Net-Zero Schools

Imagine… if a school could be designed and constructed to produce as much energy on site as what is consumed from the electric grid; electricity and gas bills at 10 percent or less of that of a typical building. No water bills for site and landscaping irrigation. What was impossible as little as five years ago is very much a reality today, due to changing technologies associated with the production of renewable energies.

Irving ISD will begin construction this month on their eighth middle school. It will be a net-zero school; that is, as much energy will be produced on site as what is consumed from the electric grid over a one-year period. It will be the first school of its type in the state of Texas. To the best of our knowledge, it will be the first net-zero middle school and the largest net-zero public school in the country.

Renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind and geothermal, will be produced on site. Solar panels will be used to harvest the power of the sun, free solar power… abundant solar power… simple… smart and, most importantly, sustainable. Wind turbines will be incorporated that will produce electricity, be an educational tool for students and serve as a visible landmark for the use of renewable energy. Geothermal heating and air-conditioning will be utilized that will allow for the constant temperature of the earth’s subsurface to adequately heat and cool the interior spaces.

In addition to on-site energy production, efficient construction applications such as increased insulation values in the walls and roof, high-efficiency LED lighting, daylight harvesting and light shelf applications, high-efficiency glazing and wireless computer networks will be integrated into the design to ensure the net-zero concept is achievable. All of these strategies, whether they relate to reducing energy needs or producing energy within the school, contribute to the end result of this building.

So why net-zero? One reason relates to the environment. Global warming is an international concern. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. have risen by 17 percent from 1990 to 2007. A major source of demand for energy and materials that produce greenhouse gas emissions is found in buildings. By constructing a net-zero building, we do our part to contribute to the reversal of this negative trend.

Another reason is the impact to the economy. In 2008, the U.S. spent over $475 billion on foreign oil. This is money taken out of our pockets and sent to foreign countries. Projected over the next 10 years, the cost will be $10 trillion; the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of mankind. America imports 12 million barrels of oil a day; Saudi Arabia only produces nine million barrels a day. So, what if most of that money and the jobs associated with it, could remain in this country? Can you just imagine the significant positive impact this would have to our economy?

In terms of education, studies have shown that a lower absenteeism rate via improved health of students and teachers will result through the reduction of emissions and the use of daylighting. Studies have also shown that test scores will improve by as much as 14 percent. Locally, this project will save taxpayers millions of dollars over the life of the school building in terms of energy and maintenance. And above all, this project defines a sustainable, healthy built environment and minimizes its carbon footprint and demand on our natural resources.

This project is a very big step in the right direction. However, we have a long way to go. We must all work harder to ensure future generations understand the importance of protecting our environment and become better stewards of our environment. We, as parents, patrons and planners of our communities, must lead by example.

Today, this project is very unique and special. However, I hope that someday it’s not so special and not so unique because it will be the norm. It can and should become the norm because it’s the responsible way to build, to protect the environment, conserve our precious resources and ensure that generations to come can enjoy this planet we call home. It can be done — we should insist on it, we should fight for it and taxpayers should know that they are getting the biggest bang for their buck, not only measured in dollars and cents but also in student performance, health and attendance. It’s just the right thing to do.

Scott Layne is assistant superintendent for Support Services for the Irving Independent School District, Irving, Texas, and serves on the Board of Directors of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI). Scott can be reached at [email protected]

About the Author

Scott Layne, ALEP, is the chair of the Association for Learning Environments (A4LE) and serves as assistant superintendent of Support Services at Irving Independent School District, Irving, Texas.