If you think energy efficiency is an imaginary friend, visit Durham and ask any college kid you meet.
Granted, even in a college town like Durham, your garden variety seventh grader probably doesn’t know anything about the taxpayer funded NHSaves program. Therefore, she probably has no elevator pitch to refute the claim that if energy efficiency is so great, consumers can just buy it – no taxpayer-funded subsidy needed.
But any local students in grades five through eight can tell you all about the fabulous new Oyster River Middle School, which opened earlier this year as the first new building to receive funding under the “Net Zero” program for new non-residential buildings. sponsored by NHSaves.
Serving Durham, Lee and Madbury, the new public school happens to be the first-ever building on Eversource’s entire footprint in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut to traverse everything the company calls the ” net track zero”.
At four stories, Oyster River Middle School resembles a skyscraper by public school standards. Yes, there is an elevator, so it’s not out of the question to imagine students practicing their elevator speeches on public policy topics for English class.
Indeed, the school is distinguished by its unconventional learning spaces. Attached to almost every classroom is a spacious, brightly colored rest area, to better cater to the different learning styles of spirited tweens.
Long before the governor appointed me a consumer advocate, I was a self-proclaimed architectural critic, well qualified to speak out on such issues by virtue of decades spent in or near buildings. And it is in my capacity as an architectural critic that I hereby declare Oyster River Middle School a resounding success.
Build in rather than out was a shrewd design decision by architects at firm Lavallee/Brensinger in Manchester. Avoiding the typical sprawl of public schools was not just an ecological choice. This makes Oyster River Middle School feel more intimate and home-like, with everything visibly closer to everything else than it otherwise would be.
On my recent visit, after the school day in order to avoid being disruptive, there was a group of students working on some kind of musical theater in the auditorium. It’s really a theater in the round – no seats far from the stage, and the ambiance is something like the newly renovated Avery Fisher Hall in Manhattan, where the New York Philharmonic plays.
Oyster River Middle School is built around a sky-lit central atrium, which also serves as a dining hall. You could call it a cafeteria but that word doesn’t quite fit. There are colorful murals depicting the local history of Oyster River and the surrounding area — plus lots of different colors and materials throughout so nothing is drab or institutional. Even the energy-efficient light fixtures double as a sculpture hanging from the ceiling.
This is a moral and civic good. The humans learning and working in this bright new building can’t help but absorb the message that their community respects and values what happens there.
And it’s all made possible, in part, thanks to a grant from NHSaves, funded in this case by customers of Eversource and Unitil (the local gas utility).
Actually, “grant” isn’t quite the right word. NHSaves donated $146,900 to help Oyster River Cooperative School District pay for the design. The district receives an additional $146,900 next year, but only if the new school actually meets the “net zero” goal.
What does it mean? A net-zero building uses very little energy for heating, cooling and lighting – and of the energy it uses, the balance is energy produced on site, measured annually. This explains the vast canopy, covered with solar panels, covering an adjacent car park.
Unlike the photovoltaic pergola, the school’s geothermal heat pumps are invisible. The same goes for most of the building’s energy management systems, although in the lobby there’s an oversized touchscreen that gives all sorts of data on how these systems are performing in real time.
The screen is unlabeled, and I feel the school did this to discourage students from playing with what is, after all, somewhat flimsy AV equipment. Some things never change. Schools have always gone out of their way to prevent students from messing with audio-visual stuff. I hope I don’t get in trouble for discovering this particular feature of the building.
Outside, the siding of the new Oyster River Middle School is — well, busy. What experts call the building envelope is a pleasing mix of metal wall tiles, stone composite wall panels, brick walls and aluminum curtain walls.
Perhaps if you take a look at it, you’ll long for the days when buildings were just “brick”, “concrete” or “wood”. If so, take comfort in the news that here, the “all of the above” approach to sheathing results in a minimum insulating value of R-34.
We’ll spare you the definition and formula for R-values. Let’s just say that R 34 is great. To improve it, the school would have to be covered with polystyrene as if it were a giant coffee cup.
Ah, and the roof? It’s R-60. How cool is that? Especially when it’s hot outside but the school is still comfortable.
It was a cooperative enterprise. Experts from Eversource, DMI Engineers and Lavallee/Brensinger worked for three years on the drawing board to figure it all out. Eversource estimates that the project’s gross annual savings will be 278,660 kilowatt hours.
My tour of the new Oyster River Middle School was not courtesy of these experts, but rather of the school district’s business administrator, Sue Caswell. Her title means she loves numbers – some would say “bean counter” – but her pride in her connection to this aesthetic triumph was evident as she graciously yielded to my wish to check every little corner of the place.
In other words, you don’t have to have an advanced degree in architecture or engineering to know a great building when you see one. Our public sphere, in particular, could use more projects like this. This is another reason why NHSaves is a key part of our shared energy future.