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Sustainability on Display

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How three Wisconsin schools use their green infrastructure as teaching tools

The best way to show value is putting sustainable systems on display and allowing teachers to use them as real-world examples in STEM-related lessons.

Conversations about sustainable school infrastructure typically focus on the performance of systems like geothermal heating and cooling, solar panels and green roofs. The potential energy and financial savings offered by these systems are incentives for going green. According to the United States Green Building Council, green schools use 33% less energy than conventional buildings, saving districts thousands of dollars annually in operating costs.

Another harder to quantify benefit is just as significant: green infrastructure helps students understand the value sustainable building features bring their schools, communities and the planet. The best way to show value is putting sustainable systems on display and allowing teachers to use them as real-world examples in STEM-related lessons.

While designing K-12 schools throughout the state, Eppstein Uhen Architects has worked with districts that find value in using their buildings as teaching tools. Three stand out.

Lake Mills Elementary School, Lake Mills

Lake Mills Elementary School is the first public K-12 school in the United States to achieve a platinum certification by the United States Green Building Council’s LEED rating system. The school made strategic decisions with its sustainable design solutions, including solar panels, a closed-loop geothermal system, a green roof and vegetable gardens, ensuring each provided learning opportunities for students.

Several learning opportunities stem from the green roof framed by the building’s second-story windows. From multiple classrooms, students can look out over the vegetated trays and see the roof. Visually more interesting than a rubber membrane or stone ballast, the roof also helps plants absorb rainwater by routing it away from the sewer system. Furthermore, the roof surface also stays cooler during the summer, reducing the demand for cooling inside the building. Finally, the roof attracts birds, bees and other insects.

Teachers can point to the roof and discuss its benefits for the building’s energy consumption and stormwater management. When the flowers bloom and pollinators come alive, they can use it to demonstrate a plant’s life cycle and discuss the pollinators’ role in the ecosystem.

More learning opportunities are available in the school gardens. “Each student in the school participates in taking care of the garden,” says former Lake Mills Elementary School principal Amanda Thompson, who is now the district’s director of teaching and learning. “We use the harvest in our school lunch program.”

Waunakee Intermediate School, Waunakee

When building its new intermediate school, the Waunakee Community School District committed to an energy-efficient, cost-saving project. The school’s sustainable features include a geothermal system, rooftop solar panels, a green roof and a bioswale (a channel with vegetation to catch and filter rainwater).

Each sustainable feature includes a window graphic with text and diagrams explaining how the systems work. For example, the geothermal graphic explains how the system uses the Earth’s natural properties to help heat and cool the school, saving energy and reducing pollution from fossil fuels. The graphic also includes a simplified map showing the distance between the geothermal pump room and the field of deep wells.

The school’s principal, Tim Mommaerts, said teachers and students engage with the visible systems and signage. “Our sixth-grade science curriculum has a unit on renewable energy,” he says. “Our teachers walk their classes around the building to look at the geothermal room, the green roof and the solar panels on the site.”

On the tour, teachers and students stop to reflect on the signage and discuss each system’s environmental and energy impacts. Teachers encourage students to ask questions, addressing any misconceptions about the systems. “Having these features displayed on our site enhances both student engagement and understanding of how each system functions, as well as the importance of renewable energy systems,” Mommaerts says.

Token Springs and Meadow View elementary schools, Sun Prairie

Geothermal systems require many pipes. Rather than hiding these in a basement mechanical room, the Sun Prairie Area School District displays them in high-traffic areas of two elementary schools built in 2018. The geothermal pump rooms are next to the schools’ main corridors, and the pump equipment is painted bold colors to attract attention.

When students look through Token Springs’ large windows into the pump room, they see motors attached to pipes with circumferences the size of basketballs. Students can follow the pipes up and over the wall to the adjacent corridor, where the ceiling has been removed to expose more mechanical systems.

Ducts and pipes in the corridor are painted according to their function. For example, hot water supply and return pipes wrapped in bright red insulation run parallel to blue cold-water pipes. Each pipe is labeled to help students understand what they carry.

Visible infrastructure ideas for existing schools

New buildings gave Lake Mills, Waunakee and Sun Prairie an opportunity to incorporate these displays. But only some districts have a construction project on the horizon. Schools can still leverage their buildings as teaching tools by using their existing infrastructure or adding simple equipment.

For example, a section of a school’s existing ceiling could be removed to reveal the building’s mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems. Similar to Token Springs, the infrastructure could be painted according to function — all the air supply ductwork might be painted green, and the air return ductwork painted yellow.

On the wall, a sign (or, better yet, an interactive screen) could feature a diagram of the building’s HVAC system. The interactive screen could show students real-time data about when and how long the system runs, and how much energy it consumes. Students could trace the conditioned air as it originates at the handling units, flows to classrooms through the green ducts and travels back to the equipment room through the yellow ducts.

To maximize the effectiveness of these displays, the ceiling could be removed in a few areas around the school so that students get a complete picture of the system. This is a relatively low-cost building adaptation, as the modifications are cosmetic and the building’s infrastructure does not change. The most significant expense would be painting the ducts.

Another option is installing a rainwater collection system at the school. With the help of an engineer, one roof drain could be rerouted to a cistern before entering the sewer system. This display could help students understand how a stormwater management system works, allowing them to track the water as it lands on the roof, flows into the tank and exits the building. Elevating the tank would introduce pressure in the system, which could help students understand the fundamentals of plumbing. If the tank has a spigot, students could harvest the rainwater for the school’s garden.

There are even simpler options. The vegetated trays at Lake Mills Elementary School do not have to be on the roof to offer lessons. Instead, the trays could be placed adjacent to the school’s parking lot. Students could insert a thermometer into the trays’ soil and mount one on the pavement to witness how vegetation absorbs heat compared to the impervious surface. This could complement a lesson on the “heat island effect” that plagues many cities, showing the benefits of introducing greenery in urban areas.

Planning a display

Schools considering a sustainable infrastructure display in a new building should connect with their architect and engineers early in the design process. The design team will meet with teachers to understand how the displays can enhance what they already teach, or how visible systems might offer new lessons to the curriculum. The team will help districts plan appropriate locations for their display and design the mechanical systems to ensure the geothermal pump room, for example, is located next to the cafeteria instead of the library.

Architects and engineers also help districts decide the aesthetics of the exposed infrastructure, which can affect how students understand the systems. For instance, the design team might specify bolts instead of ground (and nearly invisible) weld joints where structural beams join the floor to highlight the connection for students.

Students do not need to constantly engage with visible building infrastructure for the displays to be valuable. A tour of sustainable features or a module taught once a year can be enough to get students excited about their buildings.

These brief moments might be the starting points for future architects, engineers, tradespeople and sustainability experts. Seeing and revisiting the features throughout the school year is much better than the alternative; infrastructure that is out of sight will also be out of mind.

Toward a greener future

Sustainable building infrastructure benefits more than a district’s bottom line. When made visible, it helps students understand the value these systems provide their school, community and planet. Putting sustainable features on display also helps students get excited about possible career paths.

When planning a renovation or new construction project, districts should consider ways to make the inner workings of their buildings accessible to students. But they don’t have to wait for their next referendum. Through small-scale remodeling projects or adding simple equipment, schools can immediately show students the value of sustainability.

Dale Garfield, PE
Lead Senior HVAC Engineer

Dale Garfield is a Senior HVAC Engineer working out of the Green Bay office. In his free time he


Mike Schwindenhammer, AIA, LEED AP, NCARB
Senior Design Architect

Mike is a Senior Design Architect at EUA. He is based in our Milwaukee office and is part of the Learning Studio. Mike strives to create designs that are exciting for both the user and the community. Beyond design, Mike appreciates great music and the Midwest.

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