Private school raising sustainable classroom

5/26/2013 11:00 AM
By Associated Press

HOUSTON (AP) — A private school for students with special needs is developing what it hopes will be one of the greenest buildings in the world.

On its 11-acre campus in Spring Branch, the Monarch School has started construction on a 1,120-square-foot stand-alone classroom designed to get its power from the sun and wind; its heat and cool air from the earth; and water to nourish its vegetable garden from harvested rain.

The small building, which is expected to cost more than $400,000, will serve as an environmental laboratory, with students controlling its daily energy use. For example, they will determine when the sun's rays are strong enough to light the building, or when the wind turbine is needed to supplement power.

The entire Monarch campus is geared toward giving the students and faculty environmentally sensitive surroundings, the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/130IwDE) reported.

After it opened in 2009, the main building received Gold-level certification from the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program.

Other new buildings being added as part of an overall expansion project are also aiming for the green designation.

Other natural elements can be found throughout the campus, which houses about 127 students with autism, attention deficit disorder and other neurological differences.

There's a working beehive, vegetable and flower gardens, and an outdoor plaza where butterflies congregate.

"The students have a lot to learn about their neurology, and we wanted to provide them an environmentally safe atmosphere to do that learning," said Debrah Hall, head of the K-12 school near Kempwood and Gessner.

The school received numerous donations for the classroom building and has been raising additional cash to pay for the systems that will make the structure self-sufficient when it comes to water and energy use.

It is nearing the end of a $100,000 campaign through Kickstarter, a fundraising website. The campaign ends Saturday.

The classroom is being built to achieve certification through the Living Building Challenge, a program that requires structures to meet seven ambitious performance areas, including water and energy usage.

That program is administered by the International Living Future Institute, a nongovernmental organization that promotes environmentally friendly architecture. Less than a handful of buildings have been certified since 2010.

Living Buildings have stringent material requirements, eliminating anything toxic. Wood must be sustainably and regionally forested.

The Monarch project will include siding made of beams salvaged from an old building.

Used materials, said Shannon Bryant, co-owner of general contractor Tend Building, is one of the best ways to be green. They also come with a story.

"It's way more fun than drywall," she said.

The construction budget for the base building is estimated at $315,000 with another $35,000 in architectural, engineering and related fees, according to architect Shelly Pottorf, who is leading the project. GreenNexus Consulting is also involved.

That $281 per square foot cost doesn't include the solar panels and some other features required for Living Building certification. While the total cost will be relatively expensive, it will be less than the $500 per square foot cost of some other Living Building projects.

Pottorf, principal of Architend, said the goal was to find ways to more affordably meet the standards so people "don't dismiss the Living Building Challenge as being financially unattainable."

"While we haven't achieved that goal yet," she said, "through this effort we are making significant progress."

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Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com


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