An architectural sketch shows what the new middle-school building will look like when completed.

Middle School building barely exceeds green requirements

On college tours, guides like to brag about how “green” their schools are. To illustrate, they always take visitors through new buildings with up-to-date, environmentally friendly features.

So what about a future visitor to SCDS? What features of the new Middle School Center for Science and Technology would a guide brag about?

Interestingly enough, how to make the Middle School Center for Science and Technology more environmentally friendly was never officially discussed, headmaster Stephen Repsher said.

“It didn’t come up for discussion because we know that in this day and age (making the building environmentally friendly) is the responsible thing to do,” Repsher said.

According to Repsher, the additional costs for these features are not excessive.

The walls of the new building are insulated much more than the old campus structures so that they retain heat in the winter and stay cool in the summer.

In addition, materials such as carpet, tiles, wood, paint and varnish have low VOC (volatile organic compounds), meaning that what they emit is not toxic.

Moreover, the heating, ventilation and air conditioning use far less energy than the old systems while still providing the same amount of heat and cooling.

And linoleum tile, made from renewable linseed oil, is being used instead of VCT (vinyl composition tile), which is made from petroleum.

Also there is a minimal amount of planting so that less irrigation is needed, and the windows are double-glazed to reduce energy loss and keep out the heat and cold.

However, according to Michael Keesee, who retired from a position as SMUD’s lead researcher in high-performance buildings after 22 years, these aspects of the building are all requirements of the building code.

This means that the new building has only a handful of additions that go beyond the minimum environmentally friendly features required by state and city laws.

For example. Abhijeet Pande, associate vice-president of building science research at SMUD, suggested that the shape of the building should be taken into consideration for heat gain/ loss purposes.

However, there were a lot of constraints as far as the size of the project goes, architect Laura Rambin said. The building could not be moved further north, because it would have ended up in the parking lot.

On the east side of the building there is an easement in which structures are prohibited. On the west side there is the lower-school building.

Rambin, the principal at Studio Bondy Architecture in Oakland, is the project architect of the building.

The building does go above and beyond the basic requirements in a few ways, Rambin said.

When the energy consumption of mechanical equipment, the heating/ air conditioning units in the building, and light fixtures is calculated, those features consumed less than the maximum allowed by the state energy code, Rambin said.

Repsher also notes that the arcade is on the south face, which protects classrooms from direct sun during the summer and brings in light during the winter.

In addition, each classroom has its own thermostat, which increases thermal comfort and productivity of the occupants, a green building principle.

This is not true in the current high-school buildings, where there is one thermostat for every two rooms.

But Keesee doesn’t think those features are enough.

“Is (just doing what’s required by law) environmentally friendly?” Keesee said. “I don’t think so. You’re getting a D+ building.”

Keesee pointed out that SMUD and PG&E both offer “aggressive” new construction program incentives for schools.

SMUD will provide help at the designing stage of the process and even pay designers to come up with better designs.

However, Rambin never made use of this opportunity.

“My understanding is that PG&E offers building advice, but that’s more for renovations,” Rambin said. “With a new building, the energy-efficiency aspects are built into the design.”

Keesee said the school (and designers) may have not included additional green features to reduce design and construction costs.

However, he said owners need to pay attention to the building’s lifetime operating cost.

“Owners often pursue low first-cost strategies, ignoring or downplaying the lifetime operating costs of the building, including escalating utility costs,” Keesee said.

According to Keesee, owners should set energy performance and environmental goals for their project, such as having the building exceed the state energy code.

From there the architect, owners, builders and subcontractors must collaborate to achieve that standard at the lowest cost.

To achieve an energy-efficient building, there are always tradeoffs between cost and design.

“Most architects do not have experience doing this,” Keesee said. “So they have a cookie-cutter approach to the design of buildings.”

“Building a high-performance building is expensive if you don’t establish it as a goal and direct your designers and contractors to meet that goal.”

“If you start planning early on, you can do it at no cost,” Pande said.

Pande suggested architectural ideas that should have been taken into consideration during the early design stage such as which direction (north, south, east or west) the building faces and how to shade windows so that they don’t get direct sunlight in summer but do get it in winter.

The price increases when the green aspect of the building  comes as an afterthought, he said. “Even at zero-net-energy schools, which is the most energy efficient you can make it, the additional cost for construction is not more than 10 percent of the cost,” Pande said.

What about solar panels? They tend to be expensive, especially for schools because they have to directly pay for the panels and the installation cost, Pande said.

The most cost-efficient way to use solar panels would be to first reduce the energy consumed in other ways, then use solar panels for the remaining energy used.

There are also fairly cheap additions that can be made to buildings after construction has already begun.

The most obvious one is to control the amount of energy that is used. This means turning lights off when they are not being used, and turning down the thermostats.

Technology can be used to automate some of these things.

The daylighting, the natural light that comes in from windows in the building should be maximized, Pande said. If there is already natural lighting, many lights can be dimmed or turned off.

Sensors can be put in to determine how much daylight is coming in. They will accordingly turn off the lights. The cost for daylight sensors for a 5000-square-foot building would be only a couple hundred dollars, Pande said.

The technology required to actually turn the lights on and off would cost a few hundred dollars more, but cut energy costs.

Not only does maximizing daylight in classrooms make it more cost effective, but studies have also shown that students perform better in more daylight, Pande said.

Previously published in the print edition on Nov. 25, 2014.


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