Germantown Friends School’s New Green Science Building
Germantown Friends School’s New Green Science Building
I like to make things grow. I find deep satisfaction in scattering seeds over soil, and patiently waiting to see what marvels emerge. No doubt this is part of the reason why I chose teaching as a career, because it affords me annual opportunities to plant seeds in fertile minds and nurture developing intellects. I have been fortunate to spend my entire teaching career at Germantown Friends School, and thus I have grown roots that are anchored in the testimonies of stewardship and community. When it became clear that the upper school science department had outgrown its four classrooms in the Sharpless building, it seemed obvious to me that we must create a new science facility that would embody the principles of green design and serve as an example of what it means to walk softly on the earth.
We are an urban school, and have been part of the Germantown neighborhood for more than 160 years. The challenges of bringing forth a new building on our largely asphalt- and brick-covered campus were not small, but the dream of creating an oasis in the city was compelling. The process we used to approach this project was entirely organic, and evolved from a clearly definable problem: we did not have enough room in which to teach our upper school science courses, because enrollment in these courses had increased substantially since we re-arranged the sequence of our science courses in 1996. I presented the constraints of our physical plant to our School Committee, and clearly explained how our classrooms in the Sharpless building were overtaxed by too many classes, and too small to allow classes of twenty students to work safely during labs. The School Committee listened attentively to this problem, and considered a variety of possible solutions. Renovating the Sharpless classrooms would not solve the problem, because the Sharpless classrooms were simply too small, and there were too few of them, so the School Committee quickly agreed that a new building was needed.
Given the emphasis we place on all Quaker values, it seemed self-evident that this new facility should be a concrete example of sustainable design and green architecture. Our next challenge was to find an architect who had a substantial amount of expertise in sustainable design. SMP Architects stood out as the firm that clearly had the skills we needed, and they brought a great deal of creativity to the process. We considered the question of pursuing Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification several times during the design phase of the project, but what convinced me that SMP was the right architect for us what their reassurance that whether we chose to pursue LEED certification or not made no difference to their approach. They would design the greenest building possible, regardless of whether or not we decided to complete the certification process. Ultimately, we did decide to pursue certification because we felt strongly that we wanted objective confirmation that our new facility meets the standards of excellence in green design. We have now completed this process, and have been awarded Gold Certification. This "seal of approval" from the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) is a tangible statement of our commitment to environmental stewardship.
The Science Center’s numerous green features fall into three categories: sustainable materials, energy efficient systems and storm water management. I was largely uninformed about what “sustainable materials” meant when we began this project, and I am now surrounded by materials that I didn’t even know existed two years ago. The concrete foundation slab contains a high proportion of recycled material, which minimizes the need for Portland cement, a material that takes a great deal of energy to produce. Cabinets and millwork are made of wheatboard and sunflower seed board, both of which are agricultural by-products. The custom casework is sustainably harvested wood veneer over wheatboard core. Acoustic panels are made of tectum, which is made from Aspen trees, a fast growing, rapidly- renewable resource. The flooring in the labs is made from recycled rubber and uses only water based glues, and the carpeting in our office contains recycled content and is, itself, entirely recyclable. The countertops in the bathrooms are recycled glass, and the partitions are recycled plastic. All the lights are compact fluorescents, and all the paints used are low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
Even before the recent oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, it was clear that our addiction to fossil fuels was problematic for a variety of reasons. Hence, we wanted this building to be as energy efficient as possible, and reducing the need for fossil fuels was an integral part of the design. Reducing the building’s demand for electricity was accomplished by putting motion sensors on all the lights, so they turn off automatically when rooms are unoccupied. In addition, a small photovoltaic (PV) array on the roof enables us to produce some of the electricity needed by harnessing the energy of the sun. We chose to air condition only the labs and office spaces, and to naturally ventilate the two-story lobby space with operable windows and a fan in the skylight, thus substantially reducing the load on the building’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system. A geo-exchange heating and cooling system also helps to reduce the need for fossil fuels. Under the driveway, twenty-four geo-exchange wells, each three hundred feet deep, are connected to the building’s HVAC system. This enables us to use the earth as a heat sink in the summer and a heat source in the winter, because the temperature three hundred feet below the surface is remarkably stable at about 56oC.
Finally, storm water management is a substantial problem in the city of Philadelphia. Because much of the city’s storm water and sanitary sewer systems are antiquated, large amounts of rainfall often overwhelm the system and cause flooding. The city’s water department now requires that the first inch of rainfall must be retained on site for new construction, but we wanted to do much better than that. Our storm water management system consists of green roofs, rainwater cisterns and rain gardens, and this three-part system effectively manages practically every drop of rain that falls on the site. The two green roofs absorb water and also help prevent the heat-island effect of urban roofs, because they do not radiate as much heat as black roofs. The upper green roof is planted with sedum, which is highly absorbent and easy to maintain. The accessible green roof over the vestibule is equally absorbent, and is planted with flowering plants and grasses that are native to Pennsylvania, many of which have medicinal properties (like Echinacea). Two five-thousand gallon cisterns in the courtyard collect rainwater from the white membrane parts of the Science Center roof and also from the adjacent building. This rainwater is used to provide water for the toilets in the Science Center, thus reducing our demand for domestic water. The rain gardens that encircle the building and parking lot are designed to recreate what the Wissahickon, a local stream and watershed that covers approximately sixty four square miles, originally looked like. Native species of redbud, beech, sugar maple, cucumber magnolia and yellowwood are not only aesthetically gorgeous but also reestablish an evapo-transpiration cycle that minimizes the load on the sewer system. A variety of flowering and berry-producing shrubs, such as Hydrangea and serviceberry, have drawn several species of pollinating insects and birds to our gardens, effectively transforming our urban landscape.
It was our intention from the beginning to make this facility a teaching tool itself, and to that end we have left the building’s mechanical systems exposed, so students can see the electrical conduits, water lines and ventilation ducts. We also have the planting plans for the gardens on file, and this year a small group of students worked with a faculty member to identify the plants on the accessible green roof by both common and scientific name, as well as to identify the medicinal applications of these plants. The Science Center also includes an interactive “dashboard” that monitors the building’s energy and water usage in real time (http://buildingdashboard.com/clients/germantown). Our environmental science classes have used these data to compare the Science Center’s water and electricity usage to that of an adjacent (non-green) building.
As I walk through this marvelous facility now, the words of a Lakota proverb come to mind: “We will be known forever by the tracks we leave.” We have, in fact, grown a green building from an urban parking lot, erasing the scars of asphalt and healing the wounds on this small patch of earth. The Science Center itself is a living example of efficient use of resources and sustainability in action, and we hope that it inspires our students and the larger community to believe in the promise of growing a better future.