Net-Zero Field House Is a Classroom and a Money Maker for The Putney School
(Photo courtesy of The Putney School)
The Putney School, a private, progressive secondary school in southeastern Vermont, sits on 500 acres that include a dairy farm, stands of sugar maples, vegetable gardens and hay fields. The farm is a laboratory, if you will, or a classroom — all of the school's 220 students will work there for at least one trimester during their time at the school — but it is also deeply symbolic of the central position in the curriculum given to what the school calls "the dignity and relevance of physical work."
Over the years following the school's 1935 founding, "sustainability" was a concept that was primarily limited to the farm itself. Students in the dishwashing crew oversaw the collection of table scraps for feeding the pigs and composting, the barn crew collected manure from the troughs to be spread in the fields, and wood selectively harvested from school grounds was taken to the on-site sawmill for use in building and arts projects. At the end of the day, the students (including this author, a 1979 graduate) returned to their dorms, many of which were converted barns and out-buildings that featured overloaded electrical systems, decades-old radiators and little to no insulation.
But the school's newest building is changing all that. The Putney Field House, which opened in October 2009 (and achieved LEED Platinum status this May), is a laboratory and classroom, and is deeply symbolic of the school's renewed commitment to full sustainability on its campus. It's actually more than that — as the nation's first secondary school building to generate more energy than it consumes, the field house is being seen as the (presumably, compact fluorescent) light that will illuminate the road ahead for other schools and architects.
"The goal was for it not just to be for this school," says Randy Smith, Putney's business manager. "The kids who graduated this year will go off to college, and colleges are big on saying to constituents and students, 'We're going to build a dorm or a field house or dining hall, and we'd like your input.' We've sent off a group of students who, when that happens, can say, 'We'd like it to be net-zero.' And when the school says that's too expensive, they can say, 'Oh no, it's not, and I know where you can go to find that out.'"
Among the false assumptions likely to be made about the $5.1 million, 16,800-square-foot field house is that its net-zero operability is made possible by its small size — or by money. On the contrary, Smith says, "There's nothing fancy or complicated about what we did. We just did more of some things, like insulation, and made sure that tolerances were much better than they would be if it were a code building. Just getting the insulation and siding right was 60 percent of the battle."
Danielle Petter, research director at Waitsfield, Vt.-based Maclay Architects (she's currently at work on Putney's campus-wide master plan), confirms Smith's assessment, laying out the net-zero particulars in five areas:
The building's roofs, walls and floors — and even the bases of support posts — are packed with rigid insulation, spray-on foam and dense-pack cellulose. (Photos courtesy of The Putney School)
The sun-facing field house is flanked by the solar array and the KDU. (Photo by Jim Westphalen, courtesy of Maclay Architects)
The field house is "all those very cool things that we were hoping it was going to be from the get-go," in Smith's words, but there was a moment during the planning process when it was not clear that the school could make the full commitment to a net-zero building. The school had selected Maclay Architects, a specialty firm that bills itself as offering "choices in sustainability," and principal Bill Maclay had laid out three choices — a standard building that would be 10 percent more efficient than current codes require (estimated to cost around $3 million), a high-performance building that nevertheless had a carbon footprint, and a net-zero building that could generate enough power to offset whatever energy was used throughout the course of the year (early estimates, which included operational systems not included in the final design, pegged this option at $4.5 million).
"We had already made a decision institutionally that our next capital building project was going to be sustainable, and we had done some very rough modeling around return on investment," Smith recalls. "I'm always leery about those kinds of things, because all I need to do is escalate the cost of fuel oil 20 percent a year rather than 11 percent, and the payback becomes half as long. But it was clear that fuel oil prices were not going to go down in the long term, and it was clear that the differential between a 10 percent efficient building and a net-zero building was probably worth the capital investment. And equally important, it was worth the choice as an institution to do that."
All that said, the moment seemed fraught with uncertainty.
Inside, the view to the north is limited. (Photo courtesy of The Putney School)
"At the time, it was a very hard decision to make, because it was the third quarter of 2008," Smith continues. "Virtually every capital project at every school was being canceled, and we were just about to approve one. And not only approve one, but the most expensive one on the menu. The flip side of that was that oil was trading out at $147 a barrel, and we could point at that and say, 'We don't think this is a permanent price, but on the other hand, this is an indicator of what's going to happen.' We had brought together the architect who could design it with a presentation that made sense, and we were at a moment in history where we were presented with this stark reality of the price of energy. It was actually Ira Wender, a long-term board member who was the chair of the finance committee, who said, 'I don't think we have any choice. We have to pick a net-zero building.' I hesitate to use the word 'moral,' but the financial and the right thing to do were exactly the same. It would have been really difficult to say, 'Well, we shouldn't spend the extra $500,000 for the power generation because oil's probably going to get cheaper.'"
The continuous monitoring of energy use is helping the school protect its investment. Smith can check in with the field house on his phone, and students and staff members who have become well versed in accurate reading of the data in effect are serving as extensions of the operations staff.
"I have a trustee who's very interested in the hour-by-hour streaming data, and he will send me an e-mail that says, 'Randy, there was a light on in your building overnight,'" he says. "We can pay close attention to how well the controls are working, and we've been lucky — the building has performed better than we modeled both in the reduction in energy use and the production of energy by the solar array."
While the current student body is getting a lesson in energy input and output, waste flows and the like, the school has learned — and is insistent on teaching to others around the country — that net-zero buildings are not a futuristic concept.
"I think what's really important about the building is that it shows that you can create a building that is built with the people and the environment in mind, that creates as much energy as it uses, and you can do it right now, and it's not going to break the bank," Smith says. "That technology isn't five years out. If we had the will, as a state or as a nation, we could make our building codes to the specifications of this field house, and all of a sudden you'd see energy consumption in our country plummet."
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