Climate change and social equity were both on the curriculum for the designers and builders of two new purpose-built schools in Washington, DC.
Accounting for nearly 8% of non-residential building energy use in America, K-12 schools need to become more climate friendly, and John Lewis Elementary and Benjamin Banneker Academic High School have been designed with that in mind, reports Bloomberg.
In an effort headed by the architecture firm Perkins Eastman, the two schools are aiming to be DC’s first net-zero schools, “meaning they are supposed to eventually consume only as much energy as they generate onsite annually.”
Elements like an abundance of natural lighting (with window shades to keep radiant heat out) and fresh air circulation, geothermal wells for heating and cooling, and electric rather than gas stoves in the cafeteria all contribute to the goal. Photovoltaic panels, either on roofs or in the school parking lots, are also in the cards.
Using less energy will pay huge dividends. “Energy bills total US$8 billion annually, typically making up the second-largest budget item in schools, after teacher salaries,” writes Bloomberg, citing U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data.
Funded through the District’s Capital Improvement Plan, the two schools are part of a nation-wide effort to make public schools more energy-efficient, supported by a $500-million grant program launched by the Department of Energy in April.
Designed to serve as test cases for best practices, the schools have yet to prove that they can fulfill their net-zero design promise. “With the solar panels not yet installed, the schools aren’t yet reaching their energy production goals,” Bloomberg says.
But more than climate is at stake, in any case. Studies show that features like natural lighting boost academic performance and overall mental health for both students and staff. And then there is the matter of equity.
“Sustainability and high performance are not something that should only be accessible to the affluent,” principal designer Omar Calderón Santiago told Bloomberg. So it matters who attends these state-of-the-art schools, he said. More than 50% of students attending John Lewis are Black, another 21% are Hispanic, and one-third of the student body come from families for whom housing is a significant financial burden.
At Benjamin Banneker, Bloomberg writes, “Black and Hispanic students make up more than 90% of the population, and roughly 46% of students are economically disadvantaged.”