Making Net Zero Real in Schools Is a Community Project

by: Diana Hayton, AIA, LEED AP BD+C
Last year, I helped form a new integrated design committee in Albany, California, to advise the school district and the school board on new school construction made possible by recent bond measures.

Bonds B and E passed with majorities and provided $95 million for four new Albany schools. I volunteered for this group because my two kids attended Albany public schools, and it felt like a place where I could make a difference using my expertise as an architect focused on sustainability.

Building public schools is very complex, and design does not always keep up with changes in pedagogy. I also wanted to advocate for making our new local schools not only sustainable, but also net zero ready (when a building can produce as much energy as the building consumes) to reduce our district’s energy costs and impact on the environment.

Albany is a small town in a large metropolitan setting. The public school district has an excellent reputation for making education the priority. At the same time, Albany is very walkable, with a charming main street called Solano Avenue, well known for the annual Solano Avenue Stroll in September each year and the bi-annual Dinner with Albany event. In our town, at eight in the morning, the sidewalks are full of kids and families walking to school. The busy morning commute captures the essence of Albany and our commitment to a sustainable lifestyle.

The city of Albany already had a climate action plan, but an alignment between city and school district goals still needed to happen. That was one of the integrated design committee’s first projects. The school district responded positively and committed to pursuing the program developed by the nonprofit organization Collaborative for High Performance Schools for our new schools.

The Collaborative for High Performance Schools provides a very comprehensive overall structure that guides school design, but specifics were still undefined. The school district had established criteria for flexible, comfortable, and collaborative learning environments.

How do we align those goals with the goals of sustainable design on the first couple of bond projects? Where might there be tradeoffs and fortunate synergies? The committee advised on current technologies as well as trends in flexible learning space, energy efficiency, daylighting, ventilation, and outdoor learning spaces.

In the Bay Area, we are lucky because we have a moderate climate. Siting a new building carefully can allow for outdoor learning, natural ventilation, and good daylighting. Taking advantage of thermal mass to moderate temperature swings is also key. All of these can add up to significant savings on energy. There have also been studies that show that daylighting leads to improved learning. Of course, these sustainable goals can sometimes be hard to achieve on tight infill sites.

But what of achieving net-zero-ready schools? We are always analyzing short term versus long-term costs. What we can do now is design buildings so they can become net zero when the budget allows and when new technologies are more widely tested, more available, and less costly. You can plan for mechanical systems that don’t rely on natural gas. You can design a building envelope that uses less energy and purchase equipment that reduces plug loads. You can design a roof to accept photovoltaic panels in the future.

Most importantly, the point is to not close off options, but to design school campuses so they can be easily updated in the future. The essence of sustainable design is flexible design that can adapt to changing approaches to education. Current trends move away from teacher-centric learning to a more collaborative, student-centered learning. We want the classrooms we are building today to be flexible enough to adapt to these changes and to future innovations that we cannot anticipate.

Our goal is to build schools that will reach net zero and last 100 years. It takes community support to get there.