SOM pioneers zero-energy school project in New York

SOM pioneers zero-energy school project in New York

As the design and build industry across the GCC explores ways of making schools sustainable architect firm Skidmore Owings & Merrill has completed work on a zero energy learning facility.

Located on Staten Island, New York City, the Kathleen Grimm School is among the first such buildings to be operational in the world.

Almost 1,600 photovoltaic (PV) panels cloak the 20,700m2 two-story structure, covering the south façade, extending over its roof, and cantilevering out to float above a playing field.

These PVs, plus about 400 more on top of a parking area, are expected to generate 662mWh of electricity per year – the same amount as the building needs to function.

This is intended to make the facility, officially named P.S. 62, the Kathleen Grimm School for Leadership and Sustainability, entirely self-reliant for energy needs.

To develop the system for wrapping the building in PVs, SOM worked with the Center for Architecture Science and Ecology (CASE), a research facility.

CASE studied how best to mount the panels, angling them to produce the maximum amount of electricity while making sure they wouldn’t shade each other.

New York’s density makes it difficult to find a site that allows sufficient roof space or unshaded and correctly oriented façade areas to mount PV panels—the most viable renewable-energy source for net zero projects.

So from its concept stage, P.S. 62 was considered a pilot project—one that would help improve and inform school design guidelines, says Chris McCready, SOM managing director.

The architects and their consultants were particularly careful to avoid glare, since they were concerned that teachers would pull down the window shades, neglect to raise them, and would then rely on electric illumination, even during daylight hours.

To lessen the chances of this, in the south-facing classrooms they split the brightly coloured exterior windows with the lower parts set at the right height for children to look out. These contain vision glass, but the higher ones include a silica gel that helps diffuse the sunlight.

E. Bruce Barrett, vice president for architecture and engineering at New York’s School Construction Authority (SCA) says: “We were just totally awestruck by the daylighting.”

The building has a gym, library, cafeteria, and offices, with playgrounds on the north and south sides. It is configured into an L shape that allows for more natural light exposure.

As well, in combination with practical materials, such as vinyl tile flooring, ceramic wall tiles and suspended ceilings, almost all in white or shades of subdued grey, the natural illumination creates what staff call a lively and fresh atmosphere.

“It changes the whole mood of the building,” says Lisa Sarnicola, school principal. “It makes the children happy.”

Students will play a part in helping their place of learning reach its net zero goal. Interactive dashboards mounted throughout the building offer child-friendly graphics, which display information such as weather conditions, the amount of electricity generated by the PVs, and the amount of energy used in each space.

Sarnicola holds weekly energy-conservation competitions between classrooms as a “fun and hands-on way” to motivate children and help them to understand sustainability.

Even though the architects say they are confident that the building will operate at net zero, they say it could take as long as three years to fully commission and fine-tune its systems so that it performs as designed.

The Kathleen Grimm School already uses 50% less energy than a typical New York City school.
“But the potential for positive impact on New York’s school design is considerable, since the city’s 1,600 public schools represent 37% of municipal greenhouse gas emissions,” adds Roger Duffy, a design partner at SOM.

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