New school holds a few green lessons

  • Article by: DON JACOBSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 27, 2012 - 5:42 PM

North Education Center in New Hope has the latest energy-saving technology and other ideas that other builders are now studying.

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The North Education Center in New Hope features state-of-the-art building features and techniques, including sensory room with soothing light and sounds.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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When Intermediate School District 287 decided to construct its own school in New Hope, it had a lengthy wish list of "green" features and cutting-edge education designs.

The district -- which serves 4,675 special-education students among its total student body of 10,098 -- had thought about renting and rehabbing the former Hosterman Middle School to make it suitable for some of its special-ed kids to be taught there.

But in the end, district officials decided to raze the 1962 structure and start afresh with the new $30 million North Education Center, which opened this school year sporting myriad innovative design and energy efficient features.

The effort has caught the attention of education facility planners, builders and managers across the state and was featured prominently at a panel discussion at last week's Impact 2012 conference put on by the U.S. Green Building Council's Minnesota chapter. 

District 287 Facilities Director Tom Shultz helped lead the effort to build the new school when it became apparent that Hosterman couldn't be repaired at a reasonable cost. Minnetonka-based TSP Architecture, construction contractors and school officials worked for four years to complete the three-story NEC project. 

The pride in the accomplishment was evident during a tour of the newly opened facility last week, which was abuzz with students checking out their new school.

"What is really unique about this new building is its adaptability," Shultz said. "Teaching methods change, kids' needs change. Why shouldn't you have a school that's adaptable to them? That was 'job one' -- get a building that would meet the students' needs rather than the other way around."

ISD 287 used to lease space that was "horrific," he added.

"The staff had to spend half their time worrying about the facilities and managing them, taking care of things they shouldn't have to take care of."

All that has changed with the NEC, which was largely financed by federal school bonds made available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Probably the facility's most striking feature is its system of removable (or "demountable") walls, which allow educators to adjust the size of classrooms to suit the changing needs of the students.

"A 900-square-foot classroom doesn't always work well for special-needs kids, depending on their disabilities," Shultz said. "So we've set up small classrooms and break-out rooms, for instance, for kids with behavior issues, using the demountable wall systems."

The walls are designed to be sustainable, easily assembled and taken apart, plus they're pleasing to the eye, he said.

But because there are no permanent walls to attach traditional radiators, the NEC's heating, ventilation and air conditioning system is also cutting-edge for a school setting with the use of "active chilled beams."

While most commercial and school buildings cool spaces by delivering air cooled before it flows into them, chilled-beam systems instead use chilled water pipes in modular units mounted to ceilings, transferring heat primarily via convection rather than radiation.

They're energy-savers because they can deliver cooling directly into spaces, eliminating the need for "maximum air delivery" and thus cutting the need for energy-sucking ventilation fans.

On cold days, meanwhile, hot water can be run through the ceiling modules instead to provide heating, and the flows can be precisely controlled according to each room's needs.

"On a sunny winter day, classrooms facing south are going to get toasty warm, but the ones facing north are not going to get the solar heat gain," Shultz said. "So some active beams will be used for cooling and others for heating at the same time."

Another green feature of the school is its energy-efficient low-voltage lighting systems, which produces twice as much light for the same amount of power expended on "line voltage" incandescent lamps.

The technology also allows teachers to control each room's lighting to fit the needs of their students. "Some kids don't do well with fluorescent lights," Shultz noted.

Don Jacobson is a St. Paul-based freelance writer.

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