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How Public Schools Are Going Net Zero

(Bloomberg) —

The entrance to Washington, D.C.’s newest elementary school building leads right to an open-space library painted in blue, green and yellow, with a makerspace that hangs above like a treehouse. On the side, a massive touchscreen invites students to tap away at an interactive dashboard with real-time data detailing how the building is performing for a new climate reality.

“Students can see bar charts of how much energy their building is generating and consuming — for the kitchen, for the mechanical systems, and for the lights,” says Juan Guarin, a sustainability expert at the architecture firm Perkins Eastman. “We also try to use it to teach topics like climate change, social and environmental justice, and human health.”

Guarin is part of the team behind John Lewis Elementary School and the Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, the district’s first net-zero schools — meaning they are supposed to eventually consume only as much energy as they generate on-site annually. 

Both have sustainability features that prioritize natural lighting and fresh air flow, with expansive windows and a beefed-up ventilation system. Geothermal wells beneath the playground provide heating and cooling. Cafeteria kitchens use electric rather than gas stoves. The city is also in the process of contracting with a solar developer to install photovoltaic panels throughout the rooftops, which will help offset energy use. 

The new facilities are part of D.C.’s ongoing school modernization effort funded through the city’s Capital Improvement Plan, and their debut this school year comes as the U.S. is increasingly targeting schools for greening efforts.

Nationwide, schools serving K-12 consume nearly 8% of all fuel used by nonresidential buildings, with space heating, water heating and lighting using up the most energy. Energy bills total $8 billion annually, typically making up the second-largest budget item in schools, after teacher salaries, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

In April, the Department of Energy launched a $500 million grant program as part of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure package to help schools become more energy-efficient. That’s on top of the billions of dollars of funding in the American Rescue Plan for pandemic-related improvements. 

The two schools that D.C.’s new facilities replaced were ripe for a massive overhaul. The previous buildings were old, and could no longer meet the needs of the student population. “So we thought these would be great ones to start [with our net-zero goals] because they were new construction, a little bit more of a blank slate,” says Janice Szymanski at the city’s Department of General Services.

But reducing energy consumption is no easy task, requiring a careful balance of complex designs. Large windows and skylights reduce the need for artificial lighting in classrooms, gyms, cafeterias and even stairways, but with sunlight comes high temperatures. 

The solution: Shades help control the amount of direct light coming through, which not only reduces heat but also glare, and window partitions help carry light to different areas. At John Lewis, skylights are also carefully angled to create “light shelves,” a passive design technique that bounces direct sunlight off of walls to distribute it more evenly throughout a space. 

The designs also increased ventilation — by 30% over the minimum code requirement at the elementary school — but because that requires more energy, the team had to lower energy consumption in other areas. “And then Covid hit,” says Heather Jauregui, director of sustainability at Perkins Eastman. “We were thankful that we had taken those steps because now the school is set up for a pandemic.”

Meanwhile, more high-tech programming at Benjamin Banneker also requires more energy use, but rooftop space on the four-story building is limited for installing solar panels. To offset the energy consumption, the design calls for additional panels on the school parking lot. And John Lewis, with a more expansive rooftop space for solar panels, will generate additional energy to help Banneker meet its net-zero goals. 

The two facilities will serve as a test case for what works and what doesn’t, and it remains to be seen if they will actually reach net zero. With the solar panels not yet installed, the schools aren’t yet reaching their energy production goals. Both schools also have ambitious energy use intensity goals  of 22 kBTU per square foot each year — well below the energy use of a typical D.C. school. 

Benjamin Banneker has been performing better than the EUI target the designers have set, while John Lewis has been operating within a “reasonable range” of the targets, according to the architecture firm. But Jauregui adds that engineers are constantly going into the buildings to make tweaks as needed. “Every day there’s little shifts here and there, so we’re playing this little game of trying to get the EUI under 22 to meet that net-zero goal at the end of the year,” she says.

As the city continues to upgrade its public schools, not every one will get a net-zero overhaul — especially those that sit in historic buildings. Constructing new buildings like these two also comes with its own immense carbon footprint, as compared to retrofitting existing structures. “We’re still being very rigorous on the amount of energy that a building consumes” in the city’s request for proposals, says Szymanski, adding that at the very least they’ll target drastic reductions in energy use.

Building for education equality

The pursuit of greener schools isn’t just a climate issue. Studies have shown that designs that save schools energy, like natural lightning, can boost academic achievement and provide psychological benefits for students and staff.

Yet Covid-19 has magnified the vast inequities of America’s educational infrastructure, in which low-income students of color are often left to learn in poorly ventilated buildings riddled with issues like lead paint, unsafe drinking water, and insufficient heating and cooling. 

So it matters who attends D.C.’s newest, state-of-the art schools, says principal designer Omar Calderón Santiago: “Sustainability and high performance is not something that should only be accessible to the affluent.” 

D.C.’s public student population is 58% African American, 21% Hispanic and only 16% white, according to 2020-21 school data. That divide is reflected in individual schools: Over half of the 300-something students attending John Lewis this year are Black, and another 21% are Hispanic. Some 53% are from the same neighborhood the school is located in, in Ward 4, where a third of households face high housing cost burden. 

At Benjamin Banneker, one of the district’s highest-achieving schools, Black and Hispanic students make up more than 90% of the population, and roughly 46% of students are economically disadvantaged, according to the city.

In fact, funding to modernize the high school didn’t come without a contentious battle over who gets a new learning space, and a protest — by the students themselves. In May 2019, as the city council debated whether to build Benjamin Banneker on the site of a defunct middle school in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Shaw or give Shaw residents a new facility, Banneker students marched to City Hall demanding the new school they’d been promised.

Pointing to a photo of the protest, Santiago noted that the students who led the movement were mostly young women of color. “What an incredible thing,” he says. “They were really just at the center stage of this whole thing.”

To contact the author of this story:
Linda Poon in Washington at

© 2022 Bloomberg L.P.


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