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Union Architects, Engineers Inspiring the Next Gen to Go Green

Union Architects, Engineers Inspiring the Next Gen to Go Green
By Tula Connell

When you’re 6 or 7 years old, the start of a new school year is a big deal. But for students at PS 264 in Brooklyn, N.Y., it’s even more special this year because they are walking into a newly built “green” school. And as a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified building, that means encountering the unexpected.

Like lights that go on automatically when you’re the first one to enter a classroom.

And a gym that’s on the top floor of the building.

“The building will give us some teachable moments,” says PS 264 Principal Patrice Edison. “We’re trying to promote with our kids a sense of our environment and we’re doing everything we can do to be environmentally conscious.” The students, ages four to seven, who represent a diverse mix of races, ethnicities and income levels and come from homes where Spanish, Arabic and Mandarin are spoken, will hear tips from teachers about saving energy and recycling they can then take back to their homes and community, says Edison.  

PS 264’s gym and library, both located on the top floor, feature big windows that allow light to pour in and minimize electricity use. “A green school is completely different,” says LEED Accredited Professional Sara Soliman. “It’s aesthetically pleasing and reorients the building so the daylight hits the building and illuminates the building without using too much electricity.”

Soliman and members of Civil Service Technical Guild Local 375/AFSCME in New York are the creative forces behind the design and engineering of PS 264 and public schools and buildings throughout New York’s five boroughs. Earlier this year, 140 architects and engineers took part in LEED training through a partnership between their union and the Consortium for Worker Education (CWE). The consortium, a nonprofit training arm of the New York City AFL-CIO, got a matching grant to help the union pay for the training. Together, the union and consortium are advancing an environmentally sustainable future while also ensuring members have the most up-to-date skills and can stay competitive in a state that has an ambitious 25-year construction plan—which Local 375 and the consortium helped develop. There was “a lot of discussion of what has to happen but no discussion of who has to do it,” says Rebecca Lurie, CWE director of development. “We feared that a lot of work would be outsourced.”

“A lot of greening of our buildings could happen with local workers, but if management doesn’t invest in training the workers, New York would outsource the work,” Lurie says.

Enter the union.

When Local 375 Secretary Jon Forster encouraged members to increase their technical skills and green design knowledge by taking part in the LEED training, associate architect Sartaj Singh signed up. Since then, he’s put his new knowledge to work in schools like PS 264.

“Children are our future and, with my new knowledge of LEED design principles, these are just some small ways to invest in them,” says Singh, 29, a native of India.

“Being a Sikh”—which Singh says means “student of life”—“helps me realize and appreciate nature and the environment and have respect for it. I can go to sleep at night because I don’t worry about whether the paint I selected is toxic.”

Architect and Local 375 member Natalie Sousa shares Singh’s passion for building long-lasting, safe environments for children and for everyone in the United States, where people spend an average of 95% of their time indoors. Although the work she is doing now on existing buildings does not require LEED knowledge, Sousa took part in LEED training because she “wanted to be prepared and create sustainable schools.”

Says Singh: “Green design will benefit the children, who can now learn within an environment that is healthier and allows physical proof to them that sustainable design can be practical and a part of their everyday lives. This will hopefully inspire the next generations to improve on and not abandon the green sustainable principles of living.”

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