Arlington’s Discovery Elementary Being Built As First ‘Net Zero’ School In Virginia

14 August 2015 WAMU
This September the Arlington Public School District plans to open the doors of a brand new elementary school, pegged to be the first net zero school in Virginia and the largest net zero school in the Mid-Atlantic region.

At 7:30 a.m. on a Thursday morning the construction site of the Discovery Elementary School in Arlington is already abuzz with the sounds of heavy-duty machinery. Construction workers are hammering and sawing away. They’ve been hard at work for the past year, and will continue work over the summer.

Philip Donovan with VMDO Architects says the goal is to open the doors to students this September.

This school will be the first of its kind – a net zero school, that is – in Virginia. So what exactly does net zero mean again?

“The way you get to net zero is that you buy electricity and at the end of the month you hope you’ve generated enough electricity to cover that so at the end of the month you have a net zero or a net positive bill. And we really think that this school is going to be net zero,” says Donovan.

The school must be open for a year before it can be evaluated by a net zero certifying organization. It’ll have 2,000 solar panels and all LED lighting. There will be a geothermal well field made up of 70 different wells underneath the school’s playing fields. Discovery will run purely on electric energy, with no gas.

John Glenn – the first American to orbit the Earth – even lived across the street from where the school is being built while preparing for spaceflights.

“He trained on these playing fields so we always thought that this school had a bent towards discovering and exploration and getting kids involved with that,” Donovan says.

Unique graphics and signage will also be incorporated into the design of the school. These features will reinforce lessons about science and sustainability for the students. Each grade level will have a different theme, starting with the backyard in kindergarten and expanding out into the solar system in the fifth grade.

“I guess you could call it a teaching tool, or a learning laboratory,” says John Chadwick, Assistant Superintendent for Facilities and Operations for the Arlington Public School District.

He’s an architect himself and helped select the VMDO architecture firm for the project.

“It was actually the team that we picked that thought this school could be a candidate for net zero energy, so they really brought that to the table. We had very high standards for sustainability but we actually hadn’t considered going that far,” Chadwick says.

He says building a school to be net zero from the ground up is much easier than making a net zero addition to an already existing school.

Discovery is being built in a time when Arlington is grappling with a limited budget and land to accommodate recent growth. In the past year alone, the Arlington Public School District has seen a more than 5 percent increase in enrollment.

“So we have a lot of issues around how do you expand schools, how do you build schools, how can you afford to buy land in a community that is fully developed,” Chadwick says. “It’s a very interesting problem; it engages a lot of people in discussion.”

Erin Russo was Assistant Principal of Williamsburg Middle School – situated right next to Discovery – last year. Now she’s Principal of Discovery Elementary School and is tasked with staffing the school before September.

“I think it’s sort of your dream job to be able to come and create a school. A lot of principals when you walk into your first principal-ship, you listen and you sort of absorb that culture of the school. So building the culture of the school is really exciting to me,” Russo says.

And it’s not just Russo’s dream; the future students were involved in the naming of the school and are also helping select a mascot and school colors.

“We have Discovery dinosaurs, discovery dolphins, and I think we even had Discovery donuts,” Russo says.

Russo is excited to learn right alongside the students.

“It will be fun to say to the students: hey I don’t know how these geothermal wells work either, so let’s figure it out,” Russo says. “And there’s a learning station in the building just for that.:

Once Discovery is open, Russo will be charged with organizing tours for the general public – so everyone can see what “net zero” adds up to for this school and its students. You can read more about what it takes for a building to qualify as “net zero” visit or click here.