Homer Science & Student Life Center
Forward Thinking: Marrying ecological concepts and spiritual values, a century-old Catholic school’s new facility promises substantial energy savings and a sustainable legacy.
When Sacred Heart Preparatory decided to build a new structure to house classrooms, a cafeteria, and an auditorium for its roughly 550 high school students, it not only had to contend with Title 24—California’s progressive energy code—it also had to answer to a higher authority. “It’s part of our religious identity to take seriously the care of the earth,” says James Everitt, a principal at the century-old Catholic institution just north of Palo Alto, California.
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In addition to its divine mandate, the school wanted to ensure that the cost of a high-performance building would not jeopardize its ability to operate for at least another 100 years. During the design phase, Sacred Heart’s board insisted on a rigorous life-cycle cost analysis looking ahead 20 years. In the projections, qualitative benefits, including reduced absenteeism, were off the table. Demonstrating how quickly energy savings would offset the cost premium was the bottom line.
The design team, led by San Francisco firm Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects and contractor DPR Construction, devised energy and water use strategies that showed only a 2.6 percent cost increase to get the building from code-standard to LEED Platinum (with site energy use at nearly 70 percent below the national average). More than that, a projected life-cycle analysis had that cost offset within 9 to 10 years, with an additional savings of some $500,000 in years 10 through 20. The board was impressed, and the $25 million, 44,100-square-foot Michael J. Homer Science & Student Life Center opened in September of 2009.
The Homer Center sits to the south of the school’s original red brick 1898 building—the focal point of the 64-acre campus—and subtly reflects its coloration with red slate cladding. The two-story southern volume incorporates a double-height entry with louver-slotted glazing, eight science classrooms, and a 350-seat dining hall. On the north side, a bank of administrative offices and a 700-seat auditorium flank a courtyard centered on a heritage oak tree.
“It’s like a Brooks Brothers suit,” says Bill Leddy, FAIA, founding principal at Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects. “It’s very classic. The details are carefully articulated. It’s not relying on brash bold moves.”
Sited on a former playing field, the structure’s simple east-west organization allows it to take advantage of daylighting and prevailing winds. It also creates a new quad with a central hallway that continues the outdoor circulation.
Solar tubes catch and amplify sunlight providing a dappled but predominantly even light to the central circulation. More than 50 percent of the building relies on the sun as its primary light source, augmented by high-efficiency lighting controlled by timers, occupancy sensors, and dimmers.
With a phalanx of ceiling fans, the corridor also provides a primary channel for the building’s nighttime air flushing system. The entire project relies on natural ventilation throughout the day, supplemented by an evaporative cooling system on the few hot days of the academic year. Waste kitchen heat is recovered for water and space heating in tandem with the building’s high-efficiency gas boilers and in-floor hydronic system.
Upstairs, a second hallway leads to eight laboratory classrooms that are themselves object lessons in energy use. Windows in north-facing classrooms look out to a 40- kilowatt array of photovoltaic cells lining the roof of the auditorium and bearing 25 percent of the school’s energy load. “The building is another teacher in the department,” says Colin Quinton, head of the school’s science department. “Kids walk by the living roof, and then they want to talk about it in class.” Some second-floor windows look across a 3,000-square-foot green roof, where the light-catching globes that cap the first-floor solar tubes protrude like jellyfish among plantings modeled on the understory of local redwood forests. Students’ experiential relationship to the green roof and other sustainable strategies make ecological issues “not only more accessible, but more visceral,” says Leddy.
The green roof is one part of a larger stormwater management system that centers on an 8,500-cubic-foot swale in the northwest corner of the site. Planted with native grasses, the “rain garden” retains enough stormwater to reduce drainage by 91 percent. The facility utilizes roughly 50 percent of the potable water consumed by a similarly sized school.
Not only have these features begun to deliver on promised energy savings, but they also meet a pedagogical need—and not just for students. In the first academic year, for example, the building’s monitoring system allowed the design team and school administrators to pinpoint higher-than-projected energy consumption to over-zealous preheating of kitchen appliances. “Making sure that occupants are doing what they’re supposed to do is always a challenge,” says Leddy. “It requires advocacy on the part of the owner.”
Everitt sees the Homer Center as the contemporary school community’s lasting mark on the institution’s history. “This building will be the standard by which we build everything else on campus,” he says.