Green school buildings put metro Atlanta in design spotlight

By Nedra Rhone, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


When Scott Starowicz was in elementary school, things like iPads and iPhones didn’t exist. “I had to go outside. We are bringing that back,” said Starowicz, CFO of the SAE School in Mableton, a year-round project-based learning school founded in 2011.

SAE students spend more time outdoors and engaged in projects ranging from growing aquaponic lettuce by using fish waste as fertilizer to designing sustainable parks. Now the school is on track to become the first elementary school in the state to operate with 100% solar energy. “Sustainability is not just a project at the SAE School but a permanent way of life,” Starowicz said.

It is just one example of educational institutions in the metro area making a substantial investment in green building. Last week marked the opening of the Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design on the campus of Georgia Tech, a $30 million marvel that will be the first major Living Building Challenge-certified education and research facility in the Southeast. Earlier this year, Emory University, which claims the largest portfolio of green buildings in the Southeast, opened its new LEED Platinum-certified student centerone of the highest ratings for sustainable building practices.

“We’ve seen more and more schools focus on green building practices, not only because it helps reduce environmental impact, but it also reduces operating costs and provides an environment where students and teachers are more comfortable, less prone to illness and more focused on teaching and learning,” said Jenny Wiedower, senior manager, K12 Education at the U.S. Green Building Council’s Center for Green Schools.

Green schools save money over the life span of the building, can be built at or below regional construction costs for traditional buildings and can be operated within the same budget, Wiedower said. They are also an investment in students.

Emory University was one of the earliest campuses to embrace green building, said Ciannat Howett, director of Sustainability Initiatives. The institution set the ambitious goal of having its building renovations held to minimum LEED Silver standard by 2025.

About 300 students participated in designing the new LEED Platinum student center, offering input on policy and process. The athletic field nearby hosts 400-foot-deep geothermal wells that help heat and cool the facility. About 80% of habitable spaces get lighting from daylight beaming through glass walls that feature solar tracking shades to block heat.

Stations in the dining hall offer vegetarian and vegan options, and about 43% of food comes from local sources. Service is trayless, there is no Styrofoam on campus and meals are served with real silverware.

“They see (green building) as a blueprint for creating high-quality learning environments, but it’s also part of preparing students for 21st-century careers, and a commitment to sustainability is something students expect to see,” said Wiedower.

SAE has consistently invested in greening its building, which once housed a charter school on the 7 acres of land. Starowicz installed LED lights throughout the two-story building and moved the AC units to Wi-Fi so he could adjust the thermostat from his phone during nights and weekends. Add to that the existing rooftop array of solar panels, and the school cut its monthly utility bill by 30%, he said.

With a $60,000 grant from the Kendeda Fund through Southface Institute, which the school must match through its annual fund drive, donations and corporate sponsorship, they hope to install additional panels by the end of the year to become 100% solar, Starowicz said. The move will free up more than $36,000 each year, which Starowicz said will allow them to reinvest in the school — hiring more teachers, improving curriculum and continuing to engage even their youngest students in environmental stewardship.

In many ways, the Southeast is the hardest region in which to design a green building because it needs to be cooled in summer, heated in winter and prepared for moisture year-round, said Dennis Creech, fund adviser for sustainability at the Kendeda Fund. “The good news is we know how to do it,” Creech said. While the Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design is surely innovative, it isn’t new. “We didn’t invent anything new, but what we did do is use an integrated design approach, which is unfortunately still somewhat rare,” Creech said.

The building at Georgia Tech is home to classrooms, laboratories, offices, an auditorium and a roof garden with an apiary, and it serves as a living laboratory for regenerative design, a growing field in which building design improves the surrounding environment.

The key to making integrated design cost-effective is creating elements that have multiple uses, Creech said. Not only do the 900 solar panels on the roof generate more electricity than the building uses, but they also support a rainwater collection system, provide shade for the building and serve as an outdoor porch where students can gather, he said.

Built on the site of a former parking lot, the building is also designed to generate more water than it uses each year. Rainwater is stored and treated on-site to be used as water for drinking and in sinks and showers in the building.

While many sustainable elements are visible, such as the reclaimed wood from fallen trees used throughout the building or sensor-controlled LED lighting, some are less obvious. Living Building certification prohibits the use of certain chemicals, so builders must source materials that meet those standards or lobby manufacturers to make alternatives to products that contain chemicals such as phthalates, BPA and PVC, which negatively impact human and environmental health.

The building also has composting toilets that use biodegradable soap and a small amount of water to draw waste into giant compost bins where pine shavings deodorize and break down solid waste.

With more than 7,000 visitors expected by the end of the year, the hope is that the building serves as inspiration for what is possible in the Southeast. “Once you learn how to build a Living Building, you can’t unlearn it,” said Shan Arora, director of the Kendeda Building. “We want everyone who comes in the building to begin thinking differently about building in general.”

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