High-Performance Schools with John Balfe from NEEP

Air quality, acoustics, and thermal comfort are just some of the critical elements to consider when assessing the indoor environmental quality of a building. But how are these characteristics measured in schools, and what programs do we have to ensure they are being prioritized?

Joining us for this episode is John Balfe from Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships (NEEP). John discusses the key components to a high-performance school, as well as the programs and standards that are being implemented to help ensure the development of healthy academic environments.

Episode Guest: John Balfe, Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships (NEEP)

John Balfe HeadshotJohn works on the Buildings Team at NEEP to help drive energy efficiency in new and retrofitted schools and public buildings throughout the region. John works with the various stakeholders in the industry to advance public policy with high-performance building standards in the region, including facilitation of information exchange and knowledge transfer between states and programs. Prior to joining NEEP in 2015, John interned at the Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission located in Manchester, NH. He graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 2014 with a BS in Community and Environmental Planning.

Episode Information and Resources

NE-CHPS v3.2

  • This is the criteria for the design of high performance schools focused on indoor environmental quality, energy efficiency, and ongoing operations.

CAPEE (Community Action Planning for Energy Efficiency)

  • This tool is for communities to help stakeholders plan and prioritize energy efficiency projects at the local level.

NEEP’s High Performance Schools Webpage

  • This includes links to other relevant info and case studies for high performance schools.

NEEP Newsletter

  • Subscribe to our newsletter to stay up on the latest from NEEP.

Blog: SWA’s Top 10 Tips for a Healthier Indoor Environment

About Buildings and Beyond

Buildings and Beyond is a production of Steven Winter Associates. We provide energy, green building, and accessibility consulting services to improve the built environment. For more information, visit


Robb Aldrich | Kelly Westby

Production Team

Heather Breslin | Alex Mirabile | Dylan Martello

Next up on Buildings and Beyond…

Universal Design with Mary Jo Peterson 

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Episode Transcript

Kelly:                                  00:06                   welcome to buildings and beyond

Robb:                                00:09                   The podcast that explores how we can create a more sustainable built environment

Kelly:                                  00:14                   by focusing on efficiency, accessibility, and health.

Robb:                                00:18                   I’m Rob Aldrich

New Speaker:                  00:19                   and I’m Kelly Westby.

New Speaker:                  00:21                   This week I talked with John Balfe from NEEP- Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships, and John works a lot with school buildings, high performance schools. There’s an organization called CHPS C-H-P-S collaborative for high performance schools, which offers guidance and also certification for schools all over the country. And NEEP, John’s organization, manages the northeast regional version of CHPS, for folks in the northeast and the mid-Atlantic. I do want to say that the website Is the proper website. A couple of times in the episode, I think I say That is incorrect. It’s all correct in the show notes. So here’s an interview with John Balfe.

Robb:                                01:12                   All right. High performance schools. First of all, did you go to a high performance school?

John:                                 01:18                   I did not. Well, my high school was decent, but it wasn’t built to any criteria. My old elementary school recently got knocked down and renovated and it is now a high performance school, it’s a CHP school. So it was kind of cool to see. And I actually went back and did a case study on it. So that was kind of cool.

Robb:                                01:38                   Cool, where was it?

John:                                 01:38                   It in Middleton, Massachusetts. Yeah, it’s a lot better than when I went there, that’s for sure.

Robb:                                01:45                   Yeah, I was thinking about that when we are kind of prepping for this call, I was thinking back on my school and it was, you know, I think it was built in the fifties or something, it was before I was born. And the one thing I remember when I was thinking about it, it was just the heat. You know, if you go back to school in September, you can get a heat wave in September. This was also in Massachusetts and I remember it just being stifling in classrooms. That’s not a good place to learn. So when we’re talking about high performance schools, the first thing that comes to mind, for me, is indoor air quality. Is that a big pillar of CHPs and of these programs?

John:                                 02:27                   Yeah, I think indoor air quality, and we kind of even broaden it a little bit further than that to the indoor environmental quality, so things like acoustics, air quality, thermal comfort of the building are kind of the key components of indoor environmental quality. There all really important because, you know, if a student’s sitting in the back of the class and the HVAC equipment comes on and it’s really loud and distracting, you know, that kid in the back of the class might not be hearing what the teacher is saying. And that can be really difficult. You know, not a great learning environment. I like to always say that there’s three main pillars, energy efficiency and environmental stewardship, really. So, you know, it’s an energy efficient building and reduces the impact on the environment around us. So to me, those are the big, the big three things that high performance schools have in common.

Robb:                                03:25                   Gotcha. Efficiency, indoor environmental quality, not just air indoor air quality and environmental impact. Local locally and globally thinking small and big?

John:                                 03:35                   Yeah. I think as much as possible in the chp’s criteria, you can get points for locally sourced materials, and citing your school building in a proper way. I think it has local impact for sure, but, you know, we’re all in this together, so it’s kind of a global impact as well.

Robb:                                03:59                   Awesome. And there are plenty of high performance building programs, green building programs. What is different? CHPs is very specific to schools. What are the big challenges or what’s different about schools that CHPs addresses?

John:                                 04:20                   Yeah, I’m glad you said that. CHPs is designed just for schools. LEED has a few different building types that it works in and really is focused on kind of community wide stuff, which is, you know, super important. But schools where the focus of chps from the beginning, and northeast chips, which is the criteria that I’ll probably be referencing throughout the talk today, that was built with input from a lot of regional stakeholders here in the northeast region. Facility directors, school business officials, architects and engineers, so it was really a collaborative effort to, to build this criteria with, you know, what’s really important here in the northeast. So I think there’s regional adaptations of the CHPs criteria, Northeast chps being one of them. So, I think that’s a little bit different of a twist from maybe some other criteria that are out there. And what’s different about schools? I think we all know how important schools are. You know, it could be the reason that folks move to a town, if there’s a really good school system, you know, we often say they’re the center of the community. And I think that’s so true now more than ever, with some of their resiliency discussions coming into play, they’re being used as community centers more and more. And so often we’re seeing a new school being built and that school is being used for many other things besides just kind of the educational component of it. Obviously that’s the main focus, but there’s stuff going on during the summer at the schools and maybe there’s stuff going on in the morning before school or afternoon activities, whether that’s sports or camps or, you know, feeding the hungry in that community. You know, we’re seeing that happen a lot. So I think that’s kind of what’s different about schools. You know, they’re just the center of the community and they’re used for a lot more than education. And I actually wrote a blog on this not too long ago that highlighted that students spend over, I think it was 15,000, maybe close to 16,000 hours over their life in a school building. So it’s, you know, a place where students are spending a ton of time, and having an important focus in these environments, I think just makes good sense. And you know, over the long run can save the community a lot, a lot of money if we’re focusing on high performance.

Robb:                                06:55                   No arguments. So interesting. So like LEED can have a LEED restaurant. A restaurant is used as a restaurant all the time, but where schools are, like you said, they’re going to be, you know, used during the school day and then after hours, other groups, other town groups coming in, often town meetings, elections, the weekends you have all kinds of different stuff going on. And the CHPs criteria has specific methods or credits to kind of encourage you to address these different uses. Did I hear you correctly there?

John:                                 07:33                   Yeah that’s, that’s exactly right. There are a few different ways that either the community gets involved in the upfront design of the school building, but there’s also particular credits in northeast chps and probably all the other adaptations of chips as well. They give you points for, you know, joint use of facilities I think is what it’s called in northeast chps. So having plans in place to allow for the greater community to either rent out the different spaces, whether that’s the auditorium, the cafeteria, just a particular classroom or some of the fields out in the athletic yard. So there’s different plans that you can have in place to make these kind of transactions or allowing the community to use them pretty easily. And you know, some schools may charge community for those uses. Some may not. You know, it might depend on if you’re a nonprofit or a for profit. They might charge different rates there, but we’re also seeing that it’s a great way for some schools if they are charging to get a little bit extra money that way. So it’s something I don’t think everyone thinks about when they’re building a school, but, you know, it’s something the community is really invested in it and kind of wants to show off and this is one of the great things about chps is kind of gets you thinking about how your school can be used by others as well.

Robb:                                09:02                   Cool. Yeah, that’s pretty neat. That’s something that I hadn’t, I hadn’t thought about discreetly, not in that way.

John:                                 09:08                   Yeah. And sometimes it can be a bit of a challenge because you don’t necessarily factor in that the school is going to be used a lot more than just regular school hours. So you know, things like energy modeling, just taking that into account is really important so that you can have accurate models and really try to understand, you know, how much the school will actually be used. So it’s things like that that we’re trying to share those stories with folks that are going through the process and make sure that they’re aware of it if that’s kind of the route they want to go down.

Robb:                                09:44                   How about new technologies or systems? Or maybe not new, but stuff you’re seeing more and more? I mean, personally I see lots more PV on schools everywhere. Kind of great high visibility place for solar and a tool to teach kids about solar. But are there other kinds of different lighting technologies or ventilation approaches or are there any kind of new technological trends you guys see in chp’s schools?

John:                                 10:14                   Yeah, I think definitely we’re seeing a lot of renewable energies, probably solar being the biggest one in schools. And like you said, it’s definitely an opportunity to kind of teach students about what renewable energies are. But also on the energy efficiency side of things. You know, there are ways to kind of integrate that into the curriculum as well. So in a lot of the schools I have toured, and you know, just been in I guess over the past couple of years, LED lights are obviously very common, controlling of those lights. Some schools will have some really good day lighting features. So there’ll be sensors in classrooms that will dim the lights automatically when enough sunlight is being introduced into that room. And conversely, if you know, there’s not enough natural daylight coming in, then the lights will brighten. So it’s kind of smart control, smart building type features that we’re seeing in a lot of other building types are now going into schools too, which is pretty cool.

Robb:                                11:17                   Let me stop you for a second, but are there actually credits in the CHPs programs for incorporating high performance features as part of the curriculum for students? Is that strongly encouraged?

John:                                 11:33                   Yes, there is a whole section and we often reference it or talk about it as kind of using the school as a teaching tool. But yeah, integrating that into the curriculum, it gets you some extra credits in CHPs and there are a lot of good other organizations that kind of focus specifically on working the building into the curriculum, so there are a lot of good case studies and you know, things that you can follow out there. But yeah it’s certainly built into the chps criteria as well.

Robb:                                12:03                   Nice. That’s very cool. Yeah, I think it’s a great opportunity to kind of just engage and educate students. I’ve been in a few schools where the design team will really accentuate or highlight the HVAC equipment in a building. Like, you know, the ducts and things like that, they’ll really try to paint them, you know, unique colors and bright and vibrant so that they kind of piques the interest of students and then, you know, maybe gets them asking questions about that. And getting that conversation started, so that’s pretty cool. And, you know, it just makes for kind of a nice environment with those, those types of colors. But that’s Kind of one unique way. Another technology that I’ve seen in a couple of schools now you know, with technology just changing so much, textbooks aren’t as prevalent in schools and libraries are a little bit different than they used to be. When I went to school, we were seeing a lot of students with iPads or laptops owned by the school district potentially. So one thing that I’ve seen a couple of times are laptop carts or device carts that are used for charging the equipment at the end of the day or you know, whenever it runs out of battery life. But basically, these laptops or iPads or whatever they might be, are stored in a closet. And there’s this electric supply to the cart, and once all the iPads are done charging, the electricity just kind of shuts off there. So you’re not plugging in individual iPads or laptops in classrooms, you know, all over the place in the school anymore, which is nice to see. And you’re not seeing kind of those phantom loads that are just draining a small amount of energy throughout the night.

John:                                 13:59                   But collectively with all the iPads and all the laptops over the course of a year that that can amount to a lot of energy. So things like these laptop carts are pretty cool that we’re seeing that kind of help to navigate that issue I guess.

Robb:                                14:13                   Yeah, it’s interesting. I was at a meeting recently, this is related to schools, but they recently reset the benchmarks for commercial buildings for energy star through the portfolio manager tool. So the benchmark for schools, one of the big challenges was computers from the last time they set the benchmark, I don’t know if it was six years ago or 10 years ago, but you know, they used to have this energy allotment for computers in schools and you know, a school might have a few dozen computers. Now they have hundreds and hundreds of computers and they’re much more efficient, but they’re so much more prevalent. It’s an interesting challenge and just an interesting exercise to see how these energy usage patterns change.

John:                                 15:06                   I think plug loads, you know, just in general or you know, through the roof and a lot of these, these types of facilities, you know, people plugging in and charging their devices. Maybe that happens less so in schools, but laptops and iPads for sure that’s huge in schools. And then whatever the teachers might be bringing into the school as well, you know coffee pots or mini fridges, those sorts of things. So managing all that I think, you know, with some of the technology we have today is probably a lot easier than it was. And one other last kind of technology that I’m seeing a lot, and this is more on the student educational side of things, are building energy dashboards. So a big monitor right when you come in the school or in a kind of high visibility place that get students interested in how much energy. Maybe it only impacts a few students here and there, but I think, you know, it gets people thinking about how much energy they’re using and sometimes those can display tips for reducing energy. So we’re seeing that pop up in a lot of building types, but especially schools where, you know, there’s that educational component as well.

Robb:                                16:20                   Excellent. Excellent. So the programs themselves, I know you can go online to the chps website,, and you can sign up for a free account and download all the info. Does NEEP have similar website for the northeast?

John:                                 16:38                   Yes. So is our website. And we have a ton of good resources and case studies on high performance schools. And that’s where actually the northeast chips criteria lives. So that’s pretty easy to navigate if you go to our school’s page. And all our resources are free to use, and they are meant for the northeast and mid-Atlantic states. So we work everywhere in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, down to DC, Delaware, and West Virginia now as well. So they’re specific to those states.

Robb:                                17:19                   So that all that info is there and free to use. If somebody wants to go through the process of certification, how does that work and who was it that actually decides to sign up? Is it the designer, is it the school board? How does the process work for getting certified?

John:                                 17:38                   Yeah, that’s a good question. And it’ll depend, I guess on the state and the community. You know, who actually kind of pushes for chps. You know, sometimes we’ll see a school board member will be really familiar with northeast chips and they will want to really push for that. Sometimes it’s the architect or the engineer bringing it to the community saying that these things are achievable and we should be looking at that. Usually it’s the architects or the design team, I guess I should say, kind of going through the process and, you know, doing all the paperwork and making sure that the credits line up and that sort of thing and submit in documentation. But it really can depend on who’s pushing for it. We always try to get some language in the RFPs when a community is going out to bid for a school project. We try to get language in there about targeting a low energy building or specifically northeast chps. So it can definitely depend just kind of where the process is taking place. On the CHPs side of things, it again, will depend on the state because, you know, in Rhode Island, they do in house reviews of all the documentation that comes in. So they actually have the school building authority there in Rhode Island that reviews all the forms that were filled out. And then they’re the ones that actually, you know, say that yes, you met the chps criteria or no you didn’t because of these reasons and you know, this is what you can do next. In other states it’s submitted directly to chps, the organization itself, and they have reviewers on staff that, you know, go through all this paperwork and figure out whether you met the criteria or not. So, you know, kind of depends. There are different rules in different states, I guess.

Robb:                                19:35                   Earlier is better in any kind of design process to make sure you get the details right, I’m sure. I mean, you don’t want to be ready to start construction and then, hey, let’s make this high performance. I’m sure that this is even more the case for schools and then some other buildings.

Speaker 3:                        19:53                   Yeah, absolutely. You know, I think these projects sometimes take years and years. So the earlier you can get in and the more planning you can get done, and just kind of the more information that you can gather as a community or as a design team on, you know, how to accomplish these goals. The earlier the better for sure. We try to tell that to all our communities. And you know, a big piece of this is engaging with your local utilities. And that’s actually one of the prerequisites in northeast chps is, you know, making sure you’re working with utilities and getting the technical assistance in the financial incentives that they might have available to you. So that of course has to happen early on as well. So we’re always trying to push for schools to think about these things early and get the process started as soon as they can.

Robb:                                20:37                   So what’s the result? I mean, we mentioned earlier that, you know, good indoor environmental quality is great. It makes sense to want that in schools, but are there meaningful studies that show that, “hey, kids learn better, they actually do better” have people looked into that?

John:                                 20:57                   Yeah, there are definitely a bunch of good studies out there. There’s a lot of like anecdotal evidence from maybe one particular school that’s seen reduced absentee rates since they opened up a high-performance school. And, you know, one example I can share is the Concord school district in New Hampshire. They actually saw a pretty significant absentee rate reduction, and they opened up a few new high-performance schools back between 2010 and 2013, somewhere in that range. And they saw those reductions. So, you know, there’s a lot of things like that, but there are definitely some more kind of scientific formal studies out there. The Harvard, T.H. Chan School of Public Health is doing a lot of great work in this area right now. They have a couple of publications out there already that, you know, talk really in-depth about how the indoor environment impacts student thinking and health and test scores. So there’s certainly a lot of good information out there. The EPA actually has a lot of good resources on this as well. I think they have a whole webpage kind of dedicated to high performance schools. I’m not sure the exact title of that webpage, but you know, EPA and schools.

Robb:                                22:16                   Yeah, that’s cool. We can dig it up and we’ll put it on the show notes page as well as the link to the Harvard studies you said. And do you have cool case studies?

John:                                 22:30                   Yeah, we have a number of them on our websites. You know, I’ve done a bunch in the past few years. But yeah, we’re always looking to add to them too. So, you know, if you are ever working on a high performance school and want to create a case study I’m happy to work with whoever on that as well.

Robb:                                22:46                   Cool. How, how about existing schools? I mean we’ve been talking about new construction so far, but does chps or NEEP get into programs/methods to improve existing schools?

John:                                 23:00                   Yeah. So you can use northeast chps for new construction, for major renovation projects, or kind of in a phased approach. So, if you’re just kind of doing capital improvement projects here and there, over time you can actually become, chps verified. But the existing stock is obviously much larger than, you know, new construction buildings, so that’s a super important thing to be targeting on the NEEP side of things. We do a lot of work with facility directors. You know, we have a lot of strong connections with facility directors throughout the region. And we’re trying to help them understand what they can be doing to improve the efficiency of their buildings. We have this guide called the regional operations and maintenance guide for public buildings. So it goes beyond schools, but you know, a lot of it is targeted directly at schools and it provides a lot of best practices and lessons learned and kind of checklists. It’s a user friendly guide to help facility directors or others within the community really improve the efficiency of their existing building stock. So I think we have a lot of work to do as an industry as a hole on existing buildings. If we want to really improve some of the carbon emissions and our talk about climate change, you know, if we want to really improve those things, targeting the existing building stock is so important.

Robb:                                24:31                   Yeah. There’s a lot of them out there. It’s a big deal. And that’s a frustration. I mean, we work with a lot of designers and developers of new buildings, and they’re much, much, much, much better. And this is everybody’s scratching their heads about what we do with the 99% of buildings out there that are old?

John:                                 24:51                   Exactly. And one of the things that we always say is you got to start with understanding your building’s energy use. So, going through the benchmarking process, you know, using that portfolio manager tool that you mentioned earlier, that’s really kind of where you got to start. You got to take control. It’s just like, you know, if you’re trying to get control of your finances and your personal life, you kind of budget things out. And that’s kind of how I see looking at improving the energy in existing buildings. You know, you got to dive into it and try to figure out how much energy you’re using and where’s there’s some room for improvement. So that’s really the key first step to me.

Robb:                                25:29                   Yup. Fantastic point. Absolutely. I definitely agree. So what’s next? If we talk about this in five years, 10 years, any trends? Do You think that there’s some big changes happening? What ?are high performance schools going to look like? Or what the program’s going to look like down the road?

John:                                 25:48                   Yeah, it was interesting, I was listening to some of the earlier podcasts that you guys have produced and you know, you’re talking about zero energy buildings. and to me, I think that’s a really big one that’s being talked about really all over and in kind of small pockets of the region, these conversations are definitely happening. And depending on who you’re talking to, you know, you’ll get varying levels of, “oh yeah, that’s definitely possible at a similar budget to a regular or high performance building.” Others are a lot more skeptical and think that, you know, it costs a lot more. So, I think there’s certain tradeoffs, you know, specific to each project that can make projects a lot more if you’re targeting zero energy. But to me the important thing is really targeting a low EUI building. So just making sure that, you know, the building is conserving energy and using energy as efficiently as possible. And then tying in some of those renewable energy components into it as well. So yeah, NEEP is having these conversations across the region. I’m involved in conversations in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, so really, you know, it’s happening all over. There’s a couple of good examples down in Maryland, they had a zero energy pilot program where they selected three schools with some state funding there to get to zero energy. So I think there’s one school open now that’s, I’m not sure if it’s exactly at zero energy, but you know, I would imagine it’s pretty close if it’s not truly zero energy. And then there’s two more kind of coming online later this year. So, you know, we’re seeing more and more of these buildings pop up and I think schools are on the leading edge of this kind of zero energy movement. So, it’s really good to see, and hopefully, you know, with education kind of all-around across the market, we’ll be able to make this possible over the next five to 10 years for new construction at least.

Robb:                                27:52                   Awesome. Yeah. Schools may be a hot topic with zero energy buildings because they’re high visibility. People want high performance schools for all the reasons that we’ve been talking about. And they’re often fairly large low rise buildings with lots of roof area for solar. So yeah, I think it could be a winning combination. We’ll stay tuned for more zero energy schools.

John:                                 28:18                   I hope so.

Robb:                                28:20                   So, thanks John. Where do people go? I think we mentioned is the chps website

John:                                 28:28                   I think it’s actually But no big deal. You’d probably get there either way.

Robb:                                28:34                   thank you for the correction, we’ll put the right link on our website and, and NEEP is .org right?

John:                                 28:43                   Yup, You got that right. And I’ll just throw a plug for one of our tools that really helps communities kind of figure out what they should be taking on. It’s a tool we released early last year and it’s kind of a user-friendly guide for anyone in the community to walk through and, you know, point to specific projects that they should be taking on. So it’s called community action planning for energy efficiency. So if you’re, you know, listening and trying to figure out where your communities should be, kind of thinking about energy efficiency and what to take on first from forming an energy committee to building a high performance school. There’s all this information built into this cool new tool. So I just wanted to throw that out there as a good starting point for a lot of folks. If you know they’re overwhelmed with the mass amount of information that’s out there.

Robb:                                29:35                   Oh, cool. That sounds like it could be a great resource and that’s on the NEEP website and you can get to it from the NEEP website?

John:                                 29:42                   Yup, that’s correct.

Robb:                                29:42                   And we’ll link to that directly in the show notes too. Thanks very much, John.

New Speaker:                  29:55                   Thank you for listening to buildings and beyond. For more information about the topics discussed today, visit and check out the episode show notes. Buildings and beyond is brought to you by Steven Winter Associates. We provide energy, green building and accessibility consulting services to improve the built environment our professionals have led the way since 1972 and the development of best practices to achieve high performance buildings. I’ve production team for today’s episode includes Dylan Martello, Alex [inaudible] and myself. Heather Breslin, thank you for listening and we’ll see you next week.