Elementary school is a go for green

MCPS hopes new Great Seneca Creek will be an environmental pioneer in state

Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2006

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Brian Lewis⁄The Gazette
Principal Gregory Edmunson, on the heat-reflecting roof of the new Great Seneca Creek Elementary School, says he’s looking forward to educating children about what it means to be green.

Take a few steps inside the new Great Seneca Creek Elementary School in Germantown and it’s clear there is something different about it, something a little greener.

Great Seneca is well on its way to becoming the first public school in the state to achieve the stringent ‘‘green building” certification issued by the U.S. Green Building Council.

The classrooms are brighter, the paint is lighter and the ceilings are slanted to allow maximum sunlight into classrooms through large, fiberglass-framed windows.

Sure to cause wonder in the boys’ bathroom are waterless urinals.

And kindergarteners will get a refresher course on their colors every time they use the bathroom. They’ll push one button if it’s yellow and another if it’s brown. The toilet will dispense the needed power and water to flush whichever it is down.

But it’s the things that can’t be seen that will make the biggest difference at the 84,000-square-foot school, which is expected to enroll 550 students at 13010 Dairymaid Drive when it opens later this month.

The geothermal heating and cooling system installed under the school’s athletic field, operating at a constant ground temperature of 58 degrees, will save about 30 percent in the school’s energy costs.

The white Energy Star roof reflects heat and will reduce air conditioning output. Low-flow water fixtures will result in a 43 percent savings in potable water.

Dozens of signs posted around school will educate students about the Earth-friendly initiatives that surround them.

‘‘There will be no way you won’t understand environmental issues in this building,” said Anja S. Caldwell, a green building program manager for Montgomery County Public Schools.

The school has submitted an application to the U.S. Green Building Council to be certified as a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, building. The council rates buildings on a number of factors, including water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, indoor environmental quality and design innovation.

‘‘We are now hoping to be a LEED silver school,” said Caldwell, also a LEED-accredited architect. Silver buildings achieve 33 to 38 points out of a possible 69 LEED points.

The county will learn the level it has achieved –– either certified, silver, gold or platinum –– next spring, she said during a tour of the school Wednesday.

The school is nearly identical to Little Bennett Elementary School, which will open later this month in Clarksburg. However, the LEED-certification process itself costs several thousand dollars and MCPS chose to move forward with the certification of only Great Seneca Creek Elementary.

‘‘We were disappointed, of course. You want to be the chosen school,” said Clarksburg resident Althea Hendricks, the green school representative for Little Bennett’s PTA.

But Caldwell noted there are some design differences between the two schools, which make Great Seneca the candidate for LEED. For example, only Great Seneca Creek has bathroom partitions made of 100 percent recycled materials and a shower for those who bike to work, in addition to the dual-flush toilets in the kindergarten classrooms and the fiberglass-framed windows that provide better insulation.

Caldwell also said that during the construction process, waste was meticulously recycled and a tightly managed indoor air quality plan was followed at Great Seneca Creek to comply with strict LEED standards.

The last difference is the third-party monitoring that was commissioned to test all systems during the design phase and while the building is in operation, Caldwell said. MCPS typically only hires a third-party to test systems during construction.

‘‘The Little Bennett community feels a little second class, which they really aren’t,” Caldwell said.

She pointed out that maintenance staff at both schools is going through similar training activities. Later this month, they will participate in green cleaning training. Environmentally sensitive chemicals will be used and cleaners will use vacuums instead of dry mops on the floors to reduce the amount of dust and particles in the air, said Seymour E. Thomas, building service supervisor for several upcounty clusters.

And crews will have less work to do outside thanks to water-efficient landscaping and no-mow zones that are filled with slow growing drought resistant grasses, which means less watering and fewer fertilizers. It also encourages the return of native plants to the area, Caldwell said.

That’s important since Great Seneca Creek is steps from the tributary for which it’s named.

A battery-powered lawnmower will reduce emissions and keep the neighborhood quiet. Buses won’t be allowed to idle, and there will be preferred parking for carpoolers and hybrid vehicles, Caldwell said.

The school’s principal, Gregory Edmunson, is eager to welcome students off the bus and out of their parent’s hybrid cars and into the lobby where a mountain mural awaits the school’s first Bullfrogs, the school’s mascot.

‘‘I can’t wait for the first day of school,” Edmunson said after the tour. ‘‘I love that we can teach kids just by walking through the halls. You don’t even need a textbook. They can live it.”