New School Blueprints Have Green Tinge

Energy efficiency, larger classrooms and flexibility among architects’ goals

Clark County schools are known for the consistency of their designs—each elementary school is a near clone of every other elementary school. Ditto for middle schools and high schools.

But this fall the district is rolling out four prototypes of the elementary school of the future. The schools range in cost from $14.5 million to $16.5 million, and all are meant to be on the vanguard of environmental design in the Valley.

“We required them to be about twice as energy efficient and to cost about 20 percent less per square foot [than existing schools],” says Paul Gerner, the school district’s associate superintendent for facilities. “We’re basically using competitive design strategy to improve the breed of elementary school design. What we have here are probably four of the best elementary school designs in the country.”

Current elementary schools in the system use about 55,000 British thermal units per square foot per year; the new schools are expected to use less than 30,000 Btu per square foot per year. Further, the prototype classroom sizes are bigger—around 900 square feet versus 700—which will handle larger class sizes in this era of budget cuts.

Only three of the designs will be retained as templates for future schools. Later this year, the district will hire a third-party expert in energy modeling to see which of the designs does the best job of improving energy performance and maintaining cost. The district will use models of the building performance more so than measurements taken from the actual schools once they open. “I’d rather not throw the design out because the principal left the front door open,” Gerner says.

It sounds like a great example of the school district moving forward, another sign that green design is swiftly becoming standard design. The only problem is that the district isn’t planning to build any more schools. Four years ago, when the prototype process was new, growth in Clark County was continuing at a brisk pace. In 2006, Gerner says the school district was planning to build 125 schools; a year later the figure had dropped to between 85 and 90. Now, the four elementary schools, plus one vocational academy in Summerlin, are the final schools in the district’s pipeline. All are scheduled to open this August.

Gerner calls the change a “pretty dynamic swing,” and notes that even when the district sees a new “tidal wave of growth, it’ll take us two years to get a school in the pipeline ready for delivery.”

The four prototypes are Triggs Elementary in North Las Vegas, designed by JMA; Duncan Elementary in North Las Vegas, by SH Architecture; Stuckey Elementary in Las Vegas, by DCC Architects; and Wallin Elementary in Henderson, by Pugsley Simpson Coulter.

Wallin is the group’s only empowerment school—a design aimed at improving learning and student performance through increased autonomy and accountability, smaller class sizes, a longer school day and year, and more financial support. It is tucked into a tiny basin amid the hilly topography of Madeira Canyon. Shorn of curves, Wallin is a series of stacked rectangular shapes punctuated by long and narrow bands of windows. The $16.5 million school is set to open this year.

The Wallin design is meant to be flexible—its classrooms, administrative spaces and multipurpose spaces easily can be reconfigured to fit into other school sites in the Valley, says Wade Simpson, principal at Pugsley Simpson. “When we’re given a different site we can adjust how they’re connected and make sure the orientation is always correct,” he says, “so we’re getting north and south daylight in all the classroom.”

Wallin will use evaporative cooling as well as sophisticated electrical sensors that help mitigate the “vampire” effect—when unused electronics suck energy off the grid.

With the freeze on constructing new schools, the prototypes may help the district if it needs to retrofit or augment existing schools. Simpson says Wallin’s flexibility was designed, in part, with that in mind.

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