Designing a Dream [Green] School

Dream Green School, South Tahoe High SchoolI have a theory that everyone I know, at one time or another, has wanted to become an architect. This is based on countless conversations with friends where an inquiry into my college major has routinely produced a reply like, "Oh, I wanted to be an architect once, but ended up [insert alternative life path here]." I suspect this is because everyone, at one point or another, has wanted to design a dream house. We've all been through this fantasy exercise as children. I remember wanting a huge game room for my house, plus a resort-sized bedroom, a model room full of elaborate train sets, a fancy, professional kitchen, and a backyard that could squeeze in a small theme park.

These days, dream homes have moved off my area of fascination, replaced by another concept: a dream green school. Being in the K-12 market segment at LPA has provided invaluable experience working on and with schools. Our integrated design team constantly searches for methods to incorporate sustainable strategies into our projects, but more often than not, there is a limit on the extent and scope of these items, either due to budget, client reservations, or user group concerns. But what if those obstructions were removed from the table, and there was a chance to design something that could be "the greenest school in all the land?”

It would require advantageous siting, of course, perhaps in a dense and easily accessible environment accompanied by alternate means of transportation. The site would feature low-water use and low maintenance planting and a variety of water management features that could collect and reuse rainwater, filter runoff, and create a more permeable environment, buffering the impact of designed intervention. Buildings would be optimally oriented for proper sun exposure but clustered to create a warm and inviting campus atmosphere. Building construction would take advantage of thermal massing and passive energy saving strategies such as extensive insulation and selective fenestration to minimize energy loss. Photovoltaics would generate energy for the campus, reducing its carbon footprint, while green roofs would collect water, reduce heat island effects, and serve as welcoming outdoor lab spaces for students and teachers. A central plant would run a campus' mechanical systems more efficiently than unconsolidated units and provide expandable infrastructure for the future. Classrooms would benefit from single-loaded corridors providing for effective natural ventilation systems that reduced conditioning loads, not to mention glazing that allowed for natural light --reducing energy loads-- and a cheery but diffusely lit learning space that felt airy and inviting. Customizable controls and daylight harvesting could further cut down on lighting requirements and cost.

Of course, the school would feature a smart blend of local materials, low-emitting finishes, and recycled content. Much care would be taken to create an indoor environment that could minimize health problems and serve as an uplifting, subconsciously supportive space. And of course, let’s not forget about the potential to use the school library, gymnasium, or theater as joint-use programs that the local community could share.

Dream Green School designed by California's LPA Inc.But a dream green school wouldn't just be a LEED greatest hits list. It could also integrate curriculum to take advantage of the sustainable elements built into its architecture and infrastructure. Imagine if the green roof gardens and the landscape design became ecology or farming labs that helped illustrate science lessons or supplied tangible agriculture exercises. The central plant and photovoltaics could be part of an engineering-oriented course with real world applications. Design materials could tie into courses centered on technological history and human development. Classroom spaces could move away from the traditional rigid, structured learning environment and make use of independent study nooks, group participation areas, and flexible labs that could be rearranged to suit the particular activity being performed. In addition, these learning spaces could take advantage of the latest developments in technology, such as interactive whiteboards, tablet notebooks, and wireless systems to augment the educational experience, providing a more visceral and interconnected way to uncover knowledge. And of course, there are all the opportunities that could be had from just outlining and explaining certain sustainable design strategies through plaques and signage, so that such features become natural and ingrained into students' minds as logical elements to have in any built environment.

These are far-reaching dreams right now, of course, especially if the idea is to incorporate all of this--and more--into whole projects. But what are dreams, but just high standards to aim for? If designers and districts can commit and strive toward such high standards, such a school, as what I've described may not be so far-fetched after all.

Albert Lam is a Technical Designer at California-based LPA Inc. He is a LEED accredited professional who specializes in K-12 schools.