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Minnesota School Buildings Go Green

August 04, 2009 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

When Rochester's George W. Gibbs Elementary opens Sept. 8, students will learn first hand what it means to go green.

The new elementary school sports technologies that create better air quality and circulation, uses lots of natural light, and has a geothermal energy system. The building has tilted ceilings and windows to better use natural light. If enough sunlight is captured in a room, the school's electrical system uses sensors to shut down the high-efficiency fluorescent lights.  A geothermal system uses the stable temperature underground to secure heat in the winter and cold air in the summer. The geothermal system should be able to handle all of the cooling needs and most of the heating needs, except in cases of extreme cold when backup boilers will be used.

Gibbs Principal Jane Drennan said the green features provide a teachable moment for students. "There's a whole area for recycling; obviously I want to start something right away with kids," Drennan said. "I think it will be a great opportunity for kids to learn that."

The message is clear: Green building is cost-efficient, energy efficient and teaching Americans about the benefits of green construction at an early age is good.

The Rochester district has applied for certification with the U.S. Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and Efficiency Design. (LEED) The school could reach "Gold," LEED's second highest status. Currently, only one school in Minnesota is LEED-certified: Westwood Elementary, which belongs to the Elk River public school district.

The Rochester Post-Bulletin reports that Gibbs Elementary's reign at the top could be short-lived, though, as 18 other education buildings across the state have registered for LEED certification.

One school making the most of their location is Community of Peace Academy charter school in St. Paul. The school's gymnasium is covered by a green roof that incorporates soil and plants. The roof absorbs storm water after rains, while also helping cool the building in the summer and keep it warm in the winter.

Community of Peace, which has 670 students in preschool through 12th grade, sits on a block of Magnolia Avenue in east St. Paul that is covered with buildings, "so it seemed an environmentally responsible thing to do" to add a green roof to the new gym, said Karen Rusthoven, Community of Peace's director, told the Star Tribune.

Meanwhile, the South Washington County School District wants to erect a wind turbine to generate power for the new East Ridge High School in Woodbury. The turbine would power the new building and teach kids about alternative energy.

Unfortunately, they are meeting resistance from residents who fear the value of their homes will drop because of the nearly 200-foot structure in the neighborhood.

Elk River residents are quite happy with the LEED-certified Westwood Elementary. The school, built for 500 students, sits near Sherburne Wildlife Refuge. The building has:

  • 100 percent natural day lighting via large windows
  • A location close to an existing roadway to reduce the amount of new hard surface
  • A two-story design that results in a smaller building footprint
  • An orientation that makes use of solar and wind patterns
  • Water ponds that serve as natural water treatment alternatives for runoff
  • A preserved wetland on site
  • Site waste that is salvaged and reused when possible
  • Whenever possible, building materials were chosen from manufacturers within a 500-mile radius and manufactured using recycled content
  • A desiccant displacement system provides cleaner humidity control, reduces cooling costs through inclusion of an off-peak energy source, and operated more efficiently than systems that require lower supply temperatures
  • Windows composed of low emissivity glazing to control heat gain/loss
  • Photocell and motion sensors that automatically turn off lamps in unoccupied rooms and rooms with sufficient natural day lighting
  • Infrared-controlled faucets and bathroom fixtures control water usage

Westwood has been selected as a national model for its energy-efficient design by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Council for Educational Facilities Planners International.

Eco-friendly construction is not only energy efficient and cost efficient, it is the right thing to do for the future of our planet. The sooner our students learn this, the better. Here's hoping every new school building is constructed with sustainability in mind.

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