How Sustainability Lifts the Learning Foundation

Sustainability is one of the most flexible yet ambiguous terms out there. The boundary of its scope and focus can shift to fit the needs of its community. The resulting lack of clarity often results in one of two responses:

  1. You are talking about the environment, right?
  2. Yes, that sounds nice, but I do not think it relates to what I do as a [fill in blank profession].

There are a host of reasons for this, but the effect is the same – seeing sustainability as an add-on initiative rather than a foundational component. By the end of this post, my hope is you will begin to see the value in the latter.
Research is growing around the connection between learning capabilities/wellness and biophilic building/space design. The scientific consensus thus far shows that how you build spaces has a significant impact on learning. The research findings center on five design choices rooted in sustainable building thinking:

  • Natural light
  • Noise – specifically the minimization of outside sources and reverberation within the space
  • Inclusion of natural elements
  • What colors and how they are used
  • Indoor air quality

Here are a few examples underscoring the magnitude of the impact:

  • study in the Journal of Environment and Behaviour found the group of children exposed to chronic low-level noise had significantly worse memory recognition scores than their control group. [1]
  • The report Learning Spaces cites a year-long study of 2,000 classrooms by the Heschong Mahone Group, which found that: “Students in classrooms with daylight improved 20 percent faster in math scores and 26 percent in reading scores.”
  • The Heschong study estimates that the strategies of biophilia have statistically increased test scores by 5-18% and can continue to do so in schools across the country. [2]
  • report by Human Spaces states: “Research shows that optimising exposure to daylight alone can improve school attendance by an average of 3.5days/year and test scores by 5-14% whilst increasing the speed of learning by 20-26%. Trials have found that plants in classrooms can lead to improved performance in spelling, mathematics and science of 10-14%.”
  • A 2016 study in the Journal of Indoor Environment and Health on carbon dioxide and cognitive performance found that moderate amounts of stale air were linked with participants being drowsy and giving slower and fewer correct answers in cognitive tests.
  • A report by Human Spaces states: “Natural light was a crucial determinant of all three employee outcomes – well-being, productivity and creativity…Most commonly, it was views of greenery, water and wildlife that had the strongest impact upon these factors…Having no window view was frequently predictive of lower levels of creativity…Office color schemes that incorporated accents of green, blue and brown were more predictive of employee happiness, productivity and creativity than blank white walls.” [3]

The best part about these findings is they work at every grade level, every subject, every curriculum. With this perspective, sustainability is not an initiative; rather it just becomes embedded into the foundation on how we design spaces. For ISB and centers of learning around the world, sustainability is not just a nice to have, but a base expectation to provide the best learning environment for our students. Looking to the future, the ISB Sustainability Roadmap 2025 has identified biophilia design and its impact on students as an area for focus.
Curious to learn more?

  • Interface (a company focused on related building products) has posted a series of blog posts focusing on why school design matters at
  • Check out any of the sources linked above and those below:
  1. Euronoise 2018 – Conference Proceedings. Acoustic impact on effective teaching and learning activities in open learning spaces [PDF file]. Retrieved from
  2. (2019). The Economics of Biophilia. [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 Mar. 2019].
  3. HUMAN SPACES. The Global Impact of Biophilic Design in the Workplace [PDF file]. Retrieved from
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