Approached from the front, Gloria Marshall Elementary School in Spring, Texas, leads you along a covered walk clad, on its underside, in elm reclaimed from the site. The walkway takes you by a pond and river table surrounded by native plantings, with low concrete walls and steps the right height for lounging. A 5,000-gallon water-collection tank glints in the scorching 100-degree Texas heat.
Location Spring, Texas (Cypress Creek watershed)
Gross area 105,390 ft2 (9,790 m2)
Completed September 2010
Cost $15.6 million
Annual purchased energy use (based on utility bills) 24 kBtu/ft2 (268 MJ/m2), 58% reduction from base case
Annual carbon footprint 8.7 lbs. CO2/ft2 (43 kg CO2/m2)
Program Classrooms, computer lab, kitchen, dining room, administration, gym, library, and music room
TEAM & SOURCES
Paints and stains Sherwin Williams; Glidden Paint; IdeaPaint (marker walls)
Surfacing 3form Chroma; IceStone Counters
The unassuming facade, with concrete block, glass, and brick at the lower level and a corrugated metal-clad upper story, textured in front with a punched-out wood bay, gives little away about the building's purpose. A whimsical ribbon of scattered rectangular multicolored glass openings does offer a clue that children are welcome. These "solstice" windows are not randomly positioned, but rather refer to the dappling of light through trees that were removed in order to build the school. "Although the two-story design reduced the footprint and heat gain because of less roof surface, we still had to cut down several trees, including pine, oak, and elm," says Jody Henry, project manager for the architectural firm SHW Group. Before that happened, SHW architect Luis Ayala took a photo looking up at the light coming through the trees. He calculated where that light came through and patterned the windows accordingly. The felled trees are more than memorialized at Gloria Marshall. All were reused as cladding within and without, and for various pieces of furniture.
Reusing trees is just one tiny piece of the conservation effort that makes this school special. In Texas school districts, a year after the governor signed off on $4 billion in cuts to the state's 2012/2013 education budget, wasting money is not an option. So Jeff Windsor, director of construction and energy for Spring Independent School District, listened when the architects at SHW Group asked to scrap the templated design plans that had been used for the last five elementary schools (Gloria Marshall is the seventh and final elementary school built from the 2007 school-bond referendum funds). One school-board trustee asked the architects about wider, more open corridors; another mentioned water conservation; and Dalane Bouillion, associate superintendent for curriculum, said she wanted the architecture to teach students about environmentalism, which led to a broader conversation about sustainable school design. "A door had been opened," says Henry. When the team told the board that by redesigning they could give the district a LEED Silver–certified school that would reduce energy costs by 25 percent compared with the last several schools built in Spring without going over budget, the new design was a go. "The bond takes care of facility design," Windsor says, "but energy bills are paid out of the same pool of money as administrative costs." The completed school, which is the first in Houston to use a geothermal heating and cooling system according to the architects, surpassed expectations, achieving LEED Gold while bringing down energy costs more than 40 percent since it opened in September 2011. And it came in at four percent below budget, at a construction cost of $15.6 million.
The rectangular concrete-and-steel building—with a lightweight concrete roof covered in a reflective coating—is organized centripetally with a large, open entry lobby flanked by long wings facing north and south. The lower level has common areas—gym, auditorium, and cafeteria—as well as kitchen, administrative, and music spaces, with some classrooms downstairs but most on the upper level, where the computer lab and speech and diagnostic rooms are housed. At every turn the design demonstrates a major piece of the school's curriculum, which centers around Project, or Discovery, Based Learning—a method of teaching that involves real-world challenges and solutions—which Gloria Marshall is the first school in Texas to undertake as a full-time curriculum approach for pre-K-to-fifth-grade students. It's rare that facilities management and academic management partner so closely as they did here, but according to Bouillion, the two were conjoined from the moment the idea to deviate from the template was in play. "The school is nestled in this beautiful site, and the opportunity was there to use the facility as a teaching tool," she says.
The building is designed to show the kids how it works, and a discovery station located in the airy lobby helps that effort. There, an interactive touch screen connected to the building automation system tracks, in real time, how much energy the school's wind turbine and 10-kilowatt array of photovoltaics are putting back in the building, as well as how much water is being used (a 20,000-gallon water-reclamation tank buried on the south side of the building provides water for all toilets). They can also track how much energy is saved (compared with other schools in the district) by the building's demand-control ventilation system and by its lighting system, which uses sensors to turn lights on and off depending on sunlight and occupancy. Every classroom has natural light, with south-facing classrooms using both vision windows and sunlight-harvesting windows. On that side, exterior aluminum shades direct light in to bounce off angled ceilings and come deep into the rooms. Classrooms on the north side have vision windows only, with solar tubes in the ceiling bringing in more sunlight. "The lights are off 75 percent of the time," says Henry.
Letting the students in on the inner workings of the building isn't the only reason several ground-source heat pumps for the geothermal heating and cooling system are exposed through glass-paneled doors throughout the school. The units have refrigerant compressors that need to be occasionally changed, and according to Mark Seibert, managing principal of Kentucky-based CMTA Consulting Engineers and lead mechanical engineer for the project, exposing them enables easy maintenance. The closed-loop system has 21 miles of piping, extending down 300 feet under parking lots and the playground. Seibert, who was the lead engineer on the nation's first net-zero school, in Kentucky, says this system is one more reason that Gloria Marshall Elementary achieves the right balance of energy efficiency and a less-than-huge budget. "You can make any building net zero if you have enough money," he says. "But the balance of technology and design are what make this project work so well. And at 25 kBtus per square foot per year, without a ton of photovoltaics, the results speak for themselves."
While the students are able to analyze and track, they're also able to enjoy. On the upper level, the extended room seen from outside is revealed as a comfy gathering place for students, as is the "treehouse," a room clad in reclaimed wood accessible across a wood platform bridge. A life-sized chess set with a recycled-carpet chessboard offers more fun on the second floor. You can look down into the open-ceilinged library below, where "Flo," a happy granny figure, looks ready to fly in a suspended hang glider. There's a spiral slide down from the second floor and several textured interactive science tools on the wall, as well as a movable prism that sends rainbows all around. While natural elements and muted hues abound in the school, the primary colors typically found in elementary schools are not. "This school is about discovery and science," says Bouillion. "We didn't see the need to dress that up." Outside, a butterfly garden, walking trail, and outdoor classroom area offer more connection with nature. Each concrete planter box near the pond is "owned" by a grade level, with gardening as part of their curriculum.
The project has won a number of design awards, and principal Kathy Morrison is getting used to being a tour guide for interested officials from other districts as well as architecture firms and reporters. Since Gloria Marshall's completion, SHW Group, which benchmarks all the schools it works on, has designed two elementary schools with CMTA's help (the firm opened a Houston office last year) that are as energy-efficient as Gloria Marshall or even more. "The future of school design is net zero," says Henry. "That's what we're working toward."