Environmental Studies

Environmental Studies

The kids may be out of the classroom for the summer, but school design is definitely in session. Lydia Lee studies how public and private schools are investing in ultra high-performance buildings that provide better learning environments and teach by example.

In Seattle, a rainy day isn’t typically cause for celebration. But for kids at the Bertschi School, a private elementary school completed in February in Seattle’s North Capitol Hill neighborhood, it is. In their new science classroom, a glass-covered channel in the floor is a “river” that conveys water from the roof into an underground cistern. “We hear them say, ‘I wish it was raining today, so I can see the river working,’” said Stacy Smedley of San Francisco’s KMD Architects. The 1,400-square-foot standalone classroom was designed as a Living Building, a relatively new concept that requires net-zero-energy use and net-zero-water use, as well as the elimination of chemicals such as formaldehyde and PVC. And the curriculum—the kids are charting their energy usage for a formal year-end audit—truly turns the building into a teaching tool.

Though small, the Bertschi School is an example of the next generation of sustainable school architecture. For many reasons, schools are the perfect place to push the envelope: They are the first institutional/civic buildings that young people encounter, and their designs can have both great symbolic import and real benefits. In the early nineties, studies showing that day-lighting had a substantial impact on student performance galvanized school design. Today, higher education is the leading market for LEED certification; for instance the University of California (UC) system, which now mandates LEED Silver for all new buildings, has more than 60 LEED buildings across its ten campuses.


At the local level, school buildings can be focal points for communities interested in staving off global warming. “There are big drivers at the universities and think tanks, who can form full committees around sustainability and help push change. But you also see a lot of innovation at private schools, where individual donors can fund projects and the most adventurous work happens,” said Bry Sarte of Sherwood Engineers and author of the recent book Sustainable Infrastructure: The Guide to Green Engineering and Design. Whether their green elements are overt—a prominent cistern, a solar array, even wind turbines—or concealed within the design, these new projects are interesting both for their architectural qualities and for their technical achievements.

The sustainable imperative has pushed architects to leverage the natural elements in increasingly sophisticated ways. Along Ocean Avenue in San Francisco, where a break in the hills channels coastal breezes, Pfau Long Architecture has designed one of the largest new buildings to be naturally ventilated. The three-story, 102,000-square-foot Multi-Use Building for the City College of San Francisco, finished last August, has a row of 10-foot-high wind scoop/skylights on the roof. Combined with mechanically controlled louvers, they draw air through the building and moderate the temperature. “We’re using the building as an HVAC system instead of buying a separate HVAC system,” said principal Peter Pfau. A central atrium, naturally lit by these wind scoops, supports both the design’s sustainable mission as well as its social agenda: The bright gathering space and walkways provide opportunities for interaction within a building that is double-loaded with classrooms.


Further south, in the Los Angeles area, CO Architects is also taking advantage of a windy site in their design for a San Pedro high school, currently under construction and scheduled to be completed in March 2012. It is using solar panels to reach net-zero energy but also expects to get 30 percent of its electricity from 36 wind turbines, nine of which will be located in an island smack in the middle of the school drop-off area. The turbines, with vertical blades, can be packed more closely together than the windmill type. “They’ll be the first things you’ll see—they’ll be constantly in motion so you’ll know that we’re generating our own power,” said architect Jorge de la Cal. “I think they’ll be the symbol of the school.”

Other time-honored ideas in sustainable design are getting their 2.0 updates. Flad Architects’ Teaching and Research Winery and August A. Busch III Brewing and Food Science Laboratory on the UC Davis campus, which opened last September, has a very visible water conservation agenda, with four immense above-ground cisterns that handle all the site’s irrigation and greywater uses. But the exterior of the LEED Platinum building is also worth noting: it is a custom wall assembly that is similar to EIFS [Exterior Insulation and Finish System] products, that were popular 20 years ago but became associated with spectacular building failures. The architects developed an economical solution that still places the rigid insulation on the exterior of the wall, but uses a true plaster offset from the surface for thermal bridging. “The new CALGreen code [The state’s green building requirements, which went into effect this January and set mandatory targets of 20 percent less indoor water use, 50 percent reduction in landfill waste, and use of low VOC materials, among other things] will ultimately require systems that reduce thermal bridging, so we feel like we’re a step ahead,” said architect Stevens Williams, who is based in the firm’s San Francisco office.


The K-12 education sector has an alternative to LEED called CHPS (Collaborative for High Performance Schools), started ten years ago by architects who wanted a school-specific version of LEED and the California Energy Commission. It has since expanded from California to 12 states, and now offers third-party verification—at about half the cost of LEED—in addition to self-certification. The recently completed American Canyon High School by Quattrocchi Kwok, which just wrapped up its first school year, is one of the first to be CHPS-verified. American Canyon, just south of Napa, is a new suburban community that lacked a central hub. “We knew the high school by default would be the biggest source of identity for the town, so we wanted to make sure that the architecture reflected an openness to the community,” said Aaron Jobson, an architect at Quattrocchi Kwok. “All the buildings with a public function, such as the performing arts theatre, face the community with big glass lobbies.”

The public high school, with 260,000 square feet of buildings over 60 acres, reduces energy use with a geothermal system under the varsity baseball field. It also uses individual heat pumps in the classrooms, which were not only more energy-efficient, but quieter than a conventional furnace and air-conditioning unit. CHPS, as does LEED for Schools, requires a certain standard for acoustic performance; both standards are “functionally equivalent,” according to Jobson, who is also a LEED AP. In California, CHPS streamlines the process for obtaining funds from the state’s high-performance school grant program: American Canyon got an additional $800,000 increase in its overall budget to implement sustainable features.

Of course green design is not just about; the most dynamic new architecture, but also about retrofitting and creating thoughtful additions to existing campuses. “What we really need to focus on now is how we bring up the performance of our existing facilities in terms of energy and water use,” said Anisa Baldwin Metzger at the U.S. Green Building Council’s Center for Green Schools, the organization behind LEED, speaking about the 133,000 existing K-12 schools nationwide.

Pasadena’s private Walden School, for instance, is embarking on an ambitious plan to reach net-zero with about 30,000 square feet of solar panels, which will cover two-thirds of their campus. The architects in charge, CWArchitects, are designing a couple of new buildings as well as a 6,000-square-foot playground that will be almost entirely shaded with arrays of solar panels.

Schools would also do well to consider the recent renovation and addition at the St. Thomas the Apostle School in Los Angeles, completed this past December. LA’s Griffin Enright Architects worked within a tight infill site and modest budget, nearly doubling the space of the existing school. “We turned every constraint on the project into an architectural opportunity,” said principal Margaret Griffin. The school’s existing building got a simple upgrade with new windows and carpeting and a new playground in the former basement. The new building, which includes a gym/multipurpose room, library, and science classroom, features a grand overhang. It not only creates a sheltered outdoor lunchroom and “porch” for the community, it provides much-needed shade for the school’s asphalt playground, heavily used during and after class in the hot afternoons. Inexpensive materials, including corrugated steel siding, steel mesh (on the underside of the overhang), and stucco painted to look like colored panels, give the space a modern presence. “Sustainability is not an excuse to make an ugly building,” said Griffin.


In addition to creating playgrounds that aren’t asphalt frying pans, schools—like other institutions interested in sustainability—are responsible for some of the more innovative landscaping ideas. The Bertschi School has a living wall of tropical plants that absorb all the greywater produced by the building and serve as a natural humidifier. It also features an ethnobotanical garden where students learn about plants used by Native Americans for baskets and dyeing clothes. At Studio One Eleven’s New City School, a K-8 charter school in Long Beach, the increasingly popular concept of urban farming comes together with an educational mission. The one-third acre New City Farm, which began operating last spring, is designed to be a true working farm. With oversight by a professional farmer and parent volunteers, children raise fruits and vegetables that will be offered for sale in an area with limited access to fresh produce. “When we first asked kids what they would like to plant on the farm, they said ‘pizza.’ There’s a disconnection about where food comes from,” said Michael Bohn, principal at the Studio One Eleven. The design takes advantage of shipping containers from the nearby port: one has been converted into a storage shed and two others will become a farm stand and office. In its second phase, scheduled for next year, the farm will have a flower-shaped sculpture of solar panels to supply its electrical needs.

As many architects will reiterate, sustainability has always been part of the profession. But school buildings are a chance to demonstrate this in intuitive and inspiring ways that everyone—even the youngest—can grasp.