Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Education With a Heavy Dose of Sustainability

By Tim Stevens

Last week, plans for the new George Mason High School were a big focus of attention in our local news media. Key members of the winning team of Gilbane Stantec and Quinn Evans presented an overview of their proposal to the school board that included a five-story building with a modern and flexible design, an inviting interface with the commercial site and a creative offer to accelerate the scheduled delivery date. These features all contributed to a sense of solid optimism and enthusiasm for what the new high school building can be.

Another very important part of Gilbane’s proposal should add to the excitement. These are the design elements that will make the building a model of sustainability for the City, and meaningfully add to students’ well being and their academic program. The Gilbane team has committed to produce a building that will achieve LEED Gold certification, utilize geothermal heating and cooling technology, and incorporate net-zero ready design elements that will minimize energy needs and set up the opportunity for the building to produce all the energy it needs from an on-site solar energy system.

LEED Gold certification will guide the selection of building materials to maximize air quality inside classrooms and other interior spaces. The LEED program will also encourage a very high level of energy efficiency and reduced water consumption, and nudge us in the direction of adding a solar photovoltaic system to generate renewable energy.

Geothermal heating and cooling is becoming a standard feature in new school buildings both because it performs better than alternative approaches (it is quieter and requires less maintenance) and because it will reduce energy use. A study performed for us by Oak Ridge National Labs set the stage for our specifying use of a geothermal heating and cooling system.

A net-zero ready design is rich with benefits. It stretches the engineering skills of the development team to design a building with a very high level of energy efficiency (valuable on its own). Lots of insulation and careful selection of window glazing has to be included in building designs. Gilbane has proposed to achieve an Energy Use Intensity (a method of measuring how much energy a building is expected to use) of 22, which would make GMHS one of the most efficient school buildings in Virginia.

The higher the level of energy efficiency, the smaller the on-site renewable energy system needed to achieve net-zero. Even still, to get to net zero will require a 1.4 Megawatt solar photovoltaic system. This is big.

Fortunately, schools in Virginia have available to them a method of financing solar systems called a Power Purchase Agreement, which allows someone else (usually the solar contractor) to put their system on the roof, and sell the electricity to the school on a monthly basis. This makes paying for solar energy look like any other utility bill, and avoids having to buy the system with scarce capital dollars (think of it like renting an apartment rather than buying a condo).

As exciting as these plans are, planning for sustainability is not finished and needs community input. Alongside energy use and building quality are the very important issues of tree canopy (and optimal use of open space) and stormwater. Gilbane has identified interesting possibilities for vegetation, including planting native trees throughout the campus. Keeping stormwater onsite is important so that runoff does not carry pollutants into waterways, including the Chesapeake Bay.

Residents of the City will have a chance to share their thoughts on designs for sustainability (and other issues), as the school administration has scheduled a series of meetings over the next several months with members of the Gilbane team. Task groups will be formed to solicit community input on a number of issues, including Sustainability/Environment. Sign-up is on the school’s web site.

Local governments, including the school board, have the ability to plan for the long term. Committing resources up front to achieve strong sustainability goals will yield considerable benefits to many stakeholders in the City, including taxpayers, over time.

The high school is primarily about the students – preparing them for lives ahead. Increasingly, that future will include coping with the challenges of a changing climate. Providing them a highly sustainable building is an important way to prepare them, along with the highly acclaimed academic and other programs of this school system, for the many challenges they will face in years to come. I encourage the school administration, the school board, city council and the public at large, to continue to include the long-term benefits of a highly sustainable building and campus as plans for the high school proceed.


Tim Stevens is a member of the Falls Church Planning Commission and a member of the George Mason High School downselect committee.