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Aug 29 2011

Irving ISD opens energy efficient ‘net zero’ school

Irving’s new Lady Bird Johnson Middle School represents not only a place of learning, but a bold experiment and statement about the importance of energy efficiency.

At 150,000 square feet, Irving ISD officials believe Johnson will be the largest “net zero”-style middle school in the nation and the first such school in Texas. The term is “net zero” because the goal is that the school will produce as much energy as it uses.

The school has an open house and ribbon-cutting ceremony Monday and will welcome about 850 students in the sixth through eighth grades on the first day of school Wednesday. But the school is expected to serve not only its own students.

The district intends to have all second- and sixth-graders tour the building as one of their field trips. A special classroom to host the students is included in the school design. Museum-style exhibits will feature the concepts of water collection, wind, solar energy and geothermal.

“I want the kids to have ownership of the building,” principal Angie Gaylord said. “The kids need to understand the science features.”

The school also is creating curriculum to teach children about the importance of energy efficiency, and administrators hope to use students as tour guides in the future.

Almost 3,000 solar panels cover the roof, and 12 wind turbines spin alongside the building. There’s a sun dial near the entrance and a “pulper” to mash food that later will be used for composting.

Big price tag

One net zero elementary school opened in Warren County, Ky., in 2010. Irving’s newly opened 25,000-square-foot West Irving Library, which cost about $8 million, also uses the design.

The Irving school has a hefty price tag, costing nearly $25 million in bond funds to build. District officials spent an additional $4 million from the district’s fund balance on renewable energy features including the solar panels.

While school officials say they hope to save money in the long run by having the building produce as much energy as it uses, they won’t recoup the $4 million for an estimated 10 to 12 years.

“It’s such a new technology; we’re basing that on models that have been done by the engineering firm,” said assistant superintendent Scott Layne. “The unknown factor is how the building’s operated. Kids and teachers need to be very cognizant of what type of building it is and do their part to conserve energy.”

Layne first conceived of such a school when he attended a conference.

Susan Smith , vice president of the Corgan Associates architecture design firm, worked on the building and pointed out some of the features. An observation deck offers a view of the solar panels. The school has large windows to let in natural light. Daylight sensors will dim the artificial lights depending on the amount of natural sunlight.

“There are a lot of people interested in watching and seeing how it will perform,” Smith said. “It’s pretty exciting. We’re the envy of the other architects, quite frankly.”

Experience for students

One exhibit will allow children to view exposed water source heat pumps, with a diagram explaining the units. In another part of the school, children will be able to power a model of a wind turbine.

“You can’t get this from a screen,” said district living labs coordinator Chris Dazer. “Our children need to touch things, feel things and experience things.”

Students also will be able to enjoy other perks, including the use of iPads in their history classes. They’ll be able to monitor the school’s energy usage online.

They’re definitely curious about the design.

“The kids said it doesn’t look like a school — it looks like a college,” Gaylord said.

Students are expected to take their new green knowledge home with them to instruct their parents. Incoming Parent Teacher Association president Tashia Gerlach will have two children attending the school.

“The facts about the school are just mind-boggling — to look and to hear and to read about this school is a little bit foreign to us now,” she said. “The school is going to take part in raising a stronger generation.”

BY THE NUMBERS: New school

0 — Difference between the amounts of energy the school is expected to use and the energy it creates.

1 — Science room for 70 students that will accommodate touring students and will include lessons on iPads.

4 — Interactive museum-style displays that review the concepts of sun, earth, wind and water for student visitors from other schools.

12 — 45-foot-tall wind turbines expected to generate about 1 percent of energy used.

105 — Water heat pumps used for geothermal heating and air conditioning. The pumps are connected to 468 wells that are more than 250 feet deep.

2,988 — Solar panels that will cover 66 percent of the school’s roof and are expected to generate about 99 percent of the building’s energy.

Read More From Katherine Leal Unmuth and See Pictures of The New School at The Dallas Morning News.

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