Sustainable Literacy Center

Green schools are becoming increasingly popular among school districts seeking a way to decrease operational costs, while promoting healthy learning environments for students and teachers. The U.S. Green Building Council estimates that if all new school construction and school renovations went green starting today, energy savings alone would total more than $20B over the next 10 years. In addition to cutting costs, green schools are also the safest environment for children to learn in. Further, studies show that good indoor air quality improves health, which results in higher attendance rates. While green building is undoubtedly a tremendous step forward for school districts, it is also a significant process that schools should fully understand and be comfortable with in order to maximize the benefits.

When the Springfield School District, in Delaware County, PA, decided to build a literacy center for its kindergarten and first grade classes, they had many goals in mind. Most importantly, they wanted to build a sustainable facility that fostered individual educational needs. The school district had set an impressive goal of 100 percent literacy by the fourth grade for its students. To achieve their goal, they developed an intervention plan that assesses the strengths and weaknesses of each student and offers them personalized instruction on an as-needed basis to ensure that each student is meeting their unique learning potential.

The district realized the importance of a learning facility that would serve as more than just a traditional classroom. A major element of this unique curriculum calls for individualized instruction as well as project-based learning. It was also essential that the building be a reflection of the community, as it would be the first new building in 50 years.

Springfield School District Superintendent Dr. James Capolupo began researching this project and established some distinct requirements. He wanted a green learning facility that would double as teaching tool. He also wanted a building that the community could be proud of.

“This was the first new building in 50 years, and we felt it was crucial to do it right,” said Dr. Capolupo. “We want to teach children about the future and instill in them the importance of protecting the future so that when they are leaders one day, they will make the same conscious choices.”

In 2006, the Springfield School District commissioned Burt Hill to design a literacy center that would respond specifically to the need for varying types of learning styles and group sizes while maintaining sustainability. Of course, the district also expected a building that would inspire children and teachers and promote a healthy learning environment.

Initially, the design team and the school administration met with community stakeholders to gather input during the pre-design and planning design phases. The team conducted discovery sessions that consisted of public forums and presentations. The community responded enthusiastically to the recommendation for fully integrated building technology that would connect students to a “flat world.” The team proposed playful elements, such as alphabet walks and play areas embedded with strong literacy themes, which were well received and incorporated into the final design.

Performance Analysis and Energy Models

After collecting the community data, the design team then met internally to conduct a pre-design sustainability charrette before the project even began, to weigh all of the available options. In addition to the designers, members of Burt Hill’s Performance Analysis team were included in early meeting stages. The Performance Analysis team works with architects, engineers, and clients to integrate advanced energy analysis within the design process. They apply engineering models and computer simulations to the development of innovative designs and integrated building systems. Once there was a clear idea of the school’s sustainable capabilities, a formal meeting was held with the school administration to discuss sustainable design and the LEED process.

When the district determined it would pursue LEED certification, the analysis team used a cutting-edge software program from Integrated Environmental Solutions Limited (IES) called Virtual Environment (<VE>) to perform daylight analysis, dynamic thermal simulations, and other relevant studies to help make more informed decisions with regard to building design and performance. The team demonstrated progress by coordinating the use of Building Information Modeling (BIM) software, which directly imported the architectural design model created in Autodesk Revit into the energy modeling software. “Through this integrated design process we were able to incorporate results from the energy model early on and compare alternatives,” said Matthew Rooke, AIA, LEED AP, associate on Burt Hill’s Performance Analysis Team. “This will ultimately help decrease energy costs in the long run.”

The building site itself presented certain constraints that influenced design, particularly in the area of daylighting, which was an especially important element of this project. Daylighting analysis consisted of identifying the glazing size, type, and shape options while the energy picture was assessed based on the same parameters. Also, the influence of the wall assemblies and natural ventilation options were evaluated. The energy analysis scrutinized how alterations to the different parameters would affect changes. The building modeling proved to be an easier and a more accurate way of determining how big the windows should be and where they should be, in terms of orientation and location, to achieve the most effective daylight levels for student activities.

Small Changes, Big Improvements

There were certain situations where small changes in the design were made to improve the overall outcome. For instance, the Literacy Center’s original design incorporated a bank of floor-to-ceiling windows in each classroom. After the intensive analysis showed that this would not meet the school’s goals for student experience due to high light levels and glare, an alternative design was pursued. The alternative design consisted of removing a section of window at the floor level and inserting smaller windows in another section of the wall, which would limit glare while still allowing for natural daylight.

The Performance Analysis Team also explored the use and position of external shading devices and light shelves. The software simulation indicated that light shelves needed to be added to specific windows where the analysis detected a potential glare or overheating issue. The glazing was also assessed to balance the desire for transparency without significantly sacrificing the building’s thermal performance. Furthermore, an increased level of insulation in the wall was needed to improve the overall energy efficiency. The thermal analysis examined heat losses and gains in order to avoid summertime overheating while minimizing the cost of heating in the winter.

Reaping the Benefits
One of the most obvious and alluring benefits to building sustainably is the financial aspect. It is estimated that the building will use 26 percent less energy than a similar baseline facility. In terms of the HVAC systems, a payback analysis shows payback in approximately seven years.

While the financial rewards of this project are undoubtedly valuable, the true goal of the Literacy Center is to provide the best environment possible for children to learn in. The mission of the Springfield School District is to “empower students to achieve their individual potential and inspire them to become ethical and contributing citizens.” Thus it is fitting that students will learn environmental stewardship through the building’s sustainable design features. Elements of the geothermal heating, biofiltration, daylighting, and green roof systems will be displayed, explained, and experienced to further support learning.

These green design elements directly tie in with the open, natural environment of the Center’s classrooms. It was a goal of both the design team and the school district to have students become immediately immersed in a tranquil world of reading, instruction, and the act of learning. Nature is another underlying theme to the building, which is nestled amidst a grove of trees. Learning environments also span freely from inside to outside in order to encourage students’ various needs and preferences. The building is designed for flexibility to accommodate changing needs and technology so that the building will grow with its students.

The ample benefits to sustainable design are undeniably appealing. This building is a genuine example of a green facility that is changing the future of education. As more schools realize the importance of building green, hopefully the innovative design and communication techniques used throughout this building will be tools that guide future projects to ensure that we continue to move forward.

The Springfield Literacy Center is scheduled to open for student occupancy in December of 2009.

Michael Corb is a Senior Associate AIA at Burt Hill in Butler, PA.