N.C. School Sets New Standard for Sustainability

LUMBER BRIDGE, N.C. — With a cutting-edge financing model and a groundbreaking facility, Sandy Grove Middle School marked a turning point in both sustainability and school construction. As the nation’s first LEED Platinum-designed school established under a public-private partnership (PPP), Sandy Grove is changing the way communities approach both school building and management.

Visitors to this modern and well-designed school are first greeted by a small stand of solar trees. These bright blue structures are reminiscent of the surrounding greenery, and quickly inform guests that this school is different. The differences become even more apparent when guests get their first look at the building dashboard, an interactive, visual representation of the school’s various sustainability systems. This easy-to-use touch-screen monitor is full of icons representing everything from the school’s photovoltaic system to a thorough breakdown of its water use. Everyone from students to staff can access the information and get a better understanding of how the building uses energy.

Raleigh, N.C.-based SfL+a Architects designed the innovative school in two phases. The school district first approached the architecture firm roughly six years ago, in the midst of the recession, with plans to build a more traditional school structure. When funding sources weren’t available, the plans were shelved. However, SfL+a saw a unique solution and proposed a public-private partnership. This brought in private sector financing tools, allowing the school to benefit from energy rebates and tax credits as well as some income-based credits, said SfL+a Principal and Project Leader Barry Buckman, AIA. The firm’s sister company, FirstFloor, will lease the land from Hoke County while still maintaining ownership of the facility.

The PPP also allowed the school to shift the original design and become a model of green construction, explained Buckman. “It really became a creative solution for [the district],” said Buckman. “They understood the difficulty they were in, in terms of financing a school in a downturned economy. I think they were appreciative and excited about the idea of thinking outside the box.”

Sandy Grove Assistant Principle Shawn O’Connor also supported the PPP model. “There is an unwillingness to pour a lot of money into education these days, and this is a way we can still give kids a quality, cutting-edge education without assuming a lot of cost,” he said.

From there, the move from a more traditional school design to one worthy of LEED attention happened quickly. SfL+a Architects first streamlined the building envelope, trimming more than 15,000 square feet off the traditional design. “It was very important for us to reduce the overall size by making an efficient layout. A lot of that savings came out of circulation and flow area, not out of any teaching or program spaces,” added Buckman.

Thanks also to heavy-duty insulation, high r-value windows and electric car charging stations, Sandy Grove sets a high bar in terms of energy performance and efficiency. The SfL+a team integrated LED lighting throughout and installed a geothermal heating and cooling system.

Meanwhile, the roof is covered in more than 2,300 solar panels, allowing the 75,000-square-foot school to surpass net-zero standards, insuring it will never have a utility bill. Instead, the school will actually return power to the grid, as it creates 30 percent to 40 percent more power than it currently needs. In all, the school is slated to save the Hoke County School District roughly $35 million over the next four decades, $16 million of which will likely come from energy costs alone. “In terms of a project that generates its own energy, this is really cutting edge,” said Buckman.

Despite these many green features, SfL+a wasn’t quite satisfied. “An element we would have loved to have brought to this facility in a better way is daylighting. If we can daylight the interiors in a really integrated manner we don’t have to rely on artificial lighting to the degree that we are with this project,” said Buckman.” However, according to O’Connor, lighting conditions have proved ideal for the school’s art classes. “Our art teacher has utilized the natural light when students are learning about perspective and shadow. She’s been able to use the school itself as a learning example,” said O’Connor.
Sustainability efforts continued outside thanks to Crawford Engineering of Fayetteville, N.C. Though Crawford has worked on multiple education facilities, Sandy Grove was the firm’s first sustainably built project of this scale. Kevin Lindsay, PE of Crawford was largely responsible for the civil engineering and landscape design, and worked hard to minimize curbs, gutters, collection structures and impervious surfaces so common in most school landscaping projects. This in turn minimized the concentrate of run off, allowing for greater absorption.

The school was constructed by Pembroke, N.C.-based Metcon in less than one year. The end result is a compact, three-winged educational complex unlike anything the small, largely rural North Carolina community had seen before. “I think it shocked a lot of people,” said O’Connor. “It is a very unique looking school compared to the surrounding areas, but eventually as people gain more knowledge about how it works, this school will serve as a hub for the community.”

O’Connor added that the building itself has become a very valuable learning tool. “The kids see it as a living, breathing thing because we’re able to use this dashboard and get real time information about it. It’s not simply a lesson; it’s something they’re surrounded by and immersed in on a daily basis.”

The building, which also includes unique learning tools such as smart boards, an exploratory lab, media center and mobile computing capabilities, is also fitting for the school’s educational focus. “We infuse our curriculum with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math),” said O’Connor. “Even in language arts and social studies we see that science and technology component because every classroom is using our dashboard as a reference point. The teachers have really taken it upon themselves to run with this idea and apply it to their own disciplines.”

Sandy Grove recently completed its first full semester, and students and teachers alike have adapted well to the school’s various technologies. It also appears that all sustainability systems are working as planned. “At the moment, the school is exceeding its energy-efficiency goal,” said Buckman, “However, we average over a full year. We need to see all the conditions in every season, but we are ahead of what we had modeled for the building to perform.”

He adds that although the building is living up to its promises, SfL+a’s job is far from over. “We are constantly monitoring and tweaking so that we can conserve as much energy as possible. We will be doing that for the life of the building.”

That lifespan generally stands at 40 years for a typical school building. However, the firm added some built-in features to allow the school to expand and flexibly use the space into the future, allowing it to serve up to 650 students as opposed to the current 600.

Although the newness is beginning to wear off, students and staff maintain a great sense of pride in their environmentally friendly school. “The superintendent and the principal just can’t stop praising what this has meant to the students, staff and to the community,” said Buckman. “It’s very rewarding.”