Green School Design: Sustainable, Teachable, Promotable

What can be learned from a school building that earned the first sustainability award of its kind from the U.S. Green Building Council? School administrators are increasingly aware that sustainable buildings can reduce an institution’s water and energy costs — and be built on a budget comparable to conventional buildings — but the benefits are not limited to lower operating bills.

A better building rewards teachers and students with an improved educational environment. Natural daylight and superior acoustics in classrooms, for example, are both proven to enhance learning and test scores. Indeed, a sustainable building’s energy-saving strategies can even be part of the curriculum, a tool for teaching students about their relationship to the environment. In many building markets, sustainable buildings are frequently becoming a source of institutional pride and serving as centerpieces for successful fundraising campaigns.

Completed in 2009, the Michael J. Homer Science & Student Life Center at Sacred Heart Schools in Atherton, Calif., delivers all these benefits and provides a new, sustainability-driven hub for the 64-acre campus. The Homer Center is the first project in the nation to earn a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum rating from the U.S. Green Building Council as a part of its LEED for Schools program. In one structure, the building incorporates a variety of sustainability techniques and will consume 69 percent less energy and 50 percent less water than a typical school building of similar size.

For their working philosophy with sustainable campus practices, Sacred Heart Schools looks to a mission statement that challenges students and faculty to be “stewards of the Earth’s resources.” Sacred Heart Schools was already familiar with sustainable principles before they hired a design team for the project. Their intensive onsite composting and recycling programs had eliminated nearly 75 percent of the waste from the campus dining facilities, dramatically reducing garbage bills. The campus also maintains student-cultivated gardens that provide produce for the cafeteria kitchens. Clearly, the development of this building provided Sacred Heart with a new opportunity.

Designing a Strategy
In 2004, recognizing the need for a new building, Sacred Heart’s leadership felt a sustainability-driven campus hub was the next step. “This was an opportunity to say what we mean and mean what we say, with respect to sustainability,” said Sandy Dubinsky, chief operations officer for Sacred Heart Schools. Plans for the Homer Center called for a new a 310-seat cafeteria, a 700-seat auditorium, eight science classrooms with labs and administrative offices.

Implementing green measures in the K-12 arena requires extensive preliminary planning as well as architects, engineers, builders and school administrators who are open to creative sustainable solutions. The Homer Center was the product of a campus strategy with two core strengths: strategic planning and a progressive campus culture. The project — with a $25 million project cost — was funded through an institutional capital campaign complemented by an initial understanding in the value of sustainability.

Amidst the development process, members of the design build team worked with the Sacred Heart Preparatory team to identify a new goal for LEED designation. Noting the increasing potential for the building’s performance, the group targeted the highest sustainability distinction awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council – LEED Platinum.

“As the conversation continued, we realized this building could speak to who we are as a community,” said, Colin Quinton, head of the Sacred Heart Preparatory Science Department and member of the building steering committee. “One of the criteria for targeting LEED Platinum was incorporating an element that teaches sustainability — this building provides endless opportunities for teaching by example.”

Major Project Challenges

“With the different space uses, this was essentially like planning four completely different buildings under one roof – each with entirely different energy and water issues,” said Stantec Engineer David Okada, who served as project manager. “On one hand this was a challenge, on the other there were many opportunities to find the beneficial interactions in the building and to take advantage of renewable resources.”

The teams’ approach to sustainability was to understand resource use and then reduce, reuse, and substitute renewables. The starting place for this approach was the building’s exterior envelope, which reduced requirements for heating and cooling while allowing extensive daylighting.

A second stage of resource reduction, heating in the building is facilitated using the low-energy strategy of radiant heat.  A system of plastic tubing was designed to run through cement slabs located throughout the building. Sitting less than two inches below the floor’s surface, the near six-miles of tubing can be filled with warm water, which warms surrounding concrete and creates heat for spaces throughout the building. 

An interesting example of resource reuse is found in the Homer Center cafeteria. Cafeterias commonly use more energy than any other space in a school. In this structure, the cafeteria consumes about 50 percent of the energy and water used in the entire building, with refrigerators consuming much of the energy load. Typically, heat given off (“rejected”) by refrigerators is dumped outside, or worse, inside the kitchen.

At the Homer Center, the heat rejected by freezers and fridges is captured and used for heating ventilation air and pre-heating potable hot water.

While photovoltaic solar panels positioned on the roof generate energy for the Homer Center, they are not the only renewable resource used in this building. The cooling system is designed to take advantage of the local air conditions to provide “free cooling.” In warmer months, the building can be cooled with natural ventilation, including cooling down building’s structure at night. During particularly warm periods, evaporative cooling leverages the relatively low humidity to provide cooling, in place of a traditional air conditioning system that utilizes compressors and added electricity.

Teachable Design
Playing a critical role in delivering this “teachable design” was the architectural vision established with the Sacred Heart Schools and its design team.

The building design holds four science classrooms that overlook large photovoltaic solar panels that provide energy for the center. Also visible is a “green roof” covered with living vegetation, designed to attract native bird and butterfly species. Extensive use of windows and skylights — properly  sized and -oriented — provide added daylighting, which has been widely recognized in education to benefit the learning environment.

Upon completion of the project in 2009, the main entrance to the building featured a touch screen display that easily showcases — in real time — the energy use and efficiency taking place in the building. Using a Web-based access tool, faculty can access the information in classrooms to use as a reference point in lectures.

“This building is much more than I ever could have imagined,” said Quinton. “It’s hard to come to work or learn in a building like this and not feel valued. You don’t need teachers or parents to explain the environmental impact this has — the examples are everywhere.”

John Andary is a principal and engineer in the San Francisco office of Stantec Consulting, a group focused on green buildings and sustainable development. Andary has provided sustainable engineering solutions to education and LEED-certified projects across North America and the world.