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July 22, 2010

Money’s tight, so how about a living building?

  • A super-sustainable school design in Snohomish pencils out in a time when operations budgets are getting cut.


    In the public sector, where every decision is accountable to voters, it can be perceived a challenge to justify the “expense” of trying to achieve a very high level of sustainability. But with the right approach, full-systems thinking and a receptive client, the case can be made.

    That’s the case with Valley View Middle School, a replacement project for the Snohomish School District that will house 950 students in 155,000 square feet of program area when it’s completed in 2012.

    The Snohomish School District is, like almost every school district in the state, in challenging budgetary times. While their capital projects, approved in a 2008 bond, are well-funded, their operations budgets have been challenged by severe cutbacks due to the recent economic events.

    Performance-based criteria

    Having an open-minded client and giving them the opportunity to be your best advocate is the only way you can be successful. Our client quickly saw the value in using this capital project as an opportunity to reach to a higher level of sustainability and, consequently, as a teaching tool for students, an opportunity to galvanize staff and the community.

    Image courtesy of Dykeman [enlarge]
    Strategies like using ground-source loops with a heat pump mechanical system mean Valley View Middle School will use a third of the energy of a typical middle school.

    So the chance to develop a project with significantly reduced operational costs and slightly higher capital costs was very appealing. That said, we still needed to show the district how they could be fiscally responsible with taxpayer dollars while rising to the challenge of building a school that could be self-sustaining.

    An appealing aspect of the Living Building Challenge is the performance-based nature of the criteria rather than the prescriptive approach that LEED was recommending two years ago, at the inception of the project.

    A standard that allowed partial implementation, measured post-occupancy building performance and set goals — like leaving a zero carbon footprint, having net-zero energy consumption and making the water on site behave as if the project had never been there — was incredibly engaging. The standard also emphasizes beauty, education tools and personal interaction with the project — very tangible aspirations for educators whose first priority is setting the stage for children to learn.

    The next level

    So, what is the Living Building Challenge? Snohomish Superindendent William Mester summarized it best:

    “Sustainability means designing or creating a ‘living system’ in such a way that it is ecologically stable and self-renewing, with the result that it has a zero, or restorative, impact on the larger system to which it is a part.”

    Because the school district has had an active capital campaign, they had already been familiar with many sustainability strategies, such as geothermal loops and efficient building envelopes.

    We used these strategies and took them to the next level of efficiency. We asked ourselves whether we could use geothermal wells to heat and cool the building entirely, or how efficiently we make the building envelope within our budget.

    We also targeted water systems for exploration of how to conserve and more efficiently use water, asking if we harvest on site all the water the school would use. And finally, we asked ourselves if we could generate all of the energy we will use on site.

    We set off to explore these questions and more. We went out and found the experts on schools, energy conservation and water conservation, and set out to challenge ourselves.

    Managing water

    As with most any new path, we have been presented with many roadblocks and opportunities. Some of the Living Building criteria were easier to meet than others.

    With our large site, just under 39 acres, we had no problem confining our developed site area to the area that had been previously developed by the original middle school. The large site also meant we had a lot of water for our use for the on-site water systems, but we also had a lot of water to manage and make the site appear — at least to the water — that it had never been developed before.

    Plenty of water falls on the site to irrigate the fields necessary for a middle school, but the storage for this system proved too expensive for the project. So we changed tack, and we are designing the grass fields to be more durable, irrigated just for establishment, and changed the main field to an artificial field that will also allow for more frequent use. These strategies result in a more useful facility that still met the criteria of the challenge.

    When we asked ourselves if we could harvest all of the potable water the school needed, we found we could. The storage system was not prohibitively expensive but water from the utility was so inexpensive — .03 cents per gallon — that there was never any point within the 50-year life of the building that the strategy would pay for itself.

    In addition, the school district would have had to operate a class A state-certified water district within the boundaries of the utility, and the utility would not allow that to happen. Fortunately, the International Living Building Council had the foresight to include an exception specifically for this situation.

    We were, however, able to make a case for collecting water from the roofs for toilet flushing. Even though the system had a very long payback, it was seen as having very low risk and presented an opportunity to “test out” this kind of a system. More important, this system presented a teachable opportunity, allowing us to integrate a managed water system into the curriculum.

    Net-zero energy

    With the challenge to be a net-zero energy user, we found we had many more tools at our disposal.

    The simple strategy was to first save as much energy as possible on the project to limit the amount of energy we had to harvest on site. The strategies we employed were included ground-source loops with a heat pump mechanical system, 95 percent efficient air-to-air heat exchangers, and a very efficient building envelope, including triple-pane windows. These and many other strategies allowed us to refine our design to use one-third the energy of a typical middle school.

    This made the job of energy harvesting much more achievable. The most efficient systems for our site, measured by capital dollars per watt of energy produced, were solar photovoltaic systems.

    We are currently designing the complete system for energy production, and believe we can build a system that will provide 60 percent of the energy demand for the school within the current budget without any incentives. We are currently negotiating incentives with the utility and hope to be able to complete the entire system.

    A focus on education

    All of these strategies are key to those of us in the business of design and construction, but if we miss the opportunity to educate our clients about the benefits, we miss our biggest opportunity.

    With schools, this task is even more elemental. At every turn we are integrating strategies such as:

    • providing an accessible path to the wetlands;

    • exposing the rain-collection system and integrating level markers into the commons;

    • providing interpretive kiosks at the main entrances that will describe the systems used as well as provide real-time reporting on energy and water systems;

    • reporting on how much energy the individual classroom pods, the school overall, and other schools within the district are using to develop a sense of competition and make a direct connection between activities and energy expended; and

    • providing interpretive signage throughout the project to describe the systems involved to the general public in an approachable manner.

    Closer to reality

    After two full years of investigation, design and research we have run into many obstacles. But these challenges have allowed us to make the project better and bring it closer to reality.

    We have been able to design a school that will use half as much energy as one designed to current standards and manages all of the water that falls onto the site.

    The opportunity and learning experiences that we have encountered will allow this project to teach, inform and guide the generations of children that will pass through its doors, providing them with a better understanding of their environment and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead!

    Tim Jewett is principal-in-charge of the Valley View design team and leads the education design team for Dykeman.

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