LIGHT FANTASTIC: BOORA Architects proves that green strategies like daylighting can help kids learn--while staying within educators' budgets.
Originally published in Metropolis magazine
March 2003

For the past several years Linda Mauldin has taught English at Clackamas High School in suburban Portland, Oregon, inside a windowless room. That fate is not uncommon in American schools, especially since security has become a concern in the wake of Columbine and other shootings-one of which, Kip Kinkel's 1998 rampage at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon, occurred less than two hours' drive from here. But when Mauldin and the rest of Clackamas High relocated last spring to a new facility bathed in natural light, the longtime teacher noticed a change in her students. "I don't get sleepy behavior here," she says. "Having all this light makes a huge difference to us all." Each class period Mauldin instructs students to drop their pencils and stare out the window, which overlooks a wetlands preserve adjacent to the school. "It helps them get centered," she explains.

Clackamas High is just one of three sustainably designed schools that Portland's BOORA Architects completed in 2002. All three are located in rural or suburban areas perennially strapped for funding. The Dalles Middle School in The Dalles, Oregon, is about 80 miles east of Portland in the picturesque Columbia River Gorge. Ash Creek Intermediate School straddles the small towns of Independence and Monmouth, in Oregon's fertile Willamette Valley to the south. It may come as a surprise that these communities are representing state-of-the-art green building, which is perceived to carry a larger up-front price tag. But Clackamas, The Dalles, and Ash Creek were each constructed at costs lower than the national average for school buildings.

School district officials from The Dalles first approached BOORA in 1982. But funding could not be put into place in this town of 13,000, where logging and other blue-collar jobs had been in decline and budgets were accordingly tight. In 1996, when the town got serious about building a school again, officials had a decision to make. Citizens wanted to build on the site of the existing middle school, which had long been victim to landslides due to a large amount of groundwater. To address the groundwater problem, the city built a dewatering well that would collect about 20,000 gallons of water, thereby stabilizing the site. But the damage to both the original school on the site, which finally had to be condemned and torn down in 2000 after years of cumulative structural damage, as well as the town's psyche, had already been done. For more than two years students were housed in portable trailers while the community agonized over whether to try building again on the old site or on the outskirts of town, the latter of which would mean children could no longer walk to and from school.

With BOORA's help, townspeople finally came to agree that just as a green strategy had stabilized the site, it also provide a quality of educational experience that never existed before. "I remember giving a presentation to a neighborhood group of about a hundred and fifty," recalls architect Heinz Rudolf, the BOORA principal behind all three school projects. "All I talked about for an hour and a half was sustainability. They were just eating it up. There was no resistance."

"I think when they decided that this was the site they were going to build on, they knew it was going to have to be a green building or they were going to have more difficulties with the landsliding," says Jan Anderson, principal of The Dalles Middle School. "It was as simple as that."

BOORA began by harnessing the same groundwater that had long hampered the site. Using groundwater to heat and cool the building with a heat exchanger, the strategy would come to save 51 percent on energy bills. Groundwater would additionally be used to irrigate grounds and playing fields.

Continuing the sustainability strategy, BOORA decided to harness the constant wind from the Columbia River Gorge (one of the nation's most popular windsurfing locales) for natural climate control. Ventilators circulate the cool river air throughout the building, eliminating the need for air-conditioning. And through proper orientation and window placement, natural daylighting would illuminate this nearly 100,000-square-foot space, with scarcely any need for light fixtures. All told, the building would save approximately 51 percent in operating costs for its entire life span.

Although bugs in the system are still being worked out, particularly with automatic lighting sensors, overall the experience of attending and teaching school at The Dalles is a much more pleasant one, reflected even in the behavior of its teenage occupants. "It's amazing how well behaved they are in here," librarian Pat Yecny says. "Of course kids are always going to be kids, but I think there's a calming atmosphere here." Indeed Anderson says early statistics show that detentions and vice-principal referrals are significantly down since the move to the new school.

According to the Heschong Mahone Group, a nonprofit organization that promotes building efficiency, a national study of elementary school students found that test scores rose by more than 20 percent in significantly daylit buildings. The number of sick days also tends to go down when natural light is combined with TKTK. "I haven't been sick at all this year, and by this time last year I was sick two or three times," confirms Ash Creek Intermediate teacher Sandy Martin. "And it's the same way with my students."

"It's extremely well-documented research," the Rocky Mountain Institute's Huston Eubank says of the HMG Group study. "The initial results were challenged*so HMG actually was funded to go back and review all their procedures, and when [the report] came out again last summer it reaffirmed it."

Most buildings in temperate areas spend more on cooling than heating, so daylighting principles are often based on the notion of bringing in light but not heat. All three of BOORA's Oregon schools feature significant use of "light shelves", a primary window topped with a flat shelf extending out of the building, and another window above that. This allows light not only to enter the room (through specially filtered glass that reduces glare) but also to bounce off the ceiling and into the back of the room, where it's most needed. BOORA has also fashioned each building with skylights, some extending through multiple floors.

At Ash Creek Intermediate, a 59,000-square-foot school housing fifth and sixth graders, the combination of techniques has created light that goes beyond usefulness: it is stunningly pretty. Quality of light is usually analyzed in hard numbers, but on a sunny winter Thursday Ash Creek seems the brick-and-mortar answer to Tuscany. "Look at this," says school district superintendent Forrest Bell, flipping through a copy of The Junior Science Book of Turtles in the library, where skylights provide the primary illumination. "This is beautiful light."

What's more, natural light helps provide the kind of added security schools need today. Walking the halls at Ash Creek, Bell can stop and look through a floor-to-ceiling window next to a classroom door, out the far window of the classroom, and onto the grounds of the school. "Safety through passive supervision has been well addressed here," he says. "It's an educator's dream." (All three buildings also come equipped with one-touch central lockdown technology and other modern security features.)

Like The Dalles and Clackamas, Ash Creek's sustainable design isn't just about daylighting and natural ventilation. A host of recyclable versions of building products such as concrete, metal, glass, carpet, fabric, wood, and acoustic tiles were utilized, as well as low-maintenance and long-life building products such as low-emission paints, ceramic tile, and linoleum (not the synthetic vinyl stuff in your mom's kitchen, but the natural kind made from linseed oil, which has been around since Victorian times). Even more important, each of the three buildings underwent significant commissioning to ensure optimum knowledge and performance of ventilation and mechanical systems, verifying that it was built the way it was intended to be. In other words, these schools are getting by only on what they need, something all too many buildings don't bother--or dare--to do.

"I believe in functionalism," Rudolf says. "You design a building according to analysis, and everything is in the right place. Then you don't need a big electrical system or a big mechanical system. You take advantage of all the things you can. If you ignore all these good things that nature provides automatically, then you have to overcome them."

With the rapid emergence of the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED program, it may be possible to find buildings that are greener than BOORA's three Oregon schools. (The Dalles is poised to earn a LEED Gold rating and Clackamas a Silver. Rudolf says Ash Creek would also earn a Silver rating had it applied for certification. But the architect argues that some of the buildings' green features aren't accounted for on the USGBC scorecard.) What's particularly noteworthy, however, is that all three were done on very limited budgets-about $125 per square foot, which is about $10 less than the national average.

"Anybody can build a building for $300 or $400 a square foot and say it has all these features and it does all these things," Rudolf says. "But we've made an effort toward sustainable solutions that minimize resources and do more with less."

"In the beginning Heinz said, 'This is the budget, and this is the number that we work to,'" Eubank remembers. "I've always thought it was pretty impressive. Most people quibble about how much extra green is going to cost. Well, it doesn't cost extra. It's just how you approach the design."

With help from the Rocky Mountain Institute, BOORA's work also included a new means of billing that could catch on in green building nationwide. BOORA received what's called a performance-based fee, in which architects and engineers can earn a bonus if their buildings save energy above and beyond energy code stipulations. It's a win-win scenario, where both the architect and the owner are motivated to build as efficient a building as possible.

"You need to do something different to encourage the team to do something different," Eubank explains. "So you set up a structure that provides an incentive to the team if their building performs better than an average building. You get what you ask for."

As a result, some of the country's most cutting-edge sustainable schools have been developed in small Oregon towns where tilt-up, prefab concrete structures have sadly become the norm. "Our community gave us the money to buy a brand-new Chevy," Bell says, "and we got a Mercedes."

Close this window