Zero for the Win

Perkins Eastman is setting the standard for net-zero energy in K-12 Education.
Zero for the Win

Perkins Eastman’s expanding portfolio of high-performance, net-zero ready schools has caught the attention of national advocacy groups working to persuade state and local governments to pursue net-zero goals in all their future renovations and new construction.

UndauntedK12 is a collective of experts in public education, clean energy, banking, and public policy who are focused on helping America’s K-12 public schools address climate change. Together with the Climate Jobs National Resource Center, the groups published “The Financial Case for Net-Zero Energy Schools” in February, which relies extensively on Perkins Eastman’s experience with net-zero design, a concept that means a facility aims to produce at least as much energy as it expends to reduce the need for fossil fuel-powered utilities. According to the report:

Districts and states not making progress toward net-zero schools are increasingly at risk of mismanaging taxpayer resources on school facilities that waste energy, are exposed to the cost of fossil fuels, and will require more costly repairs to recover from extreme weather events and comply with emergent building regulation.

Its conclusion cited a study Perkins Eastman performed in 2020 for Fairfax County Public Schools comparing the life-cycle costs of renovating and building net-zero ready vs. conventional schools.

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John Lewis Elementary School was used as the benchmark to inform cost estimates for Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, which is exploring net-zero feasibility in its future construction and renovation plans.

The Fairfax County study demonstrated that net-zero ready schools require up to 85% less energy to operate and are less likely to need as much HVAC maintenance. The national report also emphasized that net-zero energy schools:

  • Comply with emerging climate-driven regulation of building emissions;
  • Reduce exposure to rising and volatile energy costs; and
  • Reduce costs related to extreme weather events.

Perkins Eastman has demonstrated all of these outcomes through its work with K-12 clients and through its research and sustainability practices. Their evolution in this area is the subject of “Learning Curve,” an article in The Narrative, Perkins Eastman’s in-house magazine.

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Banneker Academic High School opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony with Mayor Muriel Bowser and top school officials on Aug. 28, 2021. Photograph Joseph Romeo/ Copyright Perkins Eastman

In August, Banneker Academic High School and John Lewis Elementary School opened to praise and press coverage in Washington, DC, because they incorporate the latest in high-performance design and technology. They also represent a new achievement in the long partnership between DC Public Schools (DCPS) and Perkins Eastman, which has delivered at least 14 DCPS school modernizations since the district made a $4 billion pledge in 2007 to make its facilities healthier, more energy efficient, and sound. They’re further equipped with technology and flexible layout plans to accommodate multiple forms of teaching and learning. According to The Narrative article:

Today, students at these modernized schools walk into bright, engaging corridors that are extensions of the learning environment, while unobtrusive mechanical systems keep the temperatures steady. Their comfortable classrooms are awash in natural light. Flexible programmatic spaces anticipate an evolving and dynamic curriculum. The classroom designs blur the boundaries between interiors and exteriors. Contextual, special, and literal connections embrace the surrounding community.

Banneker’s many innovative features include a stepped “Learning Commons” that runs up through the middle of the school, where natural light streams throughout the school’s core via filtered skylights overhead. Photographs Joseph Romeo/
Copyright Perkins Eastman

With regard to net-zero energy in particular, Banneker and John Lewis are the first DC schools to work in tandem: John Lewis is projected to produce enough energy for its own needs and, if necessary, to accommodate the balance Banneker might need to satisfy the high school’s higher consumption levels.

Perkins Eastman accomplished this feat after years of learning from past successes and challenges across multiple campuses. Perkins Eastman’s Design Research and Sustainability teams, for example, performed a 2018 study into how DC’s modernized schools performed against its non-modernized facilities; it showed that the upgraded indoor environment quality of the modernized schools led to significant improvement in students’ and staff’s comfort and performance.

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Besides their environmental and energy benefits, modernized schools such as John Lewis Elementary make learning a fully immersive experience, where its library feels like it’s in the trees.
Photograph Joseph Romeo/ Copyright Perkins Eastman

The teams are currently working on another, much broader study funded through the Latrobe Prize, a $100,000 grant from the American Institute of Architects College of Fellows, to examine whether there are similar effects between twenty-eight existing and modernized schools across DC and Baltimore.

Banneker and John Lewis, meanwhile, were listed among nine currently high-performing model schools in the District-Maryland-Virginia region for the net-zero study Perkins Eastman performed for Fairfax County. John Lewis was used as the benchmark to inform the study’s cost estimates. The report, which the firm prepared with engineering consultants CMTA and the construction management firm Downey & Scott, concluded that while net-zero schools cost more to build at the outset, “the life-cycle cost to construct, operate, and maintain the building over thirty years is less expensive.”

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These diagrams, above and below, illustrate the myriad benefits of a net-zero-ready school such as
Banneker Academic High School.


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Among Fairfax County’s next steps are developing a sustainability master plan, changing future bond packages to enable net-zero cost funding, and selecting an upcoming project to be designed and built as a net-zero pilot. Perkins Eastman is working with the county on that first project: The modernization of Bren Mar Park Elementary School in Springfield, VA. “They’re testing the feasibility,” K-12 Practice Area Leader and Perkins Eastman Principal Sean O’Donnell says. “We will try to push net zero, leveraging everything we learned through the [Fairfax County] study.”

In the meantime, the firm is forging ahead with several other net-zero renovation projects on the boards. They include Minnie Howard High School in Alexandria, VA; Tobin Montessori School in Cambridge, MA; and in Washington, DC, the School Without Walls at Francis Stevens and the Bard High School Early College DC.