New Sidwell Friends Middle School Certified LEED Platinum

Sustainable design concepts can take hold in a variety of different ways. Some school planners are forced to take a subtle approach, incorporating design techniques that offer the most cost-effective solutions for communities that are still not sold on the legitimacy of the green building. Other planners have the luxury of stretching their arms and grasping new ideas that push the boundaries of what can be done to produce high-performance, sustainable schools.

After initial reluctance, planners and officials involved with a project at Sidwell Friends School — a historic pre-kindergarten through 12th grade private school in Washington, D.C., with a list of high-profile alumni — were able to convince the school’s board of trustees and the community to take the latter route for a recent renovation and expansion.

The project at the Sidwell’s middle school building on the 15-acre campus included 70,000 square feet of renovated and new space with enough sustainable-design concepts to qualify it for LEED platinum certification — the highest level of certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

The facility places an emphasis on water cycles along with connections to local geology and habitats.

Building With Principles

In 2000, Sidwell Friends School embarked on a master planning process that compared the campus with other urban schools, and Kieran Timberlake architectural firm created a needs assessment based on interviews with staff, faculty, students and the school’s board of trustees.

The completed assessment determined that the campus needed an expanded middle school and several other new facilities. The idea of sustainable design was introduced to the board of trustees early in the process.

“After a lot of deliberation among the board members, initially there were those who were very skeptical whether it was an appropriate use of resources by a nonprofit institution to look at the construction ideas we were considering,” says Bruce Stewart, head of school at Sidwell.

One of the main concerns was the pricing of sustainable building materials, which are often more expensive than conventional construction, although operational savings can make up for the cost over time.

For the Sidwell project, the tide began to shift after a trustee and other key members of the school’s community advocated that by implementing cutting-edge sustainable design, the school would follow the Quaker principles on which it was founded. Those principles included treating the earth with respect and leaving it as people found it, if not better.

“As a religion, they are about stewardship, and taking care of the world and everything in it — people and the place,” says Stephen Kieran, FAIA, partner at Kieran Timberlake, the project architect. “It wasn’t a far leap for them to move into a position of leadership in terms of sustainable design.”

To educate the board on sustainable-design concepts, a variety of experts were brought to meetings, alumni and other stakeholders who supported sustainable design pooled their resources, and interested parties took trips to other sustainable facilities.

“It took hold really swiftly as an ideal,” Kieran says. “The school made the decision very early in the process to create a LEED platinum school. Everybody jumped on board — it was pretty remarkable to watch — within a matter of months.”

However, there were challenges during the decision-making process. Following the Quaker philosophy, the board of trustees made decisions through consensus, rather than a majority vote.

“Convincing a Quaker group that works by consensus — everyone has to agree or nothing happens — was at times challenging,” Kieran says. “But in the end they really believed in doing the right thing.”

Doing ‘The Right Thing’

During the design process, the architect abandoned any preconceived notion of what the building should look like.

“We tried to derive holistically from a baseline and we didn’t assume what it would look like at the outset,” Kieran says. “We think a lot of sustainable design begins with an image of a known building type, with additional hardware. This project went back to a study of the problem and an effort to holistically solve the problem by integration rather than addition.”

That integration included incorporating ample amounts water. The middle school campus surrounds a manmade biological pond that, with the help of rainwater collected from rooftop gardens, acts as a wastewater treatment site. The closed-cycle system recycles water back to the building and lavatories.

“The space the whole middle school is formed around is a landscape that is about water,” Kieran says.

The building is also designed to be energy-efficient through building orientation, passive and mechanically assisted ventilation, solar chimneys, window placement, automated lighting controls and other features. By relying on daylighting and natural ventilation, planners hope the school will see a reduction in operational costs.

The amount of energy used for lighting in the building is expected to be 10 to 15 percent less than a conventional building of comparable size. Photovoltaic panels located on the roof generate about 5 percent of the building’s total electrical load.

The building is constructed with environmentally friendly materials that were harvested or manufactured to minimize their impact on the environment, including cork, gypsum, linoleum, bamboo and wheatboard substrate.

The school’s exterior is western red cedar that was obtained from 100-year-old wine casks, which allowed for design flexibility that could not be obtained with other materials, according to Kieran.

“It allowed us to manipulate the façade for solar shading and use the wood for shading in different ways on the eastern and western sides,” he says.

Other materials have low VOC emissions, which school officials hope will improve student health and reduce absences.

“We are going to watch in interest over the next couple of years to see if there is less absenteeism due to colds, and coughs and bronchitis,” Stewart says.

A Learning Tool

Now that the Sidwell middle school project is complete, it has proved to be a learning tool for everyone involved. For stakeholders involved with planning and design, the project introduced several new, unconventional ideas.

“Lots of elements of the building were foreign,” Kieran says. “When you set out with a leading-edge environmental agenda, there are lots of things that don’t look the same as a conventional building.”

Those same lessons are now passed on to interested people from around the world who have visited the facility for tours, according to Stewart, but the design also serves the important role of educating the students that walk its halls every day.

In addition to the environmental lessons that are incorporated in the building’s water systems, plans are in the works to create a system that will allow students to extract data on a variety of related topics, such as the amount of energy used at the building at a particular time, the cost of energy and other environmental factors.

“You can really integrate this stuff fully into a curriculum,” Stewart says.

Less tangible lessons are provided with exposed pipes and chimes in ventilation ducts, which promote awareness of the systems that are at use everyday, according to Stewart.

In the long-run, those involved with the project hope it will bring a lasting change that will have an impact far beyond the Sidwell campus.

“Will these kids be different because of their passage through that landscape on a daily basis? I think so,” Kieran says. “I think they are going to have a respect for water that maybe lots of children won’t have growing up.”

With a list of former students that includes the children of U.S. presidents, ambassadors and politicians, Stewart says the sustainable ideas introduced at Sidwell could go a long way.

“We feel that a lot of these young people are going to be in the position someday to have a major impact on public policy, corporate decisions, government decisions and scholarly research,” Stewart says. “It makes a difference by sensitizing these kids.”

Project Data

Architect: KieranTimberlake Associates LLP
Owner: Sidwell Friends School
Project Manager: JFW Project Management
General Contractor: Hitt Contracting, Inc.


Construction Materials
Brick/Masonry: Redland Brick, Dur – O – Wall reinforcing
Cabinets: Greenbrier
Acoustical Ceilings: USG
Door Hardware: Best, Von Duprin, LCN Closers
Wood Doors: Algoma
Metal Doors: C.H. Edwards
Elevators: Kone Inc.
Insulation: Certainteed
Roofing: Sarnafil
Skylights: Sunoptics
Glass/Glazing: Loewen Windows
Solar Chimney: Solar Innovations
Operable Partitions: Moderco

Science Equipment: Collegedale

Carpet and Flooring
Carpet: Interface
Base: Roppe
Sheet: Forbo Linoleum

Indoor Lighting: Finelight, Lutron Lighting Controls

Washroom Equipment/Supplies
Washroom Accessories: Bradley
Washroom/Shower Partitions: Comtec

Physical Education Equipment
Playground Equipment: Kompan
Lockers: Republic

HVAC Units: Fulton Boilers, Trane Air Handlers
HVAC Control Devices: Johnson Controls Inc.

Draperies/Blinds: Mecho Shades
Photovoltaics: General Electric
Ceiling fans: Cirrus