A LEED-er in environmentally-conscious building

In a small Virginian county, every morning from September until June, about 6,500 high schoolers enter very unique buildings to learn. They sit under solar and green roofs, use waterless urinals and dual flush toilets and learn in naturally lit, geothermally heated libraries, labs and classrooms. These students are experiencing a different lifestyle, an environmentally-conscious one that pervades the Arlington atmosphere.

In recent years, all three high schools in Arlington were rebuilt to accommodate huge growths in enrollment. At the same time, the new buildings were designed with an eye towards environmental efficiency that has evidently paid off. Both Yorktown and W-L have earned Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) awards. Buildings that earn certifications from the sponsoring agency, the United States Green Building Council, have been recognized for environmentally-friendly design, energy usage and operations. To earn a Gold certification, a building must satisfy a points requirement involving evaluation in five major categories: sustainable sites, materials and resources, water efficiency, indoor environmental quality, and energy and atmosphere. Buildings are inspected and assigned a rating of certified, silver, gold or platinum. “When the building was built, one of the focuses at the time was that this be a green building, and we strive to make it [that],” Principal Dr. Robertson said. “One of the top priorities was making this a green building, making sure we were focused on the environment, and then we ended up being so conscientious about it, even with the architects working to help us get the Silver certification, we got Gold.”

Wakefield and Yorktown have been rebuilt since W-L was completed. Yorktown earned a LEED Gold certification as well, and features rooftop cisterns that collect rainwater for use in toilets and urinals inside the school. It also uses more natural light than fluorescent light, and employs energy-efficient glass to prevent undue heat escape during the winter. Wakefield has not yet earned a LEED rating because the building is so new. However, it is projected to earn a LEED Silver rating or better. Mechanical waste heat (heat thrown off by machinery in the building such as the elevator systems) is used to heat the swimming pool and the heating and air conditioning system is powered by solar panels and geothermal wells. Planning for a LEED rated building begins years prior to physically building it, and the subsequent inspection can be difficult to schedule. The planning for W-L began three years before the the renovation began.

In addition, the recently-completed Discovery Elementary School is the only NZERB building in Arlington. NZERB stands for Net Zero Energy Ready Building, which means that Discovery produces all the energy it uses within one year.This achievement is facilitated by rooftop solar panels and geothermal heating and cooling, as well as lights equipped with sensors that detect movement and turn off when rooms are not in use to reduce usage of electricity. However, Discovery has not yet received a LEED rating either, given that it was completed during the summer of 2015.

W-L has been equipped with vegetative or “green” roofs in combination with highly reflective roofing materials that reduce strain on the air conditioning system. The bathrooms have been outfitted with waterless urinals and  dual flush toilets that rely on the user to decide how much water is necessary for flushing, which combine to reduce water usage by more than 40 percent from the industry standard. The building also employs natural light in areas like the cafeteria, gymnasium and library along with occupancy sensors to regulate lighting, heating and cooling. The building earned a LEED Gold rating in 2009 after the renovation was completed. “There’s always room for improvement,” said IB Environmental Systems teacher Mr. Ryan Miller. “We use so much electricity at Washington-Lee, and part of it comes from coal. All that electricity we use ends up in some way harming the environment because we’re burning more coal, which putting more pollutants in the air.”

Arlington Public Schools has spent more than $100 million renovating all three high schools and building Discovery Elementary, which alone cost $35 million. The buildings have received national accolades in environmental building and house education for more than 6,000 students. This kind of change does not come easily or cheaply, and relies on the active participation of all those involved. “I’m most proud of the kids,” Principal Dr. Robertson said. “We have a banner in the hallway that said, ‘Take care of yourself, take care of each other, take care of your school’ and I think the kids are very mindful of that, and I think that they want to contribute and give back to the environment.”