A Road Map to Net Zero K-12 Schools

Combining Zero Net Energy (ZNE) targets with master planning efforts can create immediate benefits for districts and educators.

By Mariana Lavezzo
LPA Director of School Planning

A recent US Department of Energy report found that schools spend more of their budgets paying for electricity and natural gas than they do buying textbooks and computers. Money that could be spent on students is flowing out of poorly planned buildings, in the form of wasted heating and cooling costs.

Traditionally, there’s been a misplaced belief that energy efficiency and zero-emission school buildings required extensive upfront costs. Sustainability was viewed as a luxury, especially when basic needs for school districts often go unmet.

But there’s no reason long-term capital plans, cost savings and climate goals can’t complement each other. Creating the right road map and master plan can save money over time, and help districts reach their zero net energy (ZNE) goals. The truth is, you can do both sustainability and smart budgeting.

Smart, strategic master planning that targets zero-net energy — where a building produces as much energy as it uses — can accelerate other key facility improvement goals. In the planning process, a path to ZNE can be addressed in a series of manageable, accessible and affordable steps. At the same time, school districts with a comprehensive green road map can avoid costly replacements, temporary upgrades and unnecessary retrofits later.

With emission cut target dates looming, the price of inaction rises. In many cases, weaving sustainability goals into the master planning effort simply makes economic sense.

Districts developing a campus master plan have already committed funds for campus assessments and data collection. Adding energy performance, resiliency, and health and wellness into the planning provides a much larger payoff for the investment.

Long-term planning with a ZNE focus provides a variety of direct benefits. The urgency to address climate change can foster quick, efficient change. The comprehensive energy audits that undergird these plans provide valuable data on each campus, including an exploration of historic energy use, predictions for future performance, and examinations of options for electrification and adding renewable-energy options like solar. The process often uncovers outliers and opportunities for quick and cheap interventions, such as easy fixes to HVAC and air circulation systems that can cut energy costs. You don’t have to wait for the future while planning for the future.

Net Zero Schools
For Agnews, a K-12 campus design in Santa Clara, California, the planning focus on connecting to nature resulted in more outdoor learning and play spaces.

With the information from the audits in hand, planners, engineers and architects can begin to chart the steps for designing campuses that fit the ZNE targets. A holistic approach can determine which campuses and buildings need more focus. Future energy use, operating costs and carbon emissions should be a big part of the equation in determining the long-term value of a renovation compared to a teardown.

Renovations that include the pursuit of ZNE can often serve as a learning tool that can be incorporated into the curriculum to help students to become stewards for the environment. Smart planning and site design, in tandem with a holistic vision for school facilities, can achieve dramatic energy savings over time, while working with the existing buildings and landscapes. When the silos are removed, and the planning process takes place in a collaborative, inclusive environment, administrators and leaders can optimize their budgets and achieve larger learning goals.

To reduce the energy load and make the floor plan more efficient, we focus master plans on a step-by-step series of alterations and of updates to key building systems. This includes additional daylighting; replacing traditional lights with LED bulbs; landscape design to add more outdoor classrooms; swapping out older heating and HVAC systems with heat pumps and radiant heat; electrifying facilities and eliminating fossil fuel infrastructure; and rotating in more efficient appliances and windows.

In our experience, laying out and following the energy-efficient road maps often leads to campuses with more open, communal space, improved air quality and generally more supportive and healthy learning environments. For Austin ISD’s Menchaca Elementary School, a design focus on passive measures such as building orientation, shading and strategic use of natural light helped significantly cut energy usage. We saw similar benefits in the design for Agnews, a K-12 campus design in Santa Clara, California, where the planning focus on connecting to nature resulted in more outdoor learning and play spaces, as well as quadrangle landscaping that encourages indoor-outdoor connections.

These types of campus success stories are becoming commonplace as plans developed in the past decade that included NZE goals come to fruition. We’re learning energy efficiency isn’t just for energy efficiency’s sake. This is also for comfort, and when students are more comfortable, they’re more able to learn. The benefits aren’t just about reducing the carbon footprint and saving money but making facilities better for the students and staff who learn and work there every day.

As K-12 Director of School Planning for LPA Design Studios, Mariana Lavezzo fosters a collaborative, research-driven approach that make sustainability, equity and wellness a core part of the design process.