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11.19.2009
Teaching Moment
Philadelphia school's new sustainable building is learning laboratory
A building at the Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia includes sustainable features such as green roofs and solar panels for sustainability and education.
Courtesy SMP Architects

The newest building on the campus of Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia is an energy-efficient science center for the private school’s 9th–12th graders. Conceived by Philadelphia firm SMP Architects, the 16,000-square-foot building was completed this fall, just in time for the school year to begin—and for students to start a hands-on course in the fundamentals of green design.

Set in the Germantown neighborhood of Northwest Philadelphia, the new building deliberately stands out on a campus that includes a historic Quaker meetinghouse built in 1845, along with the Hargroves Center, a high school math and student center clad in yellow stone with gunmetal-gray accents that tie the zinc-and-glass facade of the science center into the campus. “From the get-go, the school wanted it to look technological, like a science building,” said David Ade, a principal of SMP.

To fulfill its twin missions of conservation and education, project architect Scott Ritchie designed the building with ample green features, such as rooftop photovoltaic arrays and walls of windows that let in natural light to reduce electricity consumption. The corridors and common spaces are positioned to maximize cross-ventilation, so only the classrooms require an air-conditioning system. In winter, the common areas will be heated by hot water piped through the ceiling panels. Windows are double-glazed with low-emissivity glass, and equipped with shades and screens to keep out sunlight and let in fresh air. Twenty-four geo-exchange wells capture the constant temperature of the earth 300 feet below the ground to assist with heating and cooling.

From the hallways (above) to the lobby, the school is suffused with daylight.
Malkin Photography

Storm water management was also a major focus of the project, said Ade, because Philadelphia uses a single system for storm runoff and sewage, which overflows into the Schuylkill River during heavy rains. To help capture runoff, the building has two levels of green roofs that cover about a quarter of the roof area: an upper level planted with non-native succulents; and a lower level, planted with native perennials, grasses, and herbs, that is accessible to students so they can study and help maintain it. The rest of the roof is a traditional membrane surface, angled to funnel water into the building’s two aboveground cisterns that collect rainwater for non-potable building uses. The rest of the water is directed to surrounding rain gardens, whose plants were selected for their ability to absorb large amounts of rainfall.

Many of the structure’s finishes are made of sustainable material, such as the rubber floors from German firm nora systems. Squares of flooring material were cut out to show elements of the periodic table, set into the floors of both chemistry classrooms. In the faculty common room, cubicles are made of sunflower seed board, manufactured from sunflower hulls.

The building has many energy saving features (Click to enlarge).
Courtesy SMP Architects

But the building’s educational aspects are what make it stand out. Pipes, wires, and beams in the classroom ceilings were left deliberately exposed, so students can learn about the systems that power the building. “We wanted to have the science and sustainability in sight,” Ade said. Sensors allow students to track how much energy and water is being used at any given time through computer monitors set up in the vestibule by Lucid Design Group. One of the physics classrooms is cantilevered over a portion of the rain garden, giving physics teacher David Williamson’s students a real-life example of physics principles at work.

Williamson and the other five members of the school’s science faculty were consulted throughout the project, whose total cost came to $7.8 million, including landscaping, a parking lot reconfiguration, and a brick courtyard for student use. The structure also includes special features requested by the faculty, such as holes drilled in exposed I-beams that Williamson uses to demonstrate Newtonian mechanics with weights, pendulums, and pulleys. The building also offers study spaces for the 350 upper-school students who take biology, physics, chemistry, and environmental-science classes there.

Like many green buildings, this one has an air of the experimental about it. But that’s just fine with the science faculty at Germantown Friends. They’re standing by to turn every drop of water and watt of sunlight into a teachable moment.

A version of this article appeared in AN 19_11.18.2009.

Virginia C. McGuire