Sustainable Design and Construction: Collaboration Is Key

When it comes to designing and building a green school, relationships are critical to delivering a 21st century facility, which is valued by the entire community. River Crest Elementary in Hudson, Wis., is a prime example of the power of solid collaboration and the resulting rewards.

“We originally envisioned River Crest as a teaching tool for our children, but that quickly expanded to include the staff, the school district and our community as well,” says Mary Bowen-Eggebraaten, Superintendent of Schools for the Hudson School District. “River Crest has become more than a sustainably designed school for us. It moved us to the next level and extended our thinking beyond the school walls and grounds.”

Unity in Vision
From the project’s conception, the Hudson School District, guided by Bowen-Eggebraaten and the Hudson Board of Education, set their sights on creating a school that would be a model of sustainable design and practices. For them, pursuing LEED certification was central to that goal. “We are committed to environmental sustainability,” explains Bowen-Eggebraaten. “Designing and building with LEED certification in mind pushed us, and I wouldn’t want to create another building without it.”

With a passion to make a positive impact on the future of their students — specifically on their learning, on their health and on the earth they will inherit — the Hudson School District imagined a highly sustainable elementary school that combined a smart, logical flow with a striking look and feel. It was imperative that the leaders of the school district were on the same page to give clear guidance to the project.
Selecting a Firm
“We really wanted to create a green school, but we didn’t know much about LEED,” continues Bowen-Eggebraaten. Upon making the decision to build a school designed to LEED standards, the district turned to our planning, design and construction management firm, Hoffman LLC, because of our specialization in sustainable building projects. The superintendent adds, “They’ve been a partner and teacher to us, and we want to share what we’ve learned with our students, staff and community.”

The Project Team
Selection of the right firm is critical to carrying out the vision of a school district. They must be able to clearly demonstrate that they have proven success at carrying out the desires of previous building owners.

Collaboration and integration are critical for ensuring that school districts receive a facility that operates effectively and efficiently. In order to maximize sustainable (green) design and construction, it’s important to select a project team at the inception that includes planners, architects, construction managers, expert consultants and other specialists. This team should not only maintain continuous communication as a group, but also mesh with focus groups and collaborate with school board members, teachers, students, administrators, faculty and the broader community. This expanded interaction engages many more people in the process and provides a platform for taking diverse ideas and melding them together for a successful building project. It allows all involved parties to look, with the greatest peripheral vision, for environmentally friendly solutions from the very beginning.

Community Partners
Another opportunity that every project team should consider is who they can partner with to discover win/win situations. For some districts, it may be sharing parking lots, or creating collaborative spaces that can be used by the broader community. At River Crest, a fortuitous option was right across the highway in YMCA – Camp St. Croix. “We have developed a wonderful partnership with Camp St. Croix,” says Bowen-Eggebraaten. “The district had the foresight to build a tunnel under the road for safe passage, not only for our students, but for the campers as well. Our students and staff can use the beautiful environmental campsite, and the campers can come over to the River Crest site and use our facilities.” This tunnel provides safe access between the trails at Camp St. Croix and the paved walking/bike trail that winds around the entire 43-acre school site. Now, both organizations have greater access to resources without incurring additional expense or disturbing more of the environment. In addition, it enhances both the community spirit and environmental awareness.

Valuing Vendors
Too many people look at vendors as necessary evils instead of trusted teammates. An example of true teamwork occurred at River Crest, when the window selection initially proved to be challenging, but through innovative collaboration led to a new solution. Andersen Windows, a local window manufacturer, was brought in to consult on possible solutions. After several meetings between Andersen and the project team, an innovative, highly sustainable commercial product was developed specifically for use in this new school. These specially designed wood windows maximize natural light, but reduce glare and solar heat gain. Additionally, to help meet LEED requirements, the manufacturer used Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) wood to build the windows. Incorporating the highly sustainable windows throughout the building boosted the regional economy and solidified connections within the community, while providing improved daylighting for the health and pleasure of students and staff.

More than half (by cost) of the materials used were manufactured within 500 miles of River Crest. This reduced fuel consumption and pollution associated with transporting materials, while simultaneously supporting the local economy and providing greater connection to local citizens.

Taxpayers as Teammates

What do your taxpayers want to see? They want to be certain their money is used wisely. And, whether you see a project in the near future or not, it’s always best to have taxpayers on your side. In the case of River Crest, not only is the eco-friendly design better for the earth, staff and students, it is also superior for the taxpayers. By collaborating with the Hudson School District from the beginning, Hoffman was able to help them achieve their sustainable vision at substantially lower costs than typical for even conventional, non-LEED certified public elementary school projects. Specifically, the new elementary school was designed and built for $166 per square foot, which includes design, site work, construction, furnishings, fixtures and equipment. The total project cost is $57 per square foot less than, or 29 percent below, the average construction costs for public elementary schools built in Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin in 2008 as reported by this publication’s “2009 Construction Report.”

According to Bowen-Eggebraaten, “That was the extra ‘WOW’ that people in the community were just thrilled about. We wanted our community, our taxpayers, to know that they were getting a great value for their investment.” This success allowed the Hudson School District to demonstrate they were being good stewards of their financial resources while also providing a platform to share their vision for sustainability with the whole community.

Together We Can
One wise writer, Solomon, said it well: “Two are better than one because they have a good return for their work.” We hope that you’ll follow the lead of the Hudson School District and fully embrace the power of strategic partnerships when designing and building a sustainable school. When you do, you’ll embrace the potential for a healthier learning atmosphere for students and faculty, lower initial and long-term operational costs, positively contribute to the natural environment, create greater connections within your community, build stronger support from local citizens and be proud of a great project for years to come.

Paul J. Hoffman is owner and president of Hoffman LLC, a planning, architecture and construction management firm based in Appleton, Wis. In keeping with the environmental emphasis of its corporate mission, the firm has aggressively advocated for and implemented sustainable design and construction practices since the 1990s, long before “green” became a popular American culture-statement. Mr. Hoffman can be contacted at