For Duluth schools, spending on energy-saving features can save over time

  • Article by: DON JACOBSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 11, 2013 - 11:03 PM

Duluth school officials persuaded taxpayers that spending $300 million to overhaul schools with energy-saving features will pay off over time.

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Oneka Elementary School in Hugo, designed by LHB Corp. of Duluth, uses some of the same energy-saving features incorporated into Duluth’s new schools. For example, when students leave a room, the lights go out.

Photo: Richard Sennott • richard.sennott@startribune.com ,

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The trend in public school design is going decidedly green, and while that’s good news for education and the environment, it’s sometimes a tough sell for taxpayers, who can be taken aback by the sticker shock of higher upfront costs.

But there are lessons to be learned from Duluth’s $300 million effort to build four new schools, rehabilitate seven others and close seven more. Two key players in one of the most ambitious facilities upgrades in Minnesota public schools’ history told members of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) in Minneapolis on Tuesday that the public will support such renovations if they’re adequately explained.

Keith Dixon, the former superintendent of Duluth public schools and now the interim superintendent of the Centennial School District in Blaine, and Kevin Holm, an architect with Duluth-based LHB Corp., said the 2008-2012 Duluth effort showed that taxpayers will ultimately back green building features because they pay off in long-term value.

Dubbed the “Red Plan,” the Duluth project was intensely controversial from the start, partly because of its high costs, and also because it was carried out under a state law allowing for bonds to be issued without a public referendum in cases affecting students’ health and school safety. That resulted in pitched political battles in which critics accused the schools of a lack of transparency.

But polls showed most supported the move, agreeing with the school district that because the city’s school-age population had shrunk from 22,000 students at its peak to just 9,000 in 2008 and that more than 60 percent of its school space didn’t meet modern safety and education standards, the costs were justified.

One of its central points was the money-saving energy efficiency component of the new and rehabbed buildings incorporated in LHB’s designs, Dixon said.

“It was a hard sell,” he said of a two-year effort to garner support for the project. “But even most conservative residents will agree that the costs are worth it if you can show them a return on investment over time.”

Tapping the firm’s techniques, the Duluth schools put a big emphasis on the USGBC’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards in terms of optimizing indoor environmental quality by providing maximum ventilation and daylight and through enhancing the buildings’ acoustical performance and the controllability of systems.

Another big consideration was reducing water use and soil erosion and maintaining stormwater runoff through careful site design.

Several LHB-designed schools in the Twin Cities boast the same techniques, said Holm, an architect with the firm.

One of them is Oneka Elementary in Hugo, part of the White Bear Lake area school system. That building was situated so that 90 percent of the classrooms face north, significantly reducing the heat buildup common with southerly exposures.

Meanwhile, daylight was maximized in the classrooms with oversized windows, while those windows that did face south were used to funnel light and heat into the school’s large, open hallways.

“The natural daylighting at Oneka has multiple effects,” Holm said. “There’s no solar heat gain, which you would want for a house, but which for a public building is a detriment.”

Plus, he said, north-facing glass is the best for classroom use because it eliminates solar glare that can interfere with projected images that have largely replaced old-fashioned blackboards in modern teaching methods.

Holm told USGBC members it’s important to show skeptics that improved student performance and energy cost savings are linked to adequate daylight and well-controlled heating and ventilation systems.

Dixon added the Duluth experience demonstrated that for future green school building efforts to succeed, districts must do a better job of connecting with communities to explain their benefits.

“In Duluth, we brought in plumbers, electricians, masons and roofers, and we had them tour our buildings. These were people who lived in the city and could talk to their neighbors about what they found. They helped produce a report that identified $200 million in deferred maintenance in our schools,” he said.

 

Don Jacobson is a freelance writer in St. Paul.

 

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