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Net-Zero in Vermont: Putney School a Model for Sustainability

Thomas Schueneman | Wednesday May 25th, 2011 | 2 Comments

Putney Shool's net-zero field house. Cows in the foreground, solar panels in the background.In the unassuming rural community of Putney, Vermont, students and faculty at the Putney School are proud of their new field house. Not only does the new building expand the opportunities for the students at the private high school, it’s also the only net-zero school building in the country, and one of only a handful that are LEED Platinum certified.

The effort exemplifies the holistic approach to the business and art of education that Putney founder Camelita Hinton first adopted for the school more than 75 years ago.

I argue that even the most high-tech building does not tell the whole story of what makes a sustainable community. And for the new field house at the Putney School in Vermont, and how it came to be, the story begins back in 1935.

Progressive education

Hinton’s inspiration for her school came from American philosopher and educator John Dewey and his model of progressive education. Puntey’s curriculum is “all they do” and nothing is considered “extra-curricular.” Students pursue a wide-ranging program focused on academics, work (as in manual farm labor), the arts, and physical activity – exemplifying Hinton’s belief that education should be a “hard stretching of oneself.”

Students are encouraged to engage in running their own school. With its emphasis on “experiential  education,” Putney requires students to “struggle with the real dilemmas of crafting a community in which rights and responsibilities balance.”

Part of achieving that balance is the notion of sustainability, and students like Natalie Silver are taught to understand why it is important for their future. “I hear sustainability mentioned about ten times a day,” said Natalie,  Not as a complaint – but just as the accepted way of life at Putney.

That sense of community responsibility came into fruition when the community decided to finally build the much-needed field house. Students got involved, and it seemed only natural (if you’ll pardon the vague pun) that it would be green, from the color of its walls, to its environmental footprint.

Building the future takes collaboration

Seeing the project through was a community effort. Students, faculty, and the board of trustees all worked with project architect Maclay Architects (specialists in sustainable building design) in the design and construction of the building.

The 16,500-square-foot field house opened in late 2009.  After 14 months of operation, the building has proven itself truly net-zero, producing as much (or more) energy annually than it consumes. “The building uses no carbon-based fuel,” Putney CFO Randy Smith said in a recent telephone interview, “it’s an all electric building.” All the building’s energy needs are supplied from direct solar energy, including passive solar heating and electricity supplied by a 36.8 kilowatt array of solar-tracking PV solar panels.

The school is paid 13 cents from local grid operator Green Mountain Energy for each kilowatt generated, plus a 6 cent premium. “It’s really a great feeling to get a check from Green Mountain instead of a bill,” says Smith.

Deep green

As a net-zero structure, Smith projects a CO2 reduction of more than one million pounds over 25 years, compared with emissions produced if the structure were only built to code, with an additional reduction of 4,500 pounds of of sulfur dioxide and 1,800 pounds of nitrogen oxide over the same time period. The design of the field house is both practical and “deep green,” addressing all aspects of building efficiency and resource conservation, some of which include:

  • Storm water design that enhances infiltration, capture, and runoff treatment that exceeds national standards.
  • A white reflective roof reducing the “heat island” effect.
  • Lighting and ventilation “on occupancy” combined with daylighting and carbon dioxide sensors.
  • A super-insulated envelope of R20 under-slab insulation, R20 foundation wall insulation, R45 walls, R60 roofs, and R5 fiberglass windows.
  • Skylights for about 40 percent of the floor area, with detailing to eliminate air infiltration and thermal bridging.
  • Construction waste management achieving 75 percent diversion from disposal.
  • Site harvested wood and other local materials used in pubic areas.

Becoming “renewable ready”

Even with a net-zero field house, “our energy costs were $450,00 for the whole school in 2010,” said Smith. The reality of an uncertain and increasingly volatile oil market makes future net-zero projects a matter of economic sustainability and stability for Putney. Smith says that future development plans will build upon the lessons learned and data gleaned from the design, construction, and operation of the field house, serving as learning tool for future development of the school’s facilities.

The net metering and CO2 reduction monitoring are part of the core data set for the long-range master plan as we “move more toward net-zero,” says Smith.

A glimpse of the future – tomorrow’s movers and shakers

As I suggested earlier, the whole story of Putney’s mission of sustainability goes beyond net-zero buildings (as cool as that is). Preparing  young adults for the challenges they will face, ready and able to take a positive role in an increasingly challenging world, is the core “renewable resource” powering the Putney School.

It’s been my privilege as a blogger to pick the brains of the best and the brightest working in their respective fields. If there’s ever a flagging of hope, chatting with an Emma Stewart or Mary Ann Lazarus can turn that pessimism around. But my brief chat with Putney student Natalie Silver was a real treat.

A star athlete at Putney – soccer, lacrosse, and cross-country skiing are her main sports – Natalie also  played an important role in getting the field house built. The need for a new athletic and community center had been apparent to both faculty and students for many years, and with the warming winters of Vermont, that need has only been exacerbated. Participation in many winter sports activities, such as cross-country skiing, have become more difficult for students like Natalie, leaving many without a proper outlet for physical activity and battling the “winter doldrums.”

Still, committing to the cost of such a project met with some resistance. Natalie worked hard as an advocate for the field house, seeking support from her fellow students (and their parents) and the local community, to help see the $5.5 million dollar effort through.

Natalie’s interest stemmed primarily from the school’s need for a new athletic and community facility, not necessarily because it would be net-zero, LEED Platinum certified. That it would be a model of sustainable development was – and is – a reflection of the general consciousness instilled in the culture at Putney School. It only made sense that any new building should live lightly on the land.

Natalie’s interests, besides sports and theater arts (which she pursues in an evening program) is politics and history. She has worked as an intern for Vermont governor Peter Shumlin, and plans on pursuing a career in politics. She also serves on Putney’s work committee. “Every kid has a job,” she says, and hers is to to oversee the morning and night barn crews.

Everybody gets to learn how to milk a cow at Putney, which, even in rural Vermont, may not seem like a practical skill for most. But it instills a sense of ecological awareness that is all too lacking for most of us – doesn’t milk come from a carton or bottle? In fact, at least 25 percent of the milk and produce consumed in the cafeteria come from the school’s own farm.

From the “sustainability squads” in the dorm rooms to working on the farm and helping shepherd a net-zero building project to completion, students are surrounded with a sense of place, a responsibility to community, and an awareness of the interconnected nature of human endeavor and the environment that sustains it.

Natalie’s passion may not be environmental issues or designing net-zero buildings, but these ideas are core value nonetheless. And that’s where a truly sustainable future is found – with an ingrained sense of community and environmental awareness. Where a net-zero building is a matter of course, not an exceptional example of what can be.

“Believing that each generation should be better than the last”

Carmelita Hinton’s epitaph brings the story home – every generation should build on the last to create a better world. We can and should focus on net-zero development and green building technology, but there’s more to it than that. A sustainable future is up to the people that will inhabit those buildings. The future is always ultimately in the hands of our children.

That’s what I learned from the Putney School.


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  • http://Www.projectfrog.com Marijke Smit

    Fantastic project. Here’s to innovative, healthy, sustainable schools!

  • http://www.1840farm.wordpress.com Jennifer

    Bravo! How refreshing and inspiring to hear the story of a school that is teaching its students so much more than how to take standardized tests. I applaud the students, parents, administrators, and community for embracing such a forward thinking project. In the end, they will all be the better for it. Here’s hoping that The Putney School can inspire others to follow suit.