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At this elite high school, sustainability is part of the curriculum

At this elite high school, sustainability is part of the curriculum

Posting in Architecture

The Putney School in Vermont boasts the first net-zero school building in the United States on a campus where sustainability squads are part of everyday student activities.

With approximately 220 students, The Putney School in Putney, Vermont, isn't actually a huge high school but it boasts one of the most unusual and unique curriculums in the United States. You could actually say that practical sustainability has been part of the academic agenda since Putney School was founded in the mid-1930s: with students expected to contribute practically to the 500-acre working dairy farm and other operations on the campus since the early days. The school's motto from its Web site: "Progressive education for a sustainable future.

More recently, that philosophy has taken on a more explicit agenda -- in the form of campus sustainability squads charged with encouraging more resource-efficient resource consumption as well as one of the first net-zero Platinum LEED certified school buildings in the country. In fact, the construction of that building, the school's first athletic field house, offers a great example of how Putney School combines academic and practical disciplines to help students understand what it means to live a sustainable life.

Putney School's director, Emily Jones, says when discussions really heated up about the field house in 2008, the school's trustees decided it would be irresponsible to construct another building that relied on fossil fuels.

"We wanted to build a green building, but how green was not understood," she said.

Along the way, the school decided to make this an ongoing teaching project, so that students would understand what goes into making a green building. So, 40 hours of teaching time were built into the architecture firm's contract. As different stages of the building were evaluated and completed, the entire school would participate in an assembly about that phase and then break into smaller groups charged with making proposals about how to solve particular design problems that were presented.

The field house, which was opened in November 2010, is certified under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum specification from 2009. The 16,800-square-foot facility, designed by Maclay Architects, uses passive solar design as well as 16 sun-tracking solar panels. Staff and student (and the general public for that matter) can watch the energy consumption in real time. Here are some of the other features that went into earning the LEED certification:

  • A white roof that minimizing the "heat island" effect
  • Low-water fixtures and composting toilets
  • Energy-efficient lighting, along with occupancy and daylight harvesting technologies that minimize consumption
  • More than half the wood in the building was certified under the Forest Steward Council framework
  • Approximately 75 percent of the construction waste was diverted from disposal
  • Locally harvested materials
  • An air-source heat pump that helps provide climate control for the building

Jones said technology -- especially the sensors and the monitoring systems -- was an integral part of making the building sustainable. That technology is also helping the school understand how it might retrofit other buildings to make them renewable ready. "We now have what we need to tell us what we need to do to make them perform up to the standard," she said.

That's also where the student-led Sustainability Squad concept kicks in. "Students are part of making this work," Jones said. In particular, students are charged with making sure energy-efficiency and waste management policies are honored in their dormitories and across the campus.

Sylvie Graubard, who will be squad leader when she returns as a Putney School junior in fall 2011, isn't necessarily looking for a career in sustainability but she believes that the habits we learn during our teenage years stay with us for life. Students, for example, were behind a recent move to ban Styrofoam-based cups from the campus. A big rallying cry for the next school year will be water conservation, Graubard said.

"I am not sure what I want to do, but I am sure that sustainability will be part of my life in the future. This is my generation's revolution," she said.

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure