Five Takeaways from Building a Net Zero School

Four Takeaways from Building a Net Zero School

Just a few weeks ago, Forest Edge Elementary School in Oregon, WI received notification that it made history as the FIRST Net Zero Energy school constructed in Wisconsin! Championing sustainability, a net zero facility produces an equal amount of energy as it consumes, achieved by using innovative tools for energy efficiency, renewable energy, and energy storage. This energy is produced primarily by 1,704 solar panels covering the roof of the facility. Forest Edge also uses 99 geothermal wells, electrochromic glass, battery storage, and no natural gas, setting a new bar for Wisconsin schools. It was a pleasure to work with the Oregon School District and other partners in the pursuit of sustainability excellence.

Building a net zero facility takes an experienced team and significant planning to complete. Envisioned and guided by the Oregon School District, planned and designed by Bray Architects and HGA, and built by Findorff, Forest Edge Elementary spans 126,580 square feet. For a building of this size to produce as much energy as it consumes, the construction process was different from building a typical elementary school. Our construction process revealed four big takeaways:Net zero requires a deep and thorough dive into energy efficiency – what it means, what it looks like in a school setting, and what infrastructure is required to support it. This level of detail meant that Ben Austin, Sustainability Lead at Findorff, played an active role to ensure the project team's goals were always in alignment with the district's sustainability outcomes. Additionally, senior project managers Jenny Nelson and Steve Gay, and superintendent Larry Baker, stayed on top of every detail from the building's insulation to a single lightbulb. When considering energy usage, no component is too small to be overlooked.

A change to one system is a change to them all. Every building element is intertwined. For example, the activation of a motion-detecting light could trigger the HVAC system as well, directly impacting the amount of energy used for even the smallest of movements. This means every change made to the low voltage systems, the lighting usage, the electrical system, and the air-conditioning systems must be communicated across every team – from the engineers to the manufacturers to the project managers – so that the appropriate adjustments can be made.Forest Edge Elementary is a continually evolving facility. For most buildings, there is a definitive start and end to construction. A net zero building requires continuous adjustments after it's occupied and operating to ensure alignment with the net zero target. That translates into a collaborative and long-term partnership between the designer, contractor, and school district that focuses on performance and improvement to make a positive impact.

A net zero school is possible, and the future of sustainable buildings is now. Just a few years ago, the Oregon School District identified an ambitious, yet achievable goal. They chose partners that shared their passion and vision for presenting the community with not only a highly sustainable facility but one that would set a new standard for schools across Wisconsin.

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