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This net-zero elementary school offers a lesson in sustainable design

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Designed like a “science experiment,” the sleek, streamlined, solar panel-clad P.S. 62 in Staten Island is one of the nation's most energy-efficient schools

From the playground, The Kathleen Grimm School for Leadership and Sustainability at Sandy Ground, also known as P.S. 62, looks like something you’d expect to see in Scandinavia, not Staten Island. With a crisp, clean facade, solar panel-clad roof, and colorful windows, it’s bright, cheerful, and anything but the brick-clad, institutional structure one might expect for urban schoolchildren.

If the designers and New York officials who helped make this experiment in sustainability a reality have their way, it might also serve as an important model for making the school system, and city, greener and more cost-efficient. Designed by a team from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), P.S. 62 sets a new standard as the city's first net-zero school, and one of the first in the world. A year after opening, the 68,000-square-foot school and community center has a energy footprint that’s just half as large—52 percent less, to be exact—as a traditional school. To achieve that level of efficiency, it was devised and designed using a process familiar to any of the kids running around on the playground.

"We approached the design like you would a science experiment," says SOM Design Partner Roger Duffy. "We identified the little problems tried to solve them, and really focused on how people operate in the building."

Duffy and his team leap at the challenge of creating the innovative structure after winning the commission from New York’s School Construction Authority (SCA). Bruce Barrett, the SCA's vice president for architecture and engineering, felt that the relatively remote site on Staten Island, which offered the architects and designers more space to experiment than a condensed city block in Manhattan, offered the city a chance to push the boundaries and create a "sustainability lab," an experiment that could be applied to future construction projects. When schools account for 40 percent of the emissions for municipal buildings in the five boroughs, making them more efficient can have a huge impact on the city's carbon footprint.

To design a structure that generated all its own power, most architects create structures that can be described as high-tech boxes; utilizing ultra-tight insulation and significantly less windows slashes energy costs. But that formula doesn’t necessarily lead to an environment conducive to teaching children, who perform better in open, active spaces with a surfeit of sunlight. The designers were caught between the notoriously stringent net-zero standard and the desire to create a spacious, busy building used by schoolchildren seven days a week.

SOM architects turned to passive strategies, and exacting research, to achieve their goals. Oriented to make the most of passive daylighting, the courtyard-shaped P.S. 62 groups all the classrooms are grouped together at the south end of the school to make the most of natural daylight. Each room has a set of tightly sealed exterior windows as well as a light harvesting window above that maximizes natural daylighting. The percentage of P.S. 62’s facade covered in glass is 30 percents; at most schools, it’s half. But walk through the building’s open hallways, classrooms, and assembly hall, covered with clerestory windows, sloped ceilings, and light-reflecting white surfaces throughout, and it’s very hard to tell the difference.

"The quality of light is like no building I’ve ever seen before," says Duffy. "It’s like an Aalto project, just beautiful lighting."

While SOM architects utilized different strategies to generate energy, including placing geothermal wells under the playing fields and lining the roof with ultra-efficient solar panels—a unique layout developed in partnership with the Center for Architecture Science and Ecology (CASE), at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute dramatically increased energy production—they also made sure that the building makes the most of every bit of power. A key example of this approach is the precast concrete pieces that cover the facade. By sealing the walls and preventing air leakage, these structures serve as an important barrier that makes sure power used for heating and cooling doesn't go to waste.

Architects also made a huge effort to change the way those inside the building think about, and consume, energy. The designers talked to the entire staff to learn how they used electricity and helped them change their routines to make the entire building more efficient overall. Staff utilize efficient appliances and run the kitchen on a strict schedule to help reduce excess heating costs from leaving burners on all day. Students have access to an app that gives them detailed energy usage stats, and even pits different classes and grades against each other in a contest to be more energy-efficient. The sustainability features aren’t just a passive part of the building, but a key cornerstone of the children’s educational experience.

While Duffy and his team have achieved significant energy and cost savings, they’re not quite finished. Over the next few years, they will continue to "tune" the structure—Duffy describes it as an instrument—using data to make slight systems adjustments that will help save even more energy. Despite the success of this school project, the architects aren’t done learning.