The future of sustainability at Ames High: Carbon neutral by 2030?
April 17, 2019
On February 21, the school district hosted a showcase of the latest plans for the new high school building. At the meeting, architects from OPN, the architecture firm tasked with designing the new high school building, showed slides of the floor plans and walked the community through the different phases of construction.
Afterwards, the architects and administration answered questions from the audience, ranging from security to natural lighting. Community members also asked questions about rooftop solar readiness, electric vehicle charging ports, and the other sustainable features.
Sustainability was one of the central concerns among students, staff, and community members alike during the input meetings OPN held in 2018. The programming document listed “Sustainable features embedded in the design such as energy efficiency and durability” among their list of project vision statements.
How sustainable is the new school?
“Most of the time, [sustainable features] are NOT glorious. In fact most of the time they’re very difficult to see,” said Tate Walker, Sustainability Director for OPN. While the new building will not have solar at the time of construction and will not have charging ports for the coming boom in electric vehicles, the building has many less apparent features.
In the design of the building, OPN carefully considered both the operational carbon and embodied carbon of the building.
Embodied carbon is carbon that is emitted as a result of construction of the building. In order to bring down the embedded carbon of the building, OPN strives to build using recycled materials and materials that are durable and have to be replaced infrequently. In addition, they try to limit materials that have a high carbon footprint such as concrete, cement, or materials shipped from far away.
The operational carbon is the amount of carbon the building emits once constructed and performing its function. The new building has a host of features to decrease operational carbon. These include geothermal heating, heat recovery chiller systems, LED lighting and low flow plumbing fixtures.
In addition to considering the emissions of the building, OPN also works to reduce the building’s heat island effect, preserve the natural ecology, and manage stormwater run off.
“Sometimes all you see of a building is the skin, but there is a lot going on underneath. The systems that make the building run (electrical, mechanical, plumbing, lighting, envelope, structural, etc) all have to do their individual jobs, but it’s how they are integrated and how they support the life within that is the hardest thing to do, and what makes an average building great,” Walker said.
A critical part of efficiency and sustainability is ensuring that the systems work smoothly together. In a building as large as the high school, something as unglamorous as taking out the trash is an important part of the design said Walker.
“All buildings could achieve 30% reduction in their waste stream if they integrate a few basic principles into the design. With concerted effort (and expense) we could hit net zero waste for every project,” Walker said.
Gauging just how sustainable the new school will be is difficult, as the district will not be pursuing LEED certification, the most widespread and reputable sustainability certification. The district cited cost as a reason for not pursuing the certification. The rate for non-members for LEED certification is $.0066 per square foot. For the 405,000 square foot new building, certification would have cost the district $26,730 of the $136,935,844 budget (0.0001952009%).
Walker predicts that the new building will have a smaller (even a significantly smaller) environmental footprint than the old building, despite being larger. While difficult to predict, he believes the new building would likely achieve a silver LEED certification.
Why build green?
A 2006 report called Greening America’s Schools, expounds upon the cost and benefits of green schools.
The report states: “This national review of 30 green schools demonstrates that green schools cost less than 2% more than conventional schools — or about $3 per square foot ($3/ft2 ) — but provide financial benefits that are 20 times as large. Greening school design provides an extraordinarily cost-effective way to enhance student learning, reduce health and operational costs and, ultimately, increase school quality and competitiveness.” Walker agrees that the benefits of green schools, and green buildings in general, are undeniable.
“When sustainability is done well, it really connects you to the unique time, place and culture of where you are in the world,” Walker said. “That is a great place to start learning.”
OPN pledges that all of their new buildings will be carbon neutral by 2030. However, the high school building, which will open in August 2022, will not be 100 percent carbon neutral when constructed because is built before that goal goes fully into place, requiring initiative on part of the district to achieve carbon neutrality after construction.
Achieving a carbon neutral building is a two-step process. OPN has delivered the first step by creating a very efficient building. It is up to the school district, however, to undertake the second part of the process: ensuring the energy the building does use comes from clean sources. One way this could be done is by installing third party solar on the load bearing ceiling.
“The good news is that, it doesn’t matter if you believe in climate change or not,” Walker said. “You’d do the exact same thing to maximize your investment in the new building as you would to eliminate carbon from its construction and operation. Ames will own this asset for the long term, so it stands to fully benefit from the investment it chooses to make.”
In other words, those investments that make the most financial sense for the school align with the most carbon neutral approach. However, a truly sustainable building takes more than technological fixes alone.
“What I’m seeing is that technological fixes only take you so far,” Walker said. “A lot depends on the behavior of the occupants. It goes beyond turning off the lights, putting on the pool covers. It’s how the building is used, maintained and operated and how changes to it occur over time. Take personal ownership of it, and pride in it. Challenge yourselves to first understand the impacts and then how you might affect them.”