Story by Alex Kizer, photos courtesy of Sidwell Friends School
It is nearly impossible to look at the Sidwell Friends Middle School, located in Washington, DC, and not mistake your location for something closer to the Smithsonian. But the Middle School, completed in 2006, would have a tough time finding an appropriate exhibit, even at the Smithsonian’s 19 compounds: it’s not Deco, it is not exactly Contemporary. The building’s structure embodies art in a more utilitarian fashion, bringing together beauty and energy efficiency that is unprecedented and merits an exhibit all by itself.
Enter the Sidwell Friends School: the building was constructed from mostly recycled materials, which is unbelievable considering its modern vibes. The facade, for example, is made from regionally manufactured recycled wine casks. Walking close to the building I am reminded of a quality last seen from Frank Lloyd Wright. Layered beneath the recycled outer structure is a deep-set wall of windows that provides the school with natural day lighting, which helped the building become the first K-12 school in the United States to have an LEED Platinum rating by the US Green Building Council, in March 2007.
While the aesthetic is pleasing it is all but dwarfed by the Green Building’s capabilities: It uses 60% less energy, thanks to its passive solar design which includes natural shading, day lighting and occupancy sensors and photo sensors. Out of its total water use, only 7% of it comes from DC’s supply, as the Green School treats sewage in their on-site wetlands (yeah, it even has on-site wetlands – see the picture below!); 78% of the building materials were manufactured nearby to minimize energy lost in transportation costs; 5% of electricity is sun-generated; and 60% of the waste generated during construction was diverted from landfills and recycled. Sidwell embodies a splendor that can be appreciated through the eyes as well as through the cerebrum.
To match the school’s physical prowess, Sidwell Friends has a website specially designed for the Green School. It is a multimedia dissection of the building’s many energy efficient components: the biology pond, solar chimneys, reflective roof, and PV panels and vertical solar fins. By clicking on any of the various components, the viewer can listen to students’ testimony and check to see how much output (or input) each faculty is providing.
One of the students, Tony, provides a tutorial on the Low-e windows. He says: “The glass in the low energy windows allows daylight in while deflecting heat. There are actually two panes in each window and in between them there is argon gas, which also helps to deflect heat.”
Felling kind of lost, I had to admit that I had never heard of argon gas before young Tony told me about it. I didn’t know that it is on the periodic table as Ar, and that it has a very low thermal conductivity, which is why it is great for thermal insulation. I understand that Tony was just reading from a script, but still, I felt uneasy that a boy that young knew something that I had never even heard of. Somehow, he was better informed.
When I was walking out of Sidwell, the DC sun was melting into the horizon and painting a golden streak across the face of the School I have since begun to call the “Super School.” I stopped in front of the building, trying to take in all that the Green Middle School has to offer, when I realized that it isn’t the building that is going to save the planet, it is kids like Tony; it is the future generations who are going to take all that Sidwell Middle School has to offer and make our planet a safer and more habitable place. And as long as we’re teaching the Tonys out there the beauty of invention and the importance of looking after the future, then I’ll learn to live with the fact that there are people out there that might know (a little) more than I do.