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Energy Efficiency | Building Decarbonization | Consulting & Information




Renovating existing school buildings to zero energy performance is often achievable.  In addition to long-term cost savings, the result is a superior learning environment and a healthier facility for students, faculty and staff.

Today typical school buildings can be built to zero energy performance levels without extraordinary efforts and without extra cost.

Elementary and high school buildings are often good candidates for achieving ZNE design and performance because they are frequently 1-2 stories tall, have good opportunities for daylighting and sufficient roof area for the right-sized solar photovoltaic system.


It all starts with a principled commitment from school officials to reach zero energy performance levels in new projects. After making the principled commitment, the next step is to establish an energy target or energy use intensity (EUI) per square foot goal.


Once that target is established and met (through engineering analysis and modeling of the planned building), it’s time to size and/or procure an equivalent amount of renewable energy to offset the consumption to achieve “zero.” If school administration officials are told it’s too costly or difficult to reach an EUI in the ~20-24 range (or lower) . . . it’s time to get a new engineer! 


The case study below provide details on a zero energy new school monitored under Technical Assistance program.  

Images from Stevens Library Case Study f


  • NREL Guide

  • NBI Database |  Numerous Examples of high performance schools in the NBI Database - example schools.

  • Case Study |  See below from the Sacred Heart Library in PG&E's ZNE Case Studies Volume 1.


The Sacred Heart Academy Library, completed and occupied in 2012 as part of the new Lower & Middle School campus, exclusively serves the small K-8 campus and is intended as an educational demonstration of environmentally sustainable design.

Background | Sacred Heart Schools launched a building program for a new K-8 campus, completing four new buildings by the fall of 2012. This client was guided in the planning of these buildings by one of the five goals of the organization’s educational programs, namely “to teach students to be stewards of the earth’s resources.” To this motivated client, this educational goal meant that the new building program should encompass the core concepts of sustainability.

The A/E team was commissioned to design these four buildings to a high level of sustainable design and approached the design of each with the same type of integrated design process. A ZNE design for the new school library was not an initial client objective. Rather, it was the result of the design discussions with an A/E team that believed in the idea and an advocate on the client side that promoted it. The communication of the zero-net-water and zero-net-energy performance was seen as a strong asset to the educational program. This convergence of commitment motivated the client’s building committee and provided the confidence that such a design approach was practical and without unusual risk. In the end, all of the buildings on the middle school quad were designed to be ZNE-Ready, including appropriate roof space for the installation of solar photovoltaic panels, conduit to these roofs for the future installation and adequate space in each building electrical room. The library was selected for the initial installation of the PV system and thus is fully ZNE. Of particular note is that the construction budget was set at a very modest level and any building features or systems supporting a ZNE approach, including a solar photovoltaic system, had to be included within the constraints of the established budget—no extra funds for ZNE. The result was a very simple architectural design approach that succeeded in meeting the budget constraint while reaching a ZNE performance level.

Images from Stevens Library Case Study f

Zero Net Energy Case Study Buildings: Volume 1, Case Study 2

Low Energy Design Strategies for Stevens Library
While the low construction cost budget pointed at a simple shape and standard details for the building, this also led to ample flat roof area for a solar photovoltaic system. The cost issue also drove a number of other design decisions as described in the paragraphs below, but low energy performance was not compromised in seeking solutions to minimize cost. Simple, straightforward solutions for energy-related features and systems became the design approach.
Planning/Concept and Building Envelope

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