Going Green: A Tale of Two Schools

by Rebecca Hecking

Delaware Valley schools are going green! Two examples are Chestnut Hill Academy in Philadelphia and the P.S. duPont Elementary School in Wilmington, DE, both on the cutting edge of eco-friendly construction.

Both schools are engaged in LEED-registered construction projects. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and is a program of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). The Council is a non-profit organization comprised of national leaders in architecture and construction, working to advance environmentally responsible building construction.

LEED rates projects in six categories: maintaining or improving the building site’s environmental quality, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality and innovation in design. The number of credits earned in these categories determines if a school qualifies to be certified as silver, gold or platinum.

Area schools are not alone in eco-friendly construction. USGBC membership has quadrupled in the past five years as the green construction industry grows by leaps and bounds. There are now more than 80 LEED-registered school construction or renovation projects in Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania alone. Nationwide, hundreds of schools are going green.

But is green school construction cost effective? Does “green” translate into real savings for the schools and their taxpayers? The answer is, as usual, “maybe.” LEED projects do have higher up-front costs. For a project centered on energy efficiency (such as installing insulation), the savings can add up quickly. Other aspects of LEED projects, such as planting trees for long-term shade or improving indoor air quality may not have an immediate dollar savings, but instead offer non-monetary long term benefits.

Here is how LEED projects are progressing at two very different area schools.

Chestnut Hill Academy: Green by Design
When completed, the new 20,000+ square-foot Science and Technology Center at Chestnut Hill Academy in Philadelphia will not only be a state of the art educational facility, it will also be a model of eco-friendly and energy efficient design.

According to headmaster Frank Steel, the decision to seek LEED certification was made very early on, and LEED design elements were incorporated from the beginning. At this point, he is projecting that the center will qualify for a LEED Silver rating when complete.

The new building’s design incorporates several eco-friendly elements such as harvesting storm water runoff for flushing toilets, encouraging biodiversity by landscaping with native plants, and using highly efficient insulation to minimize energy consumption. Construction waste will be recycled as much as possible to minimize landfill use.

Even the parking lot will be “green,” with preferred parking designated for fuel-efficient cars and alternative pavement materials used to control runoff in parking areas. To encourage the faculty and staff to commute by bicycle, bike racks and convenient changing facilities are planned.

The plan includes an alternative energy component. Photovoltaic solar panels and a wind turbine will be installed on the roof. These devices will generate some of the electricity used on-site, as well as provide educational opportunities. Through an interactive display in the building, students will be able to see real-time energy use along with the energy offset from the rooftop solar panels/turbines.

Chestnut Hill Academy’s community enthusiastically supports the use of LEED design elements. Matt Goetting, the school’s director of capital planning, says the only concern has been “not being financially irresponsible.” Including extras for the sake of receiving a platinum LEED rating was not an option.

According to Steel, Chestnut Hill’s rule of thumb for incorporating LEED design elements has been staying within an extra 10 percent of the overall project cost. He expects that the project will eventually pay for itself in energy savings, but not all new, green aspects are money-savers. For example, storm water management and native plantings do not offer direct financial incentives, but are still desirable to incorporate into the overall project for their environmental and educational benefits.

This educational aspect is critical to the project. The new center will house state-of-the-art classrooms and laboratories to serve students, helping to create a “passion for science” necessary for American schools in the 21st century. The students will also “see what responsible design is all about and what true environmental consciousness means,” says Steel.

P.S. duPont School:
Accidentally Green
P.S. duPont Elementary School in Wilmington, DE is stunning, historic and not stereotypically green. In fact, it’s red, with a facade that looks more Colonial than modern eco-friendly. No matter. The school is in the midst of a major LEED-registered renovation project. Classes are not being conducted there this school year, making the transformation from outdated to cutting-edge possible.

The P.S. duPont Elementary School, listed on the National Historic Registry, opened its doors in 1935. Inside it was once a model of innovative architectural design. But by today’s standards, the building was wasteful and outdated. For example, windows were routinely opened in winter to help regulate temperature. Clearly, upgrades were needed.

According to John Read, construction project manager for Brandywine School District, the primary goals were to create a higher-quality learning environment and preserve the historic building while saving the taxpayers’ money in energy costs. LEED certification was not a factor in the decision-making process.

In the course of preserving the historic design, Read found that LEED principles were incorporated without even trying. For example, wood trim, wood flooring, slate and bricks from the original building were re-used in the renovation. According to Read, the idea was to “preserve as much as possible” and to fix what’s there rather than build new. This ethic of preservation meshed with a LEED goal. By re-using materials, the school district avoided the environmental impact of purchasing new and also did not need to use area landfills.

Another major area of renovation focused on energy savings. From 60 to 70 percent of the overall budget for the project centers on energy conservation, including insulation, heat recovery technology, and upgraded lighting systems. Installing sensors to reduce electricity usage on sunny days enhanced passive solar design elements already present in the building. Read estimates that gas consumption will drop by 40-50 percent, resulting in even more energy savings for the school district.

The solar panels installed on the pool building are the only obviously green feature of the renovation. The panels will help power the pool’s pumps as well as being the center of an educational display.

Read believes that the school will achieve LEED gold level certification without intentionally focusing on environmental issues. He also noted that working with USGBC and LEED was a “good experience, not a bureaucratic nightmare” as is sometimes believed. Intentional or not, P.S. DuPont Elementary School is undeniably turning green.

Rebecca Hecking is a freelance writer and managing editor of Primal Parenting Magazine,