Schools as a community catalyst: Happy, healthy, and high performing

(This article was originally published in the Virginia Town and City magazine and is being published here with the permission of the Virginia Municipal League)

By Rob Winstead

Among the many lessons we have learned this past year is the importance of schools as critical social infrastructure. Schools are one of the greatest investments most communities make, so leaders must fully leverage precious tax dollars to do as much as possible with that investment.

While the core function of schools is learning – educating the population and preparing students to thrive as effective citizens – communities can leverage schools to address a variety of needs and make progress toward their highest aspirations. The following stories show how two Virginia localities have used schools as a catalyst for change and an opportunity to address larger community issues.

“Innovation for the good of society and the planet.”

Discovery Elementary School (Arlington County, VA)
One way to create change is to put a new spin on something “known” and thereby inspire ambivalent people to become engaged. Greta Thunberg, for instance, brought urgency to the climate debate by taking the known concept of a workers’ strike and giving it a fresh, youth-led awakening. This in turn raised climate change awareness around the world.

In a similar vein, educators, students, civic leaders, and community members in Arlington took the “known” concept of public-school design and infused it with the novel intention to create the next generation of environmental stewards. The result is Discovery Elementary School – a net-zero energy school which has helped both normalize and energize school design and created momentum at the local, state, national, and international levels:

  • At the local level, the success of Discovery Elementary School convinced Arlington Public Schools to make net-zero energy a requirement for the procurement of all new construction.
  • At the state level, local leaders successfully lobbied the Virginia Assembly to pass legislation that allows net-positive schools to sell and keep the funds generated from this excess energy.
  • At the national level, the U.S. Department of Energy launched the Net-Zero Accelerator at Discovery – a national partnership aimed at demonstrating how investing in renewable energy
    translates into cost savings and enhanced learning environments. Plus, Discovery is the first school to receive LEED Zero Energy certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.
  • Internationally, Discovery is the first verified net-zero energy building certified by the collaborative partnership of the International Living Future Institute and New Buildings Institute.

All of these “firsts” happened for a school designed using public funding and intensive public engagement that prioritized financial stewardship and community buy-in. Moreover, Discovery Elementary School is designed to meet a larger goal – to be an example of responsible climate action near the nation’s capital that inspires thinking about the immediate need for net-zero energy buildings.

Schools like Discovery can serve as teaching tools not just for the students who will learn there. For designers and civic leaders, the building has volumes to teach about alternative energy, environmental stewardship, and healthy and sustainable behaviors – while also achieving critical goals for carbon neutrality. Even better, the project, including the PV system on the roof, came in well under the original budget and will save Arlington more than $100,000 each year in avoided utility costs.

A “World Changing Idea”
Discovery Elementary School was selected from more than 3,000 entries as an honorable mention in both the “Education” and “Spaces, Places, and Cities” categories in Fast Company’s 2020 World Changing Ideas program which honors products, concepts, companies, policies, and designs that pursue innovation for the good of society and the planet. 2020 honorees included the author’s firm, VMDO Architects, and other companies “actively engaged and deeply committed to flattening the curve when it comes to the climate crisis, social injustice, or economic inequality.”

Arlington County shows the way
Because of Discovery Elementary School and other sustainable projects, Arlington County was the first locality in Virginia to commit to 100 percent clean, renewable electricity by 2035. Continuing its work with VMDO Architects, which designed Discovery, Arlington is pursuing two more net-zero energy schools (Fleet Elementary and Cardinal Elementary) and a net-zero energy ready community center (Lubber Run Community Center). These projects have changed the expectations for all public projects by scaling up the implementation of net-zero energy buildings, renovations, and modernizations.

Arlington may be at the forefront of this effort, but it will soon have plenty of company across the Commonwealth. In March 2019, the Virginia legislature passed HB2192, requiring “that new public school buildings and facilities and improvements and renovations to existing public school buildings and facilities be designed, constructed, maintained, and operated to generate more electricity than consumed.” And in April 2020, Virginia became the first state in the South to commit to a 100 percent clean energy agenda.

All this points to the timeliness of scaling up net-zero energy design across the Commonwealth, particularly for critical public investments like schools. Doing so will help Virginia’s localities meet the challenges of climate change head-on, reduce the operational burden of public facilities on the community, and educate generations of enlightened stewards to thrive in jobs of the future.

“This is a special place. It inspires stewardship.”

Bluestone Elementary School (Harrisonburg, VA)
Nicknamed “the friendly city,” Harrisonburg has a well-earned reputation as a welcoming community. Between 2002 and 2013, the city’s population grew by 21 percent with Harrisonburg City Public Schools (HCPS) experiencing a 32 percent increase in school enrollment during that same time. Over the past seven years alone, HCPS has experienced the highest school enrollment growth rate in Virginia!

Part of the reason for the dramatic increase in population and school enrollment is Harrisonburg’s designation as a refugee relocation city. In fact, 35 percent of HCPS students identify as English Language Learners, representing over 60 different countries and speaking 58 languages. This diversity offers opportunities for learning about cultures but also presents the formidable challenge of ensuring this growing population receives the appropriate level of support.

To help capitalize on the opportunities and meet the challenges of a diverse student body, HCPS asked VMDO Architects to work on the design of the new Bluestone Elementary School. HCPS established guiding principles that included celebrating its amazing student diversity, fostering a sense of inclusion, and offering flexible learning opportunities in a net-zero energy ready environment that could evolve and expand with the school community. The resulting design embraces cultural diversity and helps students relate to the larger world while maintaining a sense of local community designed just for them.

Bluestone’s design encourages connections to the areas’ watershed, ecosystem, and history. Teaching spaces offer expansive views to the outdoors and common areas are aligned with key sightlines to the surrounding Shenandoah Valley. Students learn experientially by studying the effects of daylighting, rainfall, and changes in weather on the environment. Environmental graphics and wayfinding explain Harrisonburg’s unique natural setting and invites students to explore parallel settings around the world.

Most students and teachers spend more time in school than anywhere other than home. As such, Bluestone’s design prioritizes the physical health and well-being of all the building’s users by leveraging controlled daylight, fresh air, and healthy materials. The site, the building and even the furniture and environmental graphics are designed to promote physical activity and a healthy lifestyle. To minimize long-term operational costs, the building is designed to be net-zero energy ready, using 75 percent less energy than the national average for elementary schools, and is prepared to receive a rooftop PV array through a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA).

To better understand the impact of its design decisions on user experience and outcomes, the Bluestone project team initiated a postoccupancy evaluation using the Occupant Indoor Environmental Quality Survey developed by UC Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment (CBE). A few highlights from the post-occupancy evaluation:

  • 80% of building users say the building enhances connections with students
  • 86% of building users say the school is a community asset
  • 93% of building users feel more connected to nature and the outdoors
  • 87% of building users say that they are satisfied with the building overall
  • 31% reduction in staff absenteeism in the new building

In 2019 Bluestone Elementary School received CBE’s “Livable Buildings Award” for achieving some of the highest user satisfaction scores in CBE’s nationwide database. The award demonstrated the success of Bluestone from the most important perspective – that of the building users! It also demonstrated the value of an inclusive planning and design process to achieve a transformative learning environment embodying its core mission: to build community and celebrate diversity.

“I can see the difference in kids in this building versus other buildings. This building really encourages kids to be happy. Everything in this building is designed with a purpose. You’ll see kids skipping in the halls. You’ll see kids stopping and looking at things that have been designed into the building. You just see happy kids.”

– Craig Mackail, COO, Harrisonburg
City Public Schools

Thoughtful school planning and design can help our communities address complex issues like climate change, diversity, equity, and well-being without adding project costs. Further, these high-performance buildings increase user satisfaction and minimize operational expenses for the life of the project, preserving critical public funds to meet other needs.

As centers of the community that touch the lives of most of its citizens in some way, schools are powerful indicators of our highest aspirations. The municipal projects from Virginia outlined in this article illustrate how purposefully designed schools can go beyond their core missions of supporting student learning and achievement to advance broader community goals.

Additional information
For more information about VMDO Architects, Discovery Elementary School, and Bluestone Elementary School, please visit

To read more from the Center for the Built Environment about the Livable Buildings Award, please visit:

About the author: Rob Winstead, AIA, NCARB, ALEP, LEED AP BD+C is the K12 Studio Leader at VMDO Architects.

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