The Achievable Goal

Designing a net zero energy K-12 campus may not be as hard as you think. Schools in development right now are hitting the target by making net zero a core value of the planning process.

On a windy hill north of Los Angeles, Newhall School District and LPA Design Studios designers are creating an all-electric, net zero energy campus that blends carbon-reduction targets with the larger campus goals. The design for Newhall Elementary School #11 reduces energy use, in part through an array of outdoor learning environments, and offsets the remaining energy demand by integrating photovoltaic (PV) panels into building elements, all while working within the district’s budget and the constraints of a difficult site.

“Everywhere that we have photovoltaic panels, it serves a dual purpose,” says LPA Managing Director Steve Key. “The net zero strategy is part of a lunch shelter, a walkway cover, the roof system — it’s supporting educational spaces and making sustainability an integral part of how the campus will be used.”

Newhall is no outlier. LPA designers are working with districts around the country to make net zero K-12 schools a reality. Integrated design teams, including engineers, interior designers and landscape architects, are targeting each district’s specific goals, operations and resources to make net zero a core value for the budget and educators.

For many districts, net zero is coming, and understanding the opportunities and added value is more critical now than ever. Local codes and community standards are increasingly demanding higher-performing campuses.

“This isn’t about today’s dollars, but the return on investment over time and looking at what’s happening around us,” says LPA Director of K-12 Kate Mraw. “The future is a lot closer than we think. Planning for efficiencies should start today.”

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Rienda K-8 School site plan.
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With energy costs rising and resiliency a growing concern, the net zero ROI calculation is changing. A broader view includes consideration of annual operation costs and repair issues, looking at the long-term benefits. At the same time, many of the net zero design strategies, such as quality daylighting and connections to the outdoors, have been shown to provide direct benefits to student outcomes and performance.

“Net zero might not be something districts come to the table prioritizing, but they realize that it’s probably not that far from where they want to be anyway,” says LPA Project Designer Stephanie Matsuda-Strand. “If we do these simple things, it takes you from good to great.”

Taking on the Challenge
Since the move to net zero is inevitable, districts unprepared for the change will certainly pay in the long run and face limited options. Too often, a sea of PV panels in a parking lot is seen as the only way to bring renewables onto a campus.

In San Juan Capistrano, California, Rienda K-8 is designed as “net zero ready,” including space for PV systems to be easily added in the future. Net zero was not part of the district’s initial goal for the campus, which needs to support environments for a range of early learners. As the design evolved, the aesthetic was tied to the local agricultural community; the farm-style metal pitched roofs are perfect for PV panels. “The bones are there, so they can add PV at any time and reach net zero,” Matsuda-Strand says.

In Texas, the net zero discussion is often centered around resiliency, including protecting campuses from energy grid instability or spikes in pricing. Districts are laser-focused on capital costs and reducing operations and maintenance expenses. Designers are working with education leaders to make energy and carbon part of the planning process, while supporting related goals.

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A wind-power demonstration garden on the Newhall campus will provides students with a hands-on learning experience.

“We’re designing to help with their bottom line,” says LPA San Antonio Studio Director Sara Flowers. “We’re always looking for efficient alternatives to maximize resources and be good stewards of taxpayer dollars.”

Net zero is an obtainable goal in Texas, despite the often-harsh climate. Big steps can be made simply by making buildings more efficient and less wasteful. “Many of the buildings on campuses are just not efficient,” Flowers says. “They are energy hogs.”

In San Antonio, LPA designers are working with a local school district to develop net zero energy options for the rebuild of a 78,000-square-foot early childhood center. “We’re not just talking in the abstract,” says LPA’s Dallas-based Director of Sustainability and Applied Research Ellen Mitchell. “We’re looking at an actual project and figuring out what it would take to get to net zero.”

The focus is on developing a high-performance building to replace a school built in the 1950s, lowering operational costs while developing a building designed to support early childhood programming. The district already uses PV panels on many facilities; the district participates in a local program that allows it to generate substantial income by selling energy back to the power grid. In Austin, Austin ISD has been working with LPA to include PV in projects since 2010, helping to bring down operating costs and setting a foundation to help the district reach future sustainability goals.

The Newhall Strategy
The 86,000-square-foot Newhall Elementary campus is part of FivePoint Valencia, a new 21,000-home development designed as one of the state’s largest green communities, where the school will be a sustainable hub. The developer set net zero as a requirement for the school, which sits on an amoeba-shaped site surrounded by homes. Beyond the heat — the daily highs are typically above 90 degrees into September — a strong wind whips through the Santa Clarita Valley, providing an array of challenges for making the campus comfortable and developing useful outdoor spaces.

LPA did such a good job of listening — if we had an award for ‘good listening,’ we would give it to them.

“We had our integrated services team at the table when we were looking at the placement and the heights of buildings,” Matsuda-Strand says. “Early involvement from our engineers was critical to the success of this project.”

The design team set goals around experience, community, wellness and performance, expanding the net zero discussion beyond energy. The AIA’s Framework for Design Excellence was used as a guide, prompting the design team to develop strategies in 10 key areas. The process was grounded in the realities of the site and the larger programming goals, including the need to create a separate space for transitional kindergarten and kindergarten students. Simply aligning the buildings around solar orientation wouldn’t support the learning objectives or the administrative needs. The district also wanted shading structures to protect students from the rain, as well as the sun, which changed the equation for using the shading for PV panels.

“LPA did such a good job of listening — if we had an award for ‘good listening,’ we would give it to them,” says Suzan Solomon, a member of the Newhall School Board.

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Buildings on the Newhall campus are arranged to protect the interior quad from the elements, making outdoor learning possible on a windswept site.
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Ultimately, a series of buildings of different shapes were arranged to create a protected interior promenade and a multi-use courtyard. Shading canopies shield buildings and students from the sun and rain. The goal was to protect the campus edges from heat gain and glare, while strategically using a minimum of glazing to create a welcoming, engaging environment and to celebrate views. Vertical screens, berms and dense planted areas provide a secondary layer of wind mitigation.

“Our goal was to make the outdoor spaces more comfortable and usable and help mitigate cross winds and turbulence that could enter the site,” says LPA Project Landscape Architect Alan Gonzalez.

Creating active outdoor learning environments, despite the earsplitting wind conditions, was a core part of the planning process. The interior quad, protected from the sun and wind, was designed for transparency, playfulness and multiple learning styles. The TK and kindergarten areas have a separate courtyard designed around early childhood development. A wind-power demonstration garden provides students with a hands-on learning experience.

“The campus layout and building massings were really a response to protecting outdoor learning environments,” Matsuda-Strand says. “Our net zero energy goal was only one driver. We did our best to understand and design for this site’s unique climate.”

The campus layout and building massings were really a response to protecting outdoor learning environments. Our net zero energy goal was only one driver. We did our best to understand and design for this site’s unique climate.

As is often the case, reaching net zero energy eventually came down to a mathematical equation: how much energy generated by PV panels (and stored in an on-site battery system) would be necessary to offset the campus’s energy use. Reducing energy use reduces the amount of necessary PV. Modeling with clear targets can predict the building’s performance.

“It’s not complicated, but it takes an integrated design team to make the numbers work,” says LPA mechanical engineer Doug Seamark.

Newhall called for 29,000 square feet of PV panels, with the capacity to generate 435kw. Integrating panels into existing structures reduced construction costs and freed land for other uses. Battery storage — a new California requirement — was consolidated in one area of the campus, which also preserved space on the site. Energy management systems and more-efficient HVAC systems will help reduce the energy load. The PV system will cost approximately $1.3 million, but it will reduce the annual energy cost by $158,000. The projected payback for the PV system is 8.3 years.

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Shade canopies throughout the Newhall campus serve dual roles — creating comfortable environments for students while providing a platform for PV panels.

A Net Zero Model
Newhall is a very specific project with unique challenges, but it demonstrates the path to net zero. “What we’re implementing for Newhall is very replicable on any campus, in terms of reducing our carbon footprint,” Key says.

Every district is different, with different operations and maintenance capabilities. Not all campuses have the ability to add PV. In some cases, districts turn to power purchase agreements with outside providers, which often results in PV installations in parking lots or fields. The third-party providers typically own the PV systems and are responsible for installation and maintenance; they sell the energy generated to the school at a negotiated rate that’s typically less than standard electricity rates.

“Power purchase agreements may be a solution when you don’t have a lot of dollars and you’re not building new construction,” Mraw says. “But if you’re doing a major renovation or new construction, designing net zero strategies into projects makes the energy system inherently yours and provides a direct return, in many ways.”

For many projects, the extra step to net zero may not be that far beyond existing code requirements. In California, the state already requires minimum PV and battery storage for new schools. If the move to net zero is inevitable, districts unprepared for the change will certainly pay in the long run and face limited options. It’s up to designers to change the discussion and make the value proposition clear to districts from the outset of the project, says Mitchell.

“Our goal is to give you a higher-performing building, and it’s not going to cost you any more,” Mitchell says. “Who’s going to say no to that?”