Hawai’i’s tropical climate is paradise for tourists but a major pain point for the Hawai’i Department of Education, which faces the challenge of cooling 290 schools in microclimates spread across the state’s 1,500-mile archipelago. The majority of these schools are aging post-war buildings without air conditioning,

MKThink is the principal investigator in the district’s Heat Abatement Program, a multi-year initiative to improve classroom conditions, which are critical to student and faculty comfort and concentration. The firm was commissioned by Hawai’i Department of Education and the Hawai’i Natural Energy Institute (HNEI) to conduct a pilot study of thermal comfort factors at four schools on the Campbell Campus in Ewa Beach, Oahu. The study examined physical assets, environmental conditions, and cultural factors that contribute to thermal comfort.

Physical assets assessed the condition, quality, and design of buildings—building orientation, roof color, construction material, window types and placement. Indoor and outdoor environmental conditions included temperature, relative humidity, solar radiation, wind speed, and CO2 levels. Cultural factors looked at classroom loads, seating configurations, clothing choices, scheduling, and student activity levels.

The pilot study laid the groundwork for a statewide assessment of HIDOE facilities. MKThink installed weather stations at 37 schools and classroom sensors at 62 schools, constituting a representative sample of climate zones and building types.

In 2017, MKThink, in partnership with HNEI and data analytics firm RoundhouseOne, launched the Thermal Comfort Portal—a website that makes the collected data publicly available. The portal serves as research resource for microclimatic data across Hawaii as well as specific building performance of the public school. This information in several ways:

  • Access to local weather data guides schools with short-term decisions related to weather.
  • A combination of outdoor and indoor temperature readings helps HIDOE identify schools with consistent heat issues for targeted thermal comfort improvements.
  • Detailed information from classrooms helps architects and planners design heat abatement solutions to address the specific issues for particular buildings and microclimates.
  • Teachers and students may use the data for class projects.
  • Community members looking for information on local microclimates can access and study the data collected at school campuses.

HNEI is conducting workshops and webinars to promote the use of the portal and actively engage with the sustainable design community, whose expertise can contribute to solutions but who are currently outside of the specific scope of the HIDOE heat abatement program.

The data is driving the prototyping, testing, and deployment of cooling strategies that offer viable alternatives to energy-intensive air conditioning. At Campbell High School, the site of the pilot study, MKThink installed an innovative shade canopy. The canopy uses multiple canvases mounted at different angles to direct wind downward while still allowing heat to escape. It provides shade and promotes circulation in the courtyard of the “donut” building to reduce heat retention and cool the surrounding classrooms.

MKThink is directly managing the implementation of sustainable cooling solutions at four other schools.  These solutions include solar-powered air conditioning systems, covered walkways, ceiling fans, nighttime ventilation, painting roofs with heat-reflective coating, and shading strategies. MKThink also acts as a strategic advisor to 35 other schools, providing guidance on heat abatement efforts.

Sustainable cooling solutions mitigate the $1.7 billion cost to install air conditioning in all HIDEO schools and contain the $48 million yearly electricity bill. They will increase the number of classrooms that can be cooled with the $100 million appropriated in 2016 for district-wide heat abatement.