Brand New School LEEDs The Way

October 8, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — The most recent addition to the community’s inventory of LEED-compliant buildings — Forest Hills Eastern High School and Middle School — opened to students this school year and will welcome even more of them in 2005.

Phases I and II of the 293,000-square-foot institution were completed in August and Phase III will reach completion next year,

Designing and constructing the building in compliance with the community’s mandate for LEED specifications — with a goal for eventual LEED certification — was one of the challenges facing the project architect, URS Corp.

But according to Michael Van Schelven, senior project designer for URS, applying LEED to a school creates a challenge within a challenge. Ideally, he explained, the design should help instill in young minds the respect for the internal and external environment that is the foundation of LEED.

But there was more, much more.

In fact — as the old ditty goes — the Forest Hills project’s challenges had other challenges inside them, and those challenges presented yet further challenges and so on, ad infinitum.

For instance:

• The building could not be have standard water and sewer lines because township master planning prohibited extension of those utilities through relatively vacant countryside to the school property.  

• The building must separate and yet accommodate disparate populations: middle school students and high school students, while smoothing the annual transition of some of the former into the latter.

• While the building must accommodate those populations now, rapidly changing demographics dictated that its design be sufficiently flexible so that by 2009 or 2010, it can make its own transition wholly to grades nine through 12.

• The school district’s Business Advisory Council wanted a building that, insofar as possible, could accommodate academic programs keyed to the highly flexible day of the real economic world, rather than a traditional regimen of 50-minute blocks devoted to focussed subjects.

• The community wanted a school that was technologically current and yet able to accommodate new technology applications that currently can only glimpsed, but will arrive quickly.

• Within the latter challenge lay the apparently opposing concerns about a student body and faculty able to operate in less structured academic environments, but with those activities occurring in a secure, controlled-access campus.

  According to Van Schelven, the Forest Hills community and URS developed the design in two years by feeding its elements through what he termed a hierarchy of “design filters.” The filters were people, ranging from students through business leaders, local officials on up to the school district’s steering committee being the final and most important filter.

“They were empowered to move the design from concept to reality,” he indicated.

With respect to sustainability, Van Schelven notes that the building scores LEED points by, among other things:

• Maximizing LEED principles in construction processes and materials.

• Maximizing use of north-facing windows and use of topography to reduce the scale of the building.

• Conserving landscape irrigation with plants requiring less irrigation and using on-site wastewater management as a supplemental source of landscape.

• Using an HVAC system than provides two air changes an hour, but which eschews chemicals that militate against the environment. The system also controls individual room temperatures through microprocessor sensors.

Accommodating the community’s mandates about the curriculum led to creation of an elliptical great hall — Van Schelven terms it a Greek Forum — that serves severally as a cafeteria, auditorium, and a school communiy meeting place.

The school is equipped with entirely wireless communication technology. This permits an information flow that promotes collaborative and project-based learning not tied to any single point in the building.

Likewise, URS designed its rooms with large entries. Thus the rooms serve either as traditional classrooms, or open onto interactive learning centers, together with mobile teaching stations for instructors.

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