Sing Yin Secondary School, in Hong Kong, has all the impressive technology you would associate with a "green school": solar panels, wind turbines, green roofs, LED lighting, etc. But that's not why the U.S. Green Building Council just named it a winner in its 2013 "Greenest School on Earth" competition.
At the school, design is a means for teaching sustainability. "What's really impressive is what they're doing at a curricular and co-curricular level," says Rachel Gutter, director of the USGBC's Center for Green Schools. For example, Sing Yin has a program to promote energy conservation in the students' homes, and it designates about a dozen students to have specific environmental responsibilities within the school. "They're really making the students the leaders," Gutter adds.
Sing Yin is not a particularly rich institution. Like USGBC's other winning school, Uaso Nyiro Primary School, in Kenya (which we covered here), it lives within its means. "What we like about both of them is that they defy the notion that green schools are for the haves, the privileged. These are low-income schools," Gutter says.
Sing Yin's assistant principal Eric Wong says the campus implicitly urges the students "to live a greener life." Meanwhile, the features help the teachers explain sustainability—for example, around renewable energy. "They bring the students to take a look on the wind turbine and solar panel. Through observation, the students' interests are raised," he writes in an email.
For the competition, USGBC assesses schools across three criteria, using a broad definition of sustainability. First, they need to be "zero impact" in terms of their energy, water, waste, and carbon emissions. Second, they should optimize, and ideally enhance, student health. And third, they should educate students to be "fluent in green," as well as simply put up green structures.
Gutter says the meaning of sustainability will depend on the circumstances. In Uaso Nyiro's case, it is simply impressive that the school is managing to capture its own water, use local materials, and feed its students twice a day. In other contexts, being green means something more sophisticated.
"Some of this is just about a return to simplicity. It's going to be passive heating and passive solar, and natural ventilation," Gutter says. "It's about using an integrated process. A school in Washington, D.C., is not going to look exactly same. But as Americans we need to look at these schools with humility and understand that we need to learn from them."