St. Philip’s Academy – Aligning educational goals and sustainable design

August 28, 2010

Third graders in Newark are learning how to enjoy salsa. They aren’t just dipping their chips in it, but are finding out how to grow all of the ingredients in a recipe that takes months to prepare, but minutes to enjoy. Over the course of a school year each student plays an active role in managing a rooftop garden where their salsa is grown. They learn about the science of plants, some of the history of salsa and other ethnic foods and the nutritional aspects of their recipe. These third graders also learn about their place in the world, where their food really comes from and how they have some personal responsibility for it. The sweat equity each child puts into the preparation of the soil and caring for the seed pays off in a sweet meal grown and prepared by their own hands in the heart of the brick city.

St. Philip’s Academy in Newark New Jersey is an example of sustainable school where the term transcends the building design and has infiltrated the curriculum and culture of this institution. It is a rare example of a place that has embraced green practices and allowed them to transform this already high performing elementary school. While the results here are exciting wonderful lessons for educators everywhere the key lesson is to examine the process that brought them success in designing a sustainable building and curriculum that compliment and support each other.

Around  the country educators are looking for new creative ways to engage students in the issues of global warming, climate change, pollution, and renewable energy while continuing to teach basic requirements. They are challenged with creating lessons and opportunities to draw correlations between a student’s individual experience and their influence on the world around them. Simultaneously there is a movement afoot to build sustainably. The design and construction community has stepped forward to create new standards, update codes and develop an ever increasing set of expectations for the real impact buildings have on the environment. School design has become a crossroads for architects, designers, engineers and educators to come together explore new possibilities in sustainable design and its potential as a tool for education.

Currently sustainable, or ‘Green’ schools are projects that meet or exceed a criteria established by the local school district or municipality. Typically projects use the USGBC’s LEED for Schools guidelines or the California High Performance Schools (CHPS) guidelines. These resources set baseline criteria for site design, water use, energy use, materials resources, and air quality. They allow opportunities for innovation in building design. The goals of these criteria are to get design and construction teams to build more sustainably, but they are limited to creation of a building and its operation. Most green criteria do not change what is taught nor how it is taught within the walls of a green school.   

In many Green Schools the building design elements are efficient and create great places for learning, but do not create real opportunities for educators to teach and explore sustainability in new ways. Often the most impactful design changes are not seen or understood by the building occupants.

While school buildings should not necessarily be the central teaching tool for every lesson the learning environment has critical impact on the effectiveness of teaching. Sustainable building criteria has helped to draw attention to the needs of occupants, in this case learners, for places to have appropriate light, acoustics and fresh air. Investing resources in building schools which take advantage of natural light, improve indoor air quality and appropriately insulate noise makes classrooms and other learning spaces more pleasant and allows learners to focus more effectively. Building sustainably also often has a marked impact on long term costs for school operations. Projects that have used renewable energy strategies, incorporated efficient HVAC systems or high performance building skins typically have reduced utility costs which can provide long term savings.

These are all important steps in building effective sustainable schools, but they are far from enough. This country’s educational institutions are the prime resource for impacting future generations. Our schools are places where students spend hundreds of days a year learning the lessons that will shape their adult life. If we expect to turn the corner on how our species impact on the earth we must teach our children how to live and work more in harmony with the environment. School buildings are a tool that must be leveraged to reinforce those lessons.

St. Philip’s Academy is a place where this is happening. They have taken full advantage of a sustainable design process and set clear goals for how they are using the building and teaching students about their impact on the earth. This all began in the earliest stages of design when the educators, architects and designers came together to set clear goals for the project.

On many school projects, sustainable or otherwise the design team and educational leadership have limited exposure to each other. Often this results in buildings which are not responsive to the specific curriculum or pedagogy goals of the users. More successful projects usually result from a mutual understanding of these goals.

At St. Philips the team set a series of specific goals. The leadership wanted students to:

Take personal responsibility

Understand their place in the world

Improve overall nutrition

Have a connection to Newark

While none of these goals specifically required a green building they opened up an opportunity for the design team to showcase how sustainable design could support these goals.

This started with the selection of a site where an old factory building sat dormant in the heart of Newark. Instead of tearing down the building and starting with a new structure the team chose to convert and reuse the factory as the school. This initial move grounded the project in local history and reinvested the school in the neighborhood of their choosing. It also demonstrated a commitment to reusing available building stock and recycling aged materials. The building design embraced an existing heavy timber structure and brick exterior while adding new interior partitions, ceilings and finishes. The reconfiguration juxtaposes old and new and creates opportunities to discuss history and materials.

The design also developed around creating a closed loop food cycle on site. The goal was to demonstrate to students where their food comes from and have them invest in the process of planting, growing, harvesting, preparing, cooking and composting all on site. This was a particular challenge as the building site had limited area and there were also requirements for a new gymnasium. The design team presented an option of a rooftop garden / outdoor environmental center. The school embraced this option as it opened new possibilities to them for curriculum and future growth. The design also includes a cafeteria with an open kitchen where students can see how their food is prepared and engage with the people preparing it.

Once the educators moved into the facility and started using the spaces they adjusted their curriculum to align more effectively with the building. The school developed the EcoSpaces program that focuses on the lessons taught in the science lab, cafeteria, rooftop garden and new teaching kitchen. The science calendar was changed to align with planting and harvesting seasons. The food service program began to use more local resources and lessons were developed around the daily lunch.  The school community as a whole has seen an impact not just with their students but with families as well. This project was particularly successful because there was a long overlap between key members of the design team and the educators. 

By bringing together the educational and design leadership early in the building design process St. Philip’s Academy was able to set themselves on the right foot to develop new curriculum. This is just one example of how this project transcends a sustainable building design into a truly sustainable school.

Author’s Note: Ralph Walker was the Project Architect on St. Philip’s Academy while working at Gensler. He is also a Trustee with the school. This article first appeared on Green Building Pro.

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