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Cool for School

Occidental's new K-8 campus greenest in California

By Juliane Poirier Locke

The kids in Occidental may be among the luckiest in Sonoma County, and perhaps in all California, when the Salmon Creek Falls Environmental Center gets certified. The town just cut the ribbon on this wavy-roofed beauty, positioned to become the county's first LEED-platinum-certified building and California's first LEED-platinum-certified structure on a K–8 campus. Why are these kids so fortunate? Lots of reasons, not the least of which is getting to spend part of the school day in a toxin-free environment.

The new campus building does not include classrooms, but the cafeteria, auditorium and meeting spaces of the center are free of VOCs (volatile organic compounds). According to the U.S. Green Building Council, conventionally built school buildings—and the carpets, paints and furnishings that go with them—emit neurotoxins absorbed by body and brain. Often these structures are inadequately ventilated with little natural lighting, and waste so much energy that heating and cooling costs eat up the equivalent of one or more teacher's salaries each year.

So the Green Building Council has been pushing the LEED program for years, claiming it makes public the ingredients of a building the way mandatory labeling reveals the ingredients of food products. These allied industry members ask, in presentations that promote green schools, "Every day you can go into the store and buy an 89 cent box of [animal] crackers and know exactly what you're getting. So shouldn't you be able to walk into an $8 million building and know that same thing?"

At a cost of $3.6 million plus lots of donated materials, the community in Occidental knows precisely what their new, curvy building contains and what it does not contain. "It doesn't typically cost that much to create a green building," says project facilitator Victoria Johnston, the force behind the project. "But we designed a curvy building, and curves cost more."

On the undulating roof, a section of plants will filter pollutants and save cooling costs; on some of the walls, recycled cork will provide an aesthetic tip of the hat to the wine industry, keep material out of the landfill, help absorb sound and also insulate. One wall is finished with recycled glass, another with recycled surgical gowns. There's a glass floor in the foyer, radiant-heat concrete floors finished in tung oil and orange citrus solvent, and an Arthurian round table made from a tree that fell on the 50-acre school property during the early stages of the project. The old growth redwood, already familiar to the schoolchildren, was milled and dried on the property, furnishing not only the seven-foot-diameter tabletop but also interior wainscoting.

"My intention was to build something with yummy architecture," said Johnston, who did not want Occidental's new building to be "ugly" like other green buildings she has seen. Her concept of yummy was devised by a 16-member design team that included a few children, and realized with hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of donated materials from companies pioneering green products. The undulating roof wears a seamless wetsuit—a spongy material called Neptune coating that is gunned on from a 50-gallon drum. The building was designed as a straw bale structure, but permits were refused, so they were forced to use forest-certified lumber. After thousands of hours of LEED documentation paperwork and six years of effort, the building is done and is 100 percent solar-powered with state-of-the-art "smart" lighting system, waterless urinals and low-flow toilets.

And let's not forget Johnston's secret ingredient. "The energy in the building is stunning. All that love that went into the process—you can feel it," says Johnston. "That's exactly what I wanted, a building where you walk in and it takes your breath away and inspires you to incorporate green building practices in your own life."

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 invests in green building and energy efficiency—including about $9 billion governors can use to bring schools into the new green world. When it's time to improve California's schools, designers can head to Occidental and visit the new Salmon Creek Falls Environmental Center for inspiration. Hopefully, they too will feel the love.


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