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Facilities of Environmental Distinction

The American Institute of Architects honors a few buildings that reveal environmental stewardship.

Three of nine school buildings that have won the latest Educational Facility Design Awards from the American Institute of Architects' Committee on Architecture for Education stand out from the crowd of other school buildings because they are sustainable and are connected to the nature that surrounds them. The awards program is designed to identify trends and emerging ideas, honor excellence in planning and design, and disseminate knowledge about best practices in educational and community facilities, according to the AIA.

Thurston Elementary School

In the Springfield (Ore.) Public Schools, Thurston Elementary School replaced a 55-year-old dilapidated building, according to Jeff DeFranco, the district's director of communications and facilities. It didn't have a cafeteria or gymnasium, and the heating was horrible, with one section of the building reaching 90 degrees on certain days and other sections of the building so cold that students and staff had to wear winter coats, DeFranco says.

Construction for the new school started in June 2008 and finished in December 2009. The AIA committee described the school's design this way: "[The] gentle, sloping silhouette mirrors the McKenzie River valley's tree-lined hills to the south and north. Sheets of exposed, tilt-up concrete create a structural rhythm that expresses the scale of these hills and grounds the building to its site. Wood-framed glass walls bring light and views from the outdoors into transparent connectors, including the entry, library and commons."

The Thurston Elementary School in Oregon has a skybridge that connects the two second-story wings of the school. It allows for a plethora of daylight and is a visually stimulating feature.

Special features include occupancy sensors so that when no one is in a room, the lights turn off and stay off; natural sunlight that cuts down on artificial lighting usage; and photo cells on the ceilings of classrooms and some hallways, which monitor the amount of daylight streaming in and automatically shut off artificial lights in a room when the daylight is sufficient.

The school's interior reflects the history of the Springfield timber industry, with woodwork in hallways, classrooms and cabinets. "It makes it warm and inviting, as opposed to some schools that have more of an institutional feeling," DeFranco says. The concrete tilt-up walls provide for "night-flushing" during warmer months. During late spring and early fall, the heating and ventilation system brings in the cool, night air, which naturally cools the inside of the building during the day.

The facility also has outdoor sites such as bioswales to collect rainwater that flows from parking lots, playgrounds and roofs.  is eliminates the need to use the city's storm-water system, which uses energy to process rainwater.  e rain naturally gets reabsorbed into the ground. The building is 20 percent more efficient than other school buildings in the state that are required to have some energy efficiency, DeFranco says.

At the Cathcart site, the Little Cedars Elementary School has a bridge that connects two buildings with large windows. The school was built on 300-plus acres to accommodate growing enrollment at Snohomish (Wash.) School District.

The Cathcart Site

In the Snohomish (Wash.) School District, Glacier Peak High School and Little Cedars Elementary School were brand-new schools built to accommodate increasing student enrollment. The Cathcart Site, the name of the area where both schools were built, sits on a hill and has a 180-degree view of the Cascade Mountains in Washington. The site was chosen because it was one of the only large sites left in the growing urban area on which to build, according to Jim Price, the district's capital projects manager. 

The design involved the community, with one of the goals being to create an "open and very transparent facility that would be like a meeting place and have a sense of connection with the community," according to Ben Hill, associate principal at Glacier Peak High School.

The cafeteria at Glacier Peak High School at the Cathcart offers a view of the Cascade Mountains. ?Nature permeates the whole experience of the site,? says Ben Hill, associate principal at NAC Architecture and project manager.

Little Cedars is connected to Glacier Peak via a nature path. It is a huge meeting ground for the community, with ball fields, tennis courts, library, gymnasium and an indoor-outdoor theater. It is also used as a wedding reception site.

The AIA committee had this to say about the design: "rough mountain views, sloping terrain, courtyards, bridges and a tactile landscape of salvaged logs and boulders, nature enriches the learning environment."

Special features include an HVAC system that brings in outside air and creates a cleaner environment, large windows that let in natural sunlight, light shelves built into some rooms to bounce sunlight into the rooms, and wetlands used as outdoor classrooms, Hill says.

Manassass Park Elementary School

In the Manassas Park (Va.) City Schools, Manassas Park Elementary School was built to replace an antiquated building from 1956 and to provide for a surging student enrollment, according to Thomas DeBolt, Manassas Park City Schools superintendent. The district's leaders also wanted the new school to be certified as a LEED Gold building. "We all need to be conscious players in saving Mother Earth," DeBolt says. "When you have children in a green building, it's healthier for them. And it's been proven that in buildings built this way, children learn more and teachers teach better."

The AIA committee describes the design this way: "Interior extended learning spaces offer dramatic and surprisingly intimate views of the neighboring mixed oak forest, while elementary classrooms face shady moss and fern-covered learning courtyards featuring fallen trees and other particularities of an eastern deciduous forest floor."

Students read or work on projects in a room lit naturally by the sun at Manassas Park Elementary School in Virginia. The school is LEED gold certified, designed to be energy efficient and uses as much natural energy as is possible.

Special features include no caustic materials used for building; a green light system, which brings in outside air to cool or heat the building; a geothermal system, which includes 220 wells that are 350 feet deep in the earth and that bring back water that is 57 degrees, which is either heated or cooled for energy; and a system to harvest rainwater, which is used for toilets and sinks. If there is no rain, water comes from an on-site well.

Other advantages of the school include light trays on special shades on the upper part of classroom windows, which capture and bounce the sunlight into the rooms, and light tubes, which look like a bubble of glass on ceilings and splash sunlight in the library, hallways and offices.

"What we're watching very closely is the energy footprint," he says. "We want to see how much energy and water we're using, and how much gas we're using." DeBolt says it's too early to know how much energy they have saved, but that "everyone is positive about the building."