First Net-Zero School Building Helps Teach Students Value of Sustainability

The new fieldhouse at the Putney School in Vermont is the first net-zero school building in the country

The Putney School, a private high school in rural Vermont, has quietly staked its claim to the first and only net-zero, Platinum LEED certified school building in the country. The simple appearance of the school’s new – and much needed – field house belies not only some of the most innovative sustainable building design, but also represents a major step forward for the school – a mission founder Camelita Hinton began back in 1935. Simply put, to make each generation better than the last.

The story of the new net-zero field house is two-fold. First, there’s the building itself, and then the philosophy, vision, and work that brought it to fruition.

Net-zero in Vermont

Early in process, it was decided to design “tiers of performance above code” for the new field house, Putney CFO Randy Smith told me in a recent interview. What emerged from that initial idea is one of the few buildings in the country that produces more energy than it consumes – and then some. Local utility Green Mountain Energy pays 13 cents, plus a 6 cent premium, for each kilowatt of energy Putney provides back to the grid. Electricity is supplied by a 36.8 kilowatt array of solar-tracking PV solar panels. “It’s an electric building,” Smith says, “it uses no carbon based fuel.”

The field house began operation in late 2009, and in its fifteen months of operation, has proven the success of the design . In addition to being net-zero energy building, the 16,500-square-foot structure incorporates a number of low-impact design features including:

  • Passive solar heating
  • “On occupancy” lighting and ventilation systems, combined with extensive daylighting CO2 sensors.
  • A white reflective roof
  • A “super-insulated” building envelop utilizing R20 under-slab insulation, R20 foundation wall insulation, R45 walls, R60 roofs, and R5 fiberglass windows.
  • Locally harvested construction materials
  • Storm water management that exceeds national standards for runoff capture and treatment.

The field house demonstrates the efficacy of the net-zero design, and helps point the way toward future development at Putney. The lessons learned from the project are fundamental for the school’s long range plans “as we move more toward net-zero” explains Smith. The data gleaned from the field house helps Putney become “renewable ready as we move from the uncertainty of the oil market,” Smith said. Even with the field house producing its own energy, the rest of the school takes power from the grid. Energy costs for 2010 were upwards of $450,000.

Sustainability is more than a building

Sustainability is a term often used, abused and misunderstood. So even if it sounds like a cliche, at Putney “sustainability” is an ingrained way of life for students, where every kid has a job in addition to a full range of academic, artistic, and physical education programs.

One of student Natalie Silver’s responsibilities is overseeing the morning and evening barn crew. All students share in helping  run the working farm at Putney, an operation that contributes 35 percent of the food served in the cafeteria. Working to produce your own food helps bring an ecological awareness. Want to learn where food actually comes from? Go milk a cow.

Physical activity and sports is a core component of the program at Putney. For Natalie – whose athletic abilities include lacrosse, cross-country skiing, and soccer – and her fellow students, a field house had long been sorely needed to support and expand those athletic and community programs.

Putney is founded on a model of progressive education originally developed by American philosopher and educator John Dewey. It emphasizes “experiential education,” requiring students to “struggle with the real dilemmas of crafting a community in which rights and responsibilities balance.” Something Putney calls “the hard stretching of oneself.”

Inherent to that community responsibility was direct student involvement with the field house project. Natalie and her fellow students engaged with the surrounding community and alumni across the country to help rally support and raise the $5.5 million to fund the project. Students were also encouraged to give their input in the buildings design, offering suggestions that architect Maclay Architects incorporated into the final plans for the field house.

Natalie’s primary interest was a proper field house where she could pursue her athletic interests and hang out with her fellow students – not necessarily that it be net-zero and LEED Platinum certified building. Even so, it seemed only natural to everyone at Putney that any new building should live lightly on the land.

“I hear sustainability mentioned ten times a day,” Natalie told me. But not as a gripe, just as part of the daily routine at Putney. From the “sustainability squads” in the dorm rooms and helping run a farm, to direct involvement with the planning and design of a net-zero building, students are imbued with a sense of environmental and community responsibility.

And that is what is most heartening for me in this story. Sustainability comes not primarily from the buildings we build – though sustainable building design is an essential component – but from the people that inhabit those buildings. Net-zero should not be something we write about as exceptional, but something mundane, as a matter of course.

The new field house at Putney, and other buildings like it, prove that we can. And once built they demonstrate both economic and and environmental sustainability. So why wouldn’t we build net-zero buildings? It only makes sense.

7 thoughts on “First Net-Zero School Building Helps Teach Students Value of Sustainability”

  1. Any side by side comparisons of traditional schools or buildings and net-zero schools and buildings for a two-three year period? Any school districts in Texas utilizing this type of construction?

    1. Hi RH – Putney’s net-zero building has only been in operation since late 2009, so a two to three year side-by-side comparison isn’t yet feasible in that case. Putney’s CFO did tell me they have been getting a check from the gird operator for energy the building has produced in its 18 (19 or 20 by now) months of operation.
      Perhaps some other have information on other possible net-zero school building projects.

  2. I’m not sure if this is actually the first or not. The Tyson Living Learning Center and educational facility in St. Louis County, Missouri designed by Hellmuth + Bicknese Architects is net-zero energy, water and waste. It is (tied for) the first building in the world Living Building Challenge (LBC) Certified in October 2010. (Two buildings were certified simultaneously.

    The Hawaii Preparatory Academy Energy Lab in Kamuela, Hawaii is also net-zero energy, water and waste and was LBC certified in April 2010 and is also LEED platinum certified. It appears that it received its certification near the end of 2010.

    Richardsville Elementary School in Warren County, Kentucky is reported to be the first public school in the US that net-zero energy and is also LEEd platinum certified.

    1. I wouldlike to correct that it is Richardson Elementary School that appears to have received its LEED platinum certification late in 2010. I believe the HPA Energy Lab received its LEED platinum certification in early 2011.

      However there may be other schools that achieved net-zero energy sooner such as the Spirit Lake School in Spirit Lake Iowa that it seems did so in 2003 although later additions bumped them off the net-zero list.

      All said the trend to net-zero energy, (and net-zero water and waste) is amazing regardless of who was first.

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