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Hermosa Beach Green design leaving mark on schools

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A rendering of the redesigned North School, which is designed to be a “zero net energy” school. Image courtesy Hermosa Beach City School District


by Ryan McDonald

Tomorrow may rain, so North School will follow the sun.

The Hermosa Beach City School District campus is set to be totally rebuilt with funds from Measure S, the school construction bond approved last summer. The facility is situated where 25th Street, heading uphill, begins to bend into a half circle, and starts to run north-south rather than east-west. Under current designs, the two-story building combining both classrooms and administrative offices will maintain the east-west orientation.

The reason, according to Nathan Herrero, project manager for SVA Architects, the firm handling the North redesign, is that buildings in Southern California can better rely on sunlight for illumination when they are oriented east-west. It’s one of many ways in which green-building principles are influencing the new construction and facilities upgrades that Hermosa schools will undergo in the coming years. Among the highlights is a goal to erect a “zero-net energy” North School, a designation in which structures produce at least as much energy from on-site renewable sources as they consume from the utility grid.

The strategy puts HBCSD at the crest of a building movement in the world of school facilities. Officials say the new policies have the potential to create significant savings on energy costs, money that can be reinvested in curriculum.

“Zero-net energy is not a luxury. At the end of the day, it is about operational costs. Money from reduced utility costs go directly into education,” said HBCSD Board member Monique Ehsan.

The district has formed a series of partnerships with nonprofits and government entities that have the potential to significantly advance energy-efficient design and construction. In September, they became one of only seven school districts in the country to join an accelerator program with the federal Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Initiative. In February, district officials, school construction personnel, and representatives from Southern California Edison met with members of the New Buildings Institute, who provided recommendations that are being incorporated into the design at North. And up to $500,000 in grants from the California Energy Commission will help the district upgrade heating, ventilation and air-condition systems at View and Valley, the existing campuses.

HBCSD Board member Monique Ehsan at the entrance to the existing building at North School. Ehsan attended a national conference this week devoted to energy-efficient school design. Photo by Ryan McDonald

The focus on eco-friendly buildings sprung from a series of facilities-envisioning meetings leading up to passage of Measure S, in which sustainability emerged as a priority for some community members. As the board began investigating what this would look like in the context of school construction, they became aware of the building momentum behind zero-net energy. When Measure S passed, board members used sustainability to guide their selection of architecture and construction firms for Measure S projects.

During the selection process, all of the architects and building firms stressed their environmentalist credentials. Bernards, the chosen construction management firm, ranks among the top 25 green building firms in the nation. Architect SVA also has experience with sustainable construction: their design for La Escuelita, a K-8 campus in the Oakland Unified School District, received the highest rating in the state from the Collaborative for High-Performance Schools, a nonprofit that evaluates sustainable school design and its effect on classroom performance.

Many of the techniques called for at North are low-tech. For example, in addition to strategic positioning on the site, buildings are expected to use natural ventilation, and large windows to maximize natural light. But others require special fine tuning to meet the unique needs of a school campus.

“Schools are very different from other public buildings, like a zero net energy library. With schools, you have to consider that kids are moving every 50 minutes. Doors are open, paths of travel are really busy, and there are lots of individual operators,” said Superintendent Pat Escalante.

Escalante said she has been impressed so far with the way SVA has managed to accomplish their environmentally friendly objectives without an inflated budget.

“They don’t get hung up on expensive, elaborate, complex stuff that’s not user friendly, that may require a lot of maintenance. That’s why we’re at budget. We’re going to meet these goals in the most practical way we can,” Escalante said.

The concern about the bottom line is well placed. Last month, City Council approval of higher-than-expected costs for a zero net energy redesign of several park bathrooms drew concern that the city was wasting money. More prominently, in recent public hearings over Hermosa’s revised General Plan, public outcry over purported costs and economic impacts led the Planning Commission to drop a goal of city-wide carbon neutrality from their recommendations, in favor of following California’s “low carbon” goals. (Those recommendations are now being evaluated by the City Council.)

The district’s moves put Hermosa schools ahead of the curve, though not too far. Over the last decade, there has been a pronounced push toward zero-net energy construction in California. Laws and regulations covering both residential and commercial construction have added additional energy-saving requirements to the state building code, already among the strictest in the nation. And in a 2012 executive order, Gov. Jerry Brown mandated that fifty percent of public buildings must consume zero-net energy by 2025, and all public buildings for which design begins after 2025 must be zero-net energy.

Other local districts are experiencing cost savings with similar programs. In 2012, Redondo Beach voters passed a bond measure that enabled the installation of solar panels at facilities districtwide. The district has spent $7.26 million so far on solar panel installation, and over the first two years of operation, has already saved approximately $1.6 million in utility costs, according to a report from the district’s solar contractor.

Even in coastal cities with mild climates like Hermosa, utilities make up a significant portion of school district budgets. And while some architects say that zero net energy designs are now, on average, more expensive, the calculus may be changing. Robert Fortunato, owner and resident of the Hermosa “Green Idea” house and an environmental consultant, helped connect the district with the Department of Energy accelerator program. He said the lure of cost savings will soon be the factor that makes zero net energy design more common.

“The cat is out of the bag. No self-respecting school district that is concerned about taxpayer dollars will be able to ignore this,” Fortunato said. 


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