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New Schools in New Orleans, Sunnier, Greener

October 11, 2010

More Efficient Buildings to Rise from the Debris of Disasters

NREL helped rebuild Greensburg, Kan., when it was devastated by a tornado in 2007, and its experts have responded to disasters around the world offering help with a new start in the form of renewable energy and energy efficiency. Full Story.

The kids are back in school in post-Katrina New Orleans, and there's light at the end of the classroom.

Five years after Katrina flushed water through the failed floodwalls, destroying homes, damaging classrooms and dashing dreams, the opportunity to build green schools that save millions of dollars on energy bills is just within reach for the school districts that serve New Orleans.

Hurricane Katrina knocked out dozens of schools along with thousands of homes, and for quite a while the mission was just to keep education alive and the three Rs solvent. But now, with the help of federal disaster dollars, the school district has launched an ambitious goal to build 40 new schools and renovate 38 others that are at least 30 percent more energy efficient than required by code.

The U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory helped stitch together a blueprint for what the new and renovated schools should become. Now that the first of the new schools have opened, NREL will monitor some schools to illustrate what works well and what opportunities were missed, helping the districts to push new school design teams toward ever more efficient designs.

Photo shows big windows through which sun shines on students eating lunch in their cafeteria. Enlarge image

Students at Craig Elementary School eat lunch in their new cafeteria that benefits from natural light. Craig is one of the schools built in the wake of Hurricane Katrina that is 30 percent more energy efficient than code thanks, in part, to consultant work by the DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Courtesy of Lloyd Dennis Photography and Multimedia, New Orleans

Things are looking up in New Orleans, which has launched school reform, attracting teacher talent. But even before Katrina, many of the buildings were ramshackle. The 38 schools that require major renovation include those damaged by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, but also many that simply suffered from years of neglect.

New Orleans is humid and often hot, but problems arise at times when temperatures are moderate and humidity remains high. The air that enters the halls and classrooms has to be dried out before it is distributed to the space, compounding the challenge to bring energy efficiency to schools there.

Several studies have shown that students perform better on standardized tests when their classrooms are daylit and the air is comfortable. For example, the Heschong Mahone Daylighting Study found a dramatic correlation between daylit school environments and student performance, including 20 percent faster progression in math and 26 percent faster progression in reading. The Greening America's Schools summary report found an average of a 38.5 percent reduction in asthma in schools with improved indoor air quality.  In addition to energy costs, studies such as these were considered when the district set the goal of LEED Silver for their new school buildings.

Energy Efficiency Means a Change in Culture

Ironically, the New Orleans schools with the best energy profiles are those 80 to 100 years old that have large windows oriented for natural ventilation and sunlight. The ones built in the past half century, though, weren't built with efficiency in mind, said Phil Voss, senior project leader for NREL's effort in New Orleans. "It was pretty clear to us that the designers didn't have experience with energy efficiency," Voss said. "They had experience in keeping buildings cool and lit, but not in doing it efficiently." In a district chronically underfunded, tens of millions of dollars wafted into the air each year to heat and air condition schools with windows in poor condition, oversized cooling systems, and too little insulation.

In 2007, two years after the destructive hurricane, the DOE signed a memorandum of understanding with the Louisiana Department of Education. The aim was to use the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning's Advanced Energy Design Guides so the 40 new schools and the 38 schools facing major renovation would be at least 30 percent more efficient than code.

Savings Can Run into the Millions yearly

Photo shows a classroom scene with most of the light coming from the windows in the background. Enlarge image

Students at New Orleans' Wilson Elementary School benefit from extra light in their classroom, which was rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina with the goal of providing more natural light and more energy efficiency. The school was awarded silver LEED certification.
Courtesy of Lloyd Dennis Photography and Multimedia, New Orleans

The potential savings are monumental, amounting to some $75,000 per year per school.

In the United States there are about 100,000 public schools. This year some $14 billion will be spent constructing new schools — about 750 new schools are built each year -- or doing major renovations, according to School Planning & Management magazine. If all the new and renovated schools followed green-school designs, the savings would be more than $50 million the first year, compounded each succeeding year.

In New Orleans, making the schools greener will mean an investment of several million dollars over and above what it would cost to build a school merely to code. But the numbers indicate that the schools will break even on the costs vs. energy savings in just three or four years. With schools built to last 50 to 100 years, the savings after build-out could amount to tens of millions of dollars per decade, decade after decade.

Or they will, if the blueprints are followed.

In the aftermath of Katrina's destruction, school officials had to take the pragmatic approach, to get children back learning, so energy efficiency wasn't at the top of the list.

"They were understandably under pressure to get designs for the first new schools done fairly quickly," Voss said. "They tried to plug in energy savings where they could, but they missed out on some big opportunities." Some design teams embraced the challenge to incorporate energy efficiency into the design, while others considered the goal an impediment.

NREL: Think about Energy-Efficiency from Day One

Photo shows four girls in purple-and-white uniforms walking through the entrance at Langston Hughes Charter Academy. Glass-plated walls are on either side of them.

Students walk through the well-lit entrance on opening day this year at Langston Hughes Charter Academy, one of the first new schools to qualify for an energy-efficiency award in the post-Katrina era.
Courtesy of Lloyd Dennis Photography and Multimedia, New Orleans

NREL brought a way of thinking that was manifest when it designed its new Research Support Facility, which at 220,000 square feet will be among the largest buildings in the world to use no more carbon-based energy than it produces via renewable energy.

For the new school designs, it was essential that the planners consider energy efficiency in the architecture, rather than strictly thinking of efficiency as "a measure of mechanical or electrical equipment in the building," Voss said. "This means the full design team considering how any design decisions will affect energy use from Day One."

The school district in New Orleans is developing a position for School District Energy Manager and is paying more attention to not only design, but also ongoing building operation, with energy efficiency in mind.

"Now, the district is requiring architects to include energy modeling as part of the design process for new schools and major renovations," Voss said. "That's a step in the right direction. We're also meeting with the school district on a regular basis to help them get things corrected on the new buildings and document lessons learned to help ensure design intent follows through in how their buildings perform. An energy manager would be another big step."

Joe Ryan, a former NREL employee who lives in New Orleans, is under subcontract to NREL, and is providing most of the direct technical support to the district.

Orientation, High Windows, Zoned A/C All Save Dollars, Greenhouse Gases

NREL also provided energy audit reports for 50 schools to identify opportunities for efficiency and conservation.  Those findings will be taken into account for renovations. 

For new schools, energy modeling provided strategies that will be effective for all schools in this climate.  Foremost is appropriate day lighting, which lowers electric costs by reducing the use of lights and the amount of air conditioning. Daylighting glass is located higher on the wall than glass meant primarily for viewing. The glazing, lighting layout and controls and any required apparatuses need to be designed according to industry best practices.

Where possible, the schools should be oriented so classrooms are on an east-west axis, with north- or south-facing windows, Voss said.

The humid outdoor air should be pre-conditioned rather than overcooling the entire airflow to deal with humidity.

Ventilation should be demand-controlled so spaces that aren't being used — say, auditoriums, gyms or cafeterias — aren't getting blasted with humid outdoor air that has to be treated or cooled.

Often, the administrators are the only ones in the school during certain hours or certain days. Using small, efficient HVAC systems zoned only for those offices can avoid the wasteful habit of cooling the entire school when only a handful of people are inside.

Learning from Experience, Eager for More Efficiency

Langston Hughes Charter Academy, one of the newly built schools being monitored by NREL, is a school where students dress sharply in red polos and appear to take their education very seriously. The $27 million building for K-7 students opened in August 2009, and is the first new school built since 2003. 

Langston Hughes Academy is situated in a spot that was ideal for natural day lighting but it simply wasn't done properly, Voss said. Windows were supposed to rise to near the classrooms' ceilings to take advantage of natural daylight, but that wasn't done completely.

District officials forced the contractors to go back and make changes, but by then they could only improve natural lighting design into the second floor, not the first. Other design problems at Hughes included fan-powered boxes with electric strip reheat, which are inefficient and will not be used in the schools yet to be built, and large expanses of glass in the cafeteria, library, and atrium without daylighting controls.

But, in an all-too-familiar irony, most of Hughes' wasted energy can be chalked up to inefficient operations. The chiller plant, for example, was operating when no one was in the building. There were times when both the chiller and the boiler were operating simultaneously, one trying to cool things down, the other trying to heat things up. 

School officials say they are learning from problems found via the NREL monitoring of Hughes, and are determined to correct the issues to make existing and future schools operate more efficiently to meet their goals and keep operating costs manageable.

Learn more about how NREL helps people and institutions apply energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies.

— Bill Scanlon

More Efficient Buildings to Rise from the Debris of Disasters

Five years after Katrina tore up the Big Easy, a few small builders are determined to resurrect New Orleans neighborhoods in an energy efficient way. And the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory is helping them do it.

NREL helped rebuild Greensburg, Kan., when it was devastated by a tornado in 2007, and its experts have responded to disasters around the world, offering help with a new start in the form of renewable energy and energy efficiency. NREL relied on its work with Greensburg to write "How to Develop a Strategic Energy Plan," which now is posted on NREL and DOE Web sites and being used nationally and internationally.

NREL researchers are providing New Orleans leaders with a flurry of information. They're outlining options for clean energy and strategies on how those should be designed. They're analyzing the potential impact on the city and are sharing case studies of other cities where clean-energy policies were implemented.

NREL helped city officials develop the Energy Smart New Orleans Plan, which includes residential energy audits, incentives for energy efficiency, low-income weatherization, commercial and industrial programs, pilot programs for photovoltaic arrays, solar domestic-hot-water systems and education outreach.

In a city in which 55,000 houses have been abandoned, NREL has worked with builders of homes for both the middle class and the lower income residents. Habitat for Humanity is the largest builder in the area, and NREL, along with the Florida Solar Energy Center, trained Habitat staff to build homes that would achieve an Energy Star rating, meaning they are 15 percent more efficient than required by code.

The largest private home-building company in New Orleans is Green Coast Enterprises.  NREL and Building Science Corporation are working with that company to ensure that all its houses are at least 30 percent better than code.

"We can and must build better buildings that are responsive to our climactic and energy limitations while also creating spaces and places that inspire and that people will love," Wiill Bradshaw, president of Green Coast Enterprises, said in a recent statement. "Our triple-bottom line (people, planet, and profit) reflects this approach, as do the projects we take on." 

Green Coast started with 20 homes, but now has about 50, with plans to build as many as 500 more. "In a city with no large-scale builders, 500 cost-effective energy-efficient homes will make a huge impact," said Phil Voss, NREL's project manager for the effort in New Orleans. "They've learned a lot from us and vice versa."

NREL also worked with design teams for the planned new Veteran's Administration hospital and the Louisiana State University teaching hospital, both expected to be about 30 percent more efficient than code. NREL has helped Solar America Cities to develop new rules and policies to simplify the path toward solar-powered homes, and staff are now developing a workshop for the local utility, Entergy New Orleans, to help them understand and address issues with grid-tied photovoltaics on their network grid, and working with the city to provide guidance on financing options for building-scale renewable energy applications.

In addition to Voss, NREL researchers helping New Orleans build a new energy future include Mary Werner, Ian Doebber, Shanti Pless, Liz Doris, Jason Coughlin, Andrea Watson and Kate Anderson.

Meanwhile, NREL also is working with Department of Energy and State Department officials, advising on the use of renewable energy and energy efficiency in the rebuilding of Haiti after the earthquake that devastated the capital, Port-au-Prince, in January.

NREL recently got the green light from the Energy and State departments to perform preliminary resource assessments for wind, solar, and waste-to-energy potential for the country, Voss said. The assessments will help the decision-makers determine an appropriate portfolio of energy technologies when rebuilding and expanding Haiti's electric system.

NREL also provided lessons from Greensburg and New Orleans and guidance on strategic energy planning in a "Clean Energy in Rebuilding" Workshop hosted by the Chilean Center for Renewable Energy in Santiago following the earthquake that affected a large portion of their country.