on out there and the quicker we could shine a spotlight on them, the quicker we could replicate the success that they were having. And so we created an awards program, and people started to kind of come out of the woodworks, right? What they didn’t realize was part of our nefarious plan around the whole thing was, once we handed you that award, man, did we make you work for it. People couldn’t work hard enough for us. So we couldn’t ask too much of them. You know, we still have people in the network today, who were original award winners from 15 years ago. One of the first things that we did was we started to fashion those folks together in a group where they could support one another and support other school districts around the country. We call them our faculty. And that faculty group then grew into our master class group: folks who are seeking this information so that they can help not only their school district, but other school districts around the country. So we have worked really hard to harness that rock star energy. But the other thing we discovered was the school districts who are really challenged, who are really struggling, and are willing to put themselves out there with all of their struggles and all of their issues so that they can receive that help and be that kind of model to others as well, they are rock stars too. Because it takes a lot to have that bravery to come forward and say, Look, we’re struggling, right?
Erika Eitland: A lot of vulnerability.
Tracy Washington Enger: Exactly, exactly. When there are problems going on there, school districts are afraid to bring them out into the open, because, you know, they’re afraid that they’re going to be faced with the torch-bearing villagers showing up and the media is going to drag them through the mud. And valid fears, often. These are valid fears. But what we have told them is, Bring everyone in. Bring them in close. Be honest. Tell the truth as fast as you can. And have a plan in place to help co-create a plan to address your problems. Because they’re not just going to go away. And you want to be the one that finds your problem. If you’re a school district that has an issue going on, especially with indoor air quality, you want to be the one to find it, and you want to be the one to share it and tell it.
[“Sparkle and Swirl” (instruments) fades back in.]
Those school districts who have been brave enough to step into that space are really amazing rock stars as well.
Monica Kumar: I could listen to Tracy all day. By the way, there is so much wisdom and experience in that interview, you’ll want to check it out in the next episode of “In the Room With,” where we share the full interviews with our guests on the show. So. I feel a little better now after our frustrating history segment. Tracy laid out a plan of action for addressing IAQ in schools. She said, Be honest, be inclusive, be brave.
Erika Eitland: I love that she makes us feel that we can all be a part of the solution. We don’t have to be afraid to make it personal. These are our kids, our communities. We don’t have time to lose.
Monica Kumar: Yes, bringing back that urgency to the Healthy Buildings Movement.
Olivia Fox: Dear Architects—
Monica Kumar: We need action.
[“Sparkle and Swirl” track fades out]
Olivia Fox: I would like you to make our schools healthier by redoing our buildings to make sure that—
[“Night Shifts” (drums) fades back in]
there aren’t any rats, there’s no mold, we have windows in every classroom, that there aren’t people standing and that everybody has a chair to sit in, bathrooms for everyone. My name is Olivia Fox and I’m a 12th grader.
[Bus engine hums as bus pulls away; school bell rings; “Night Shifts” drums continues]
Erika Eitland: It’s time for Inhabit Love Languages, people!
Monica Kumar: Research. Design. Policy.
Erika Eitland: We’ve reflected. We’ve been inspired. But now we need to a-spire to a future where there is no alternative to a healthy school. First Love Language: Research. Larry Perkins started a legacy of child-centered design. And now we have decades of clear public-health evidence—research!—that can inform school design and operation. To make all this research accessible and actionable, we here at Perkins&Will are translating it into strategies in an online resource, Healthy Schools by Design. It’s a tool to help schools and all their stakeholders respond to national health challenges in their buildings. For example, we use strategic hallway design to address bullying and obesity at Morrow High School in South Atlanta. Or when we worked with local firm Quackenbush, Architects and Planners at Wright Middle School in Columbia, South Carolina. This school is reducing exposure to everyday pollutants with walk-off carpeting at every entry. On our journey to healthy schools, we have to break down the walls that divide research and design.
Monica Kumar: Love Language No. 2: Design. You don’t have to choose between saving energy costs or saving your lungs. Yes, ventilation and filtration used to require more energy, but new technology and thoughtful design can now help us keep costs low without sacrificing airflow. We don’t need to repeat mistakes made during the energy crisis of the ’70s.
Erika Eitland: I absolutely love that, Monica. You have taught me that architects are not solely responsible for air quality in schools. But I do think architects can play a role in empowering engineers to innovate and push for better IQ. One specific design tool comes from the national nonprofit Collaborative for High Performance Schools. They’ve created a health-focused K–12 building standard and design guides with practical solutions based on research which highlights that kids are not little adults and understands that schools don’t have big bank accounts.
Monica Kumar: Speaking of bank accounts, school funding is a critical part of the healthy schools pie. This brings us to our last and arguably the most important love language for this episode: Policy. During the pandemic, there were multiple rounds of money given out to school districts, but these were just one-time investments that do not address historically failing school buildings.
[“Night Shifts” drums fade out]
Erika Eitland: By a recent estimate, only 1 percent of school funding comes from the federal government. The rest comes from the local and state tax base, with 11 states paying nothing. This perpetuates inequities. It means low-income school districts are constantly relying on finite state resources compared to their affluent counterparts that have a larger tax base to fund improvements and maintenance.
Monica Kumar: Let’s put this in a different perspective. Schools are the second largest infrastructure burden in the United States next to highways and roads. But unlike highways, which have most of their capital costs paid by the federal government, schools receive next to nothing.
[“It’s Not Me” by Arthur Benson / Epidemic Sound cues in]
We’re recording this in November of 2021, and just a few days ago President Biden signed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill towards, you guessed it, bridges, roads, and other things—which, by the way, was called Build Back Better. But again, the $100 billion that was promised towards school modernization was totally stripped from the bill at the last minute.
Erika Eitland: Ugh, Monica, I feel myself getting angry again, because we are currently underfunding our school buildings by $85 billion every single year. How can we expect kids learning in 1930s buildings filled with asbestos and mold to be prepared for college or even compete for jobs with their healthy school counterparts? [Sighs] Every child needs a healthy school. And we need to collectively do the work.
Monica Kumar: Changing policy takes time, but let’s make sure it’s not 2,000 years.
Erika Eitland: Uh, preach!
Monica Kumar: 2,000 years! Come on. Mark your calendar for April 5. You can join schools around the country for National Healthy Schools Day. Celebrating its 20th year, this day of action is for all our school rock stars—including you—to push for better learning environments. The Healthy Schools Network has resources so you can host local activities, celebrate school successes, or even write an op-ed for your local paper to build awareness and support investments in our schools.
Erika Eitland: And on that note, we have one more letter for you.
[“It’s Not Me” cuts out; mic stand creaks; electric clip as cord plugs in; three mic taps]
Senator Jo Comerford: My Dear and Esteemed Legislative Colleagues, I want you to make our schools healthier by increasing budget allocations to the MSBA, the Massachusetts School Building Authority, and by passing legislation like the Healthy and Green Public Schools Act, so that our schools can be healthier and greener now and into the future. My name is Senator Jo Comerford. I represent the Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester district in Massachusetts State Senate.
[“It’s Not Me” kicks back in]
Monica Kumar: Now that’s what we’re talking about. Advocacy looks like power speaking to power. We have been on a journey these past weeks, talking about just one movement, the Healthy Buildings Movement. We started with the built environment and healthy spaces. Then we went on to healthy materials and healthy air.
Erika Eitland: And we’ve been talking about how to make change happen faster. That’s what we’re about. Movement on all fronts: design, research policy, social media, letters, podcasts, movies, marches—
Monica Kumar: We do have the power to change the built environment.
Erika Eitland: So let’s keep using it! Where are we going to take our Love Languages next, Monica?
Monica Kumar: Ooh, Magic 8-Ball says … “Better not tell you now.”
Erika Eitland: Huh?
Monica Kumar: What does that mean? What should we do next?
Erika Eitland: I guess this means the world is our oyster, no? So maybe we just dream a little bit?
Monica Kumar: Mmmm, OK … Bigger sidewalks, inclusive public space, restorative justice …
[“It’s Not Me” ends; conversation starts to fade out]
Erika Eitland: Accessibility, public transit for pregnant women … Also what is embodied carbon?
Monica Kumar: What IS embodied carbon?
Erika Eitland: Or value engineering? Maybe a partis? I want a partis!
Monica Kumar: Oh, Erika, we can get all up in the partis! We can have a charrette about it! Plans, sections, elevations, axonometric drawing …
Erika Eitland: OK, hold up. What is an exploded axon, you know? This is craziness.
[Beats and claps track cues in]
Monica Kumar: Inhabit is a production of Perkins&Will. I’m Monica Kumar.
Erika Eitland: And I’m Erika Eitland. Check out our show page at inhabit.perkinswill.com for the show notes, music, and links to all the resources and references we mentioned. Follow us on Insta @perkinswill.
Monica Kumar: Lauren Neefe is our executive producer and edits the show. Anna Wissler is our art director and co-produces the show. Mixing and sound editing by Threaded Films. Music courtesy of Epidemic Sound. Julio Brenes in our Atlanta studio created the fabulous illustrations you see on our website.
Erika Eitland: And thanks to our Advisory Board: Pat Bosch, Casey Jones, Yehia Madkour, Angela Miller, Rachel Rose, and Kimberly Seigel.
Monica Kumar: Finally, a special thank-you to Tracy Enger for sharing her warmth and wisdom with us all—
Erika Eitland: And to all the healthy school Avengers who poured their passion for healthy schools and buildings into the love letters featured in this episode.
[Beats and claps get louder]
PW Chorus: Uhhhh, People, first and foremost. Places. Power. Design. Change. Now.
[On final beat clap and “Now,” a snap echoes into an empty room with a rumble underneath; when the rumble has faded into silence, Monica comes back in]
Monica Kumar: Yeah, like and when you work you need what, Monica? And I’m like, Policy! Research! And Design! And you’re like, No, girl, tools. We need tools. Yeah? Noooo?
Erika Eitland: Sassy! We can try it again. Let’s do it again …