Going Beyond "Green" Hype

Have you noticed that almost everything is now sold as “green” and sustainable? Recently I passed by a national chain outlet in Washington, D.C. sporting a large sign: “The Only Retail Store to be Completely Carbon Neutral.” I questioned the claim when I felt the air-conditioning air pouring out of the open door, and observed 600-plus light fixtures highlighting every nook and cranny inside.

There is a great book titled “Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air” by Cambridge professor David MacKay. We drew on it for our project at Horace Mann School’s John Dorr Nature Laboratory in Washington, Connecticut. We wanted to go beyond the hype, and create new facilities and systems that would teach students to think critically about both the built and natural environments.

For example, using a wind turbine to generate power is a nice sentiment, but the question to ask is: Does this approach create enough energy at a cost that makes it viable? The answer in this case, in this location, was “no.” The Head of School, Tom Kelly, and key board members told us plainly that the building will be sustainable if it functions well – if it saves energy, if teaches students the right lessons, and if the school could afford it.

Under the direction of the Nature Lab’s director, Glenn Sheratt, and given a modest budget, we went looking for ideas that saved as much energy and had as low an impact on the environment as possible. Glenn even urged that we make the building smaller so we could spend more money on solar collectors. To keep the solutions realistic and practical to maintain, all of these ideas had to pass muster by the facilities director, John Yeager. Installing systems that take enormous time and money to maintain is not sustainable.

In the end, we were able to consider and evaluate almost every possible strategy to save energy in a building of this type and installed every one that helped to do it. This project demonstrated that it is possible on a modest budget to save about 40 percent of the energy over what would be used in a comparable building. A key lesson that the John Dorr building teaches is that for America to achieve 100 percent carbon neutrality and sustainability will require a nationwide, large-scale approach to generating renewable energy. Current building technologies at the micro level can’t do it alone. As David MacKay writes in his book, we are all in this together.

A wonderful article from the most recent issue of Horace Mann Magazine examines the new facilities at John Dorr and what they mean to the students and teachers.