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Jun 222009

But the relationships in Kentucky were already in place, due to the earlier building projects and what Ryles calls “the leadership” – those willing to forgo sacred cows or past ways of doing things. He references the many contributors that made the process work, from the superintendents to the school boards; the engineers and architects; the public entities and private contractors.

“Our program is set up so we’re partnered with local and state government, we share a lot of information,” Ryles said. “Bad things get stopped quickly, good things spread like wildfire.”

A longtime working relationship between the school district and the architectural firm was also a big factor, Stanfield notes. The two have worked together for more than 20 years, evaluating as they go.

“Each time we did a new project, we had the opportunity to look back and see what worked well, what we could improve on, with energy conservation in mind. We kept raising the bar,” Stanfield said. When the group started trying for net zero, rather than starting from the position of the average American school, they were starting from where they left off at Plano Elementary.

Seibert, Ryles, Stanfield and others analyzed every part of the new school’s structure and function, from the way it was sited to the way food would be prepared in the cafeteria. Stanfield jokes that it’s a bit like playing “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” because everything is connected.

“When you look for ways to save energy, every decision affects energy somewhere. Somewhere down the line, it does.”

Security, for example. The design team met with the local police, who liked seeing a well-lit building at night for security reasons. But that light wastes energy. Instead, Richardsville’s security lights will be tied to motion sensors. “If everything is dark when a police car drives by, there’s no intruder,” Stanfield says. “If something is lit, there’s a problem. It’s all about changing the way people traditionally think.”

And that includes the concept of how a school can pay for itself.

“For a public school to get to net zero is amazing,” Stanfield said. “Alternative energy is still expensive. You have to show that there’s a financial payback to do that.”

The Richardsville school building is financed over 20 years. The solar panels will be paid for in 12. After they’re paid for, the revenue they generate goes back into the school district. “And that’s forever,” Ryles said. “At some point it’s just an awesome accomplishment.”

And while there’s certainly a lot of attention being paid to the school’s future energy bills – or lack of them – don’t make the mistake of thinking that walls, windows and solar panels are the biggest focus here. The students were front and center in the effort; and educational aspects of the project pop up around every corner. Laptops are recharged in the “solar hallway,” where students can see the energy being received from solar panels; a “geothermal hallway” (picture, left) shows pipes and temperature gauges; the “water conservation hallway” monitors rainwater collected and used to flush toilets in school restrooms, and the “recycling hallway” keeps track of how the school is doing in that regard. A weather station on the patio will work its way into math and science studies (picture, top of page).

So of all the cool bells and whistles, what is the architect most proud of?

“That we were able to design the building in such a way that the energy-saving features are part of the school’s curriculum,” Stanfield said. “The students will be able to see the decisions we’ve made and watch them develop. And the school’s not even open until next fall, but they already have the energy curriculum for the teachers.”

Ryles couldn’t be more in agreement about the priorities in the building.

“When kids go to school in a building like this they learn about this stuff,” he said. “They learn about environmental stewardship, energy conservation, they go home and tell their parents about it. The building is essentially a laboratory for them to do business.”

And maybe it teaches them just a little bit about how to get something accomplished in life.

“There’s always people who will say you’ll never pull it off, you’ll never get people to work together this way,” Ryles said. “In a time when we have an economic recession and there’s a lot of negative news, this is hope.”

(Architectural images courtesy of Sherman-Carter-Barnhart Architects.)

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