Moving Toward Healthier New Schools:
The Halifax West Experience
By Karen Robinson
January 2003

When Halifax West High School opened in January 2003, it was proclaimed the
healthiest school in Canada.  Building a healthy school didn't happen by chance.  With sick building problems plaguing many Nova Scotia schools, including the old Halifax West, the Department of Education decided to strike a Healthy Schools Construction Committee to guide the process of building the new school.  Every aspect of construction was evaluated for its health impacts. Even with these considerations, the school was constructed on schedule, and under budget. And an unexpected benefit is that many of the lessons from Halifax West will form the basis for new design and construction standards for future public buildings in Nova

Across the nation, media report on new schools that are causing physical harm to occupants from off gassing of new building materials and old schools with toxic molds, combustion leaks, and other indoor air quality deficiencies that contribute to poor health and lowered performance.

A study by Honeywell in 1994, and more recent work by the US Environmental
Protection Agency and others have found impacts on academic performance add
to the health concerns for young people attending worn-out, poorly maintained and generally substandard school buildings. The size of the problem is just being recognized, but in Nova Scotia and some other areas, resources are going into upgrading and replacing worn out schools.

A new approach is emerging - designing and building schools to attempt to ensure high quality indoor environments without breaking the budget. The Nova Scotia Department of Education decided to use the construction of a new Halifax West High School to "raise the bar" in building schools that will be healthy buildings from the day they open and remain healthy buildings for the long term. It struck a Healthy Schools Construction Committee to guide the process.

The old Halifax West was closed in August of 2000 because the school had outlived its lifespan and had been causing significant health impacts on teachers and students for several years.The old school and land was given back to the city, which will demolish it and redevelop the site. In exchange, the city provided 10 acres of natural park land so that the new school would be located in a park.

The new Halifax West High School was a fast-tracked school. It took just under 2 years from the time it was announced to the time it was completed.  With 1500 students, it is the largest school Nova Scotia has built in at least 30 years. While breaking new ground in healthy school design and construction, and with the extensive evaluation of construction methods and building materials which took place at every stage, the school was still built on time and below budget. In fact, the school was completed ahead of time, and left empty for six to eight weeks in order to allow the building and contents to off gas. 

The demonstration that healthy schools don't have to cost more takes away one of the common arguments against modifying established building practices to accommodate health concerns.

Flooding from a burst pipe during a January cold snap showed that building for health can also decrease costs from unexpected crises. Because lockers had been built several inches off the floor for ease in cleaning, they did not incur water damage.   From this experience, a new wall design has been developed to avoid water damage, and a procedure for quickly and effectively dealing with flooding is being developed for use province-wide.

The procedure emphasizes quick action, so that mould does not have time togrow, and there is no need for toxic anti-fungals to be used in cleanup.  The health benefits to students and staff in Nova Scotia's schools will not stop at the doors of Halifax West. Many of the innovations incorporated into this school will become part of the Design Requirements Manual (DRM), a provincial government document which establishes building standards for all public buildings in Nova Scotia.

What makes a healthy school different? There are innumerable details. But for interest, here are thirty examples of healthy school building practices which are incorporated in the new Halifax West High School.

1. No fossil fuels are used on site, (except a few Bunsen burners.) Instead
there is an innovative heat recovery system for heating and cooling.
(Combustion systems in existing schools cause many health problems.)

2. The gym floor was finished months early and used less toxic finishes. This is a first in NS and possibly Canada if not North America.

3. The ventilation system exceeds American Society for Heating,
Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) Guidelines. Cleaner air indoors than outdoors, once off gassing is complete, is the goal. There is a huge filter system plus 100% fresh (unrecycled) air.

4. Extensive effort went into product selection for health, including less
toxic concrete additives, glues, caulks, wall and floor finishes.

5. New low-emission finishes for desks and furniture were required from the furniture supplier.

6. Ductwork was required to be delivered varsol/oil free and stored clean
on site. Ducts were well sealed daily during construction to keep dirt out, and the system was left off until final cleanup was finished.

7. Careful attention was paid to orientation of air intakes to avoid sucking used or polluted air into the school.

8. Parking lots are situated downwind (prevailing winds) and 50 ft. from
the building.

9. Halls are ventilated to insure clean out of "dead" air from hall as well
as lockers, which may be concentrated sources of pollutants.

10. A new locker design raises lockers off the floor for ease of cleaning
and to prevent build-up of mould-producing dirt under them over time.

11. All classrooms have openable windows and screens, except drama (stage area).

12. There is clear glazing in windows. Window orientation and shading
provides pleasant brightness and prevents overheating during hot
afternoons. Broad spectrum fluorescent lighting complements natural light for health, performance and comfort.

13. There is no CCA pressure treated wood (PTW) anywhere it could come in contact with skin. Special care was taken in disposal of PTW sawdust and other toxic materials such as solvents.

14. There is minimal use of fabrics and other fleecy materials, including
no carpeting.

15. There are no plastic garbage cans, since pranksters occasionally set
fires in garbage cans. Several teachers in Nova Scotia breathed toxic fumes from this in the past year alone.

16. Photocopy rooms are isolated and have separate ventilation.

17. Planning included easy access for maintenance and cleaning. In this
school, maintenance was recognized as a component of maintaning a healthy environment.

18. Heavy ceiling tiles minimize particle abrasion. The tiles selected
offgassed quickly, even though edges were not sealed .

19. Whiteboards and electronic boards plus low-emission cork boards were used.

20. Electromagnetic field exposure was minimized by controls for EMF
exposure in the computer rooms and locating wiring and electrical areas to minimize occupant exposure throughout the school.

21. There are no indoor plants or water fountains to reduce moulds. Water
coolers are lead and plastic-free.

22. An extensive radon system was installed, including mechanical exhaust of the foundation.

23. Kitchens are mainly stainless steel.
24. Care was taken not to allow sawdust or garbage to fall between walls or into block walls. (One new school had to have a wall dismantled because of rotting odours from this problem.) A special inspection was added to ensure no debris was left above the ceiling T-bars.

25. No pesticides were used during or after landscaping.

26. Least toxic cleaning materials were used.

27. The on-site inspector and construction heads were trained in healthy
school construction issues. They in turn explained the goals to workers.
For example, during construction, wet, damaged or unspecified materials
were turned away.

28. Building operators received special training. Training of maintenance
personnel was video taped for refresher sessions or if there is staff

29. The finished school underwent an extensive offgassing "flush-out"
period of several weeks, with cabinets open, furniture and equipment,
including new computers,  offgassing with ventilation running 24 hours/day.

30. Extensive preoccupancy testing and evaluation used residential rather than industry standards for indoor air quality.

The list could go on, including ways in which this school is a "green" school as well as a healthy school.  For example, with almost no fossil fuel consumption it helps meet Canada's Kyoto commitments.

Besides the Nova Scotia Department of Education, the designers and builders included The Nova Scotia Department of Transportation and Public Works, WHW Architects, Rideau Construction and many sub-contractors.

Karen Robinson is a healthy schools advocate living in Halifax.  She is Chair of the Department of Education's Healthy Schools Construction Committee (HSCC) and President of Citizens for A Safe Learning Environment (CASLE), an organization that has been succeeding at improving school products, practices and building conditions for nearly a decade.   More information on healthy school construction can be found  in the document Healthy School Design and Construction at

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