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New Haven School to Use State-of-the-Art Building to Teach Sustainability

Aug 3, 2015

Students and teachers will get to understand how the building was made and where the material came from.

Common Ground is a bit of a misnomer -- there’s not a whole lot that’s common about this high school. Started in 1997, the school uses agriculture as a key component of its curriculum.

Now the school is adding a state-of-the art 13,000-square-foot building that will be heated and cooled with air from deep within the earth. Seventy-five percent of its electricity will come from solar panels, and water will come through a rain collection system.

“We’ve tried to put everything we’re about into this building,” said Melissa Spear, executive director of Common Ground. “Our mission is squarely focused on cultivating environmentally sustainable living habits and health habits.”

The school broke ground last week on this new extension, which would expand the student body from 180 to 225 students. It also expects to welcome over 15,000 children and adults to participate in environmental programs throughout the year.

Architect Alan Organschi designed the building to be both low-impact structure and a teaching tool.

“It’s actually a legible artifact of a process," Organschi said. "And that process is what is really important to the kids and to the teachers. They get to really understand deeply how the building was made, where the material came from, and what it produces as an architectural experience.”

Here's a description of the project by Organschi's firm:

In addition to its on-site energy production and storm water treatment, natural illumination, and passive ventilation, the new building at Common Ground exploits the structural capacities and ecological benefits of wood fiber.

It is one of the first buildings in the United States to use cross-laminated timber (CLT) as its primary structure... One notable benefit... is that the carbon sequestered in the building’s structural system offsets the annual emissions of 77 cars, making the building carbon neutral in its first decade of operation. This integrated use of renewable material and low-impact construction technique enhances the health and ecological function of the immediate site.

It also protects more distant productive landscapes, optimizing their biological and hydrological processes so that they may continue to provide valuable environmental services such as clean air and water (and a steady supply of renewable building material) to our cities and more specifically, to important emerging institutions like Common Ground High School and its forward-thinking students, teachers, and administrators.

Spear said that there are many visual aspects of the building that students could directly explore. 

“For students, we actually teach a sustainable design class, and that class will be all about this building. They’ll really learn the intricacies of the building and why it was designed the way it was," she said.

The school raised $2.1 million in private funds for the new building, and the state provided a $7.5 million grant. The building is slated to open by May 1, 2016. 

Sustainably-Built Schools in Connecticut  

Common Ground is seeking certification as a LEED Platinum building. LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, has become the industry standard for buildings that seek to minimize environmental impact and maximize energy efficiency and sustainable use. LEED Platinum is the highest level of accreditation and is given by the U.S. Green Building Council, a non-profit that promotes sustainable building practices. 

The certification process considers a range of aspects such as land and water protection, access to public transit, use of natural light and energy efficiency. 

Architect Organschi notes that sustainable buildings, especially schools, are going to become increasingly in demand. 

"We're at an amazing point in the history of our planet," he said. "We've dug a little bit of a hole for ourselves and we've got to climb out as fast as we can, and it's going to take a lot of forward thinking."

There are currently only two schools in Connecticut that have achieved LEED Platinum status, according to Ali Peterson, a spokesman for USGBC. One is the Kohler Environmental Center in Wallingford, which is a teaching, research, and residential environmental center and part of Choate Rosemary Hall private school.

The other Platinum building is the Mary M. Hooker Environmental Sciences Magnet School in Hartford. Across the country, there are 72 Platinum school buildings. In Connecticut, there are 25 LEED-certified schools.