Washington, D.C., Demonstrates How to Meet Modern Construction and Sustainability Standards Despite Tight School Budgets

The condition and design of school buildings and grounds affect the quality of education and the vitality of the school and its community. To integrate modern educational requirements into existing, often aging schools, school officials must create school modernization plans that carefully weigh the comparative merits of replacing or renovating those schools and balance the preservation of historic character with modern safety and technology.

Successful overhauls incorporate sustainable features, which facilitate high performance from school buildings and reduce operating costs, and serve as the backbone of a school that offers a positive learning environment for students and teachers and can help revitalize entire neighborhoods. Here are some of the sustainable features being used in schools today:

Horace Mann Elementary School achieved LEED Gold certification, thanks to sustainability and energy-efficiency attributes, including 100 percent LED lighting used throughout the building.

Horace Mann Elementary School achieved LEED Gold certification, thanks to sustainability and energy-efficiency attributes, including 100 percent LED lighting used throughout the building.

  • Variable refrigerant flow or geothermal systems, which lower electric and gas costs.
  • Stormwater reuse cisterns, which reduce the water bill by recirculating rainwater through toilets for flushing.
  • LED lights and daylight-harvesting controls reduce electric and gas use, as well as enhance the student learning experience.
  • Green roofs and bioretention can reduce the cost for water/sewer.

Under the management of the District of Columbia Department of General Services (DGS), New York-based Skanska USA balanced these factors while completing two recent construc- tion projects for the District of Columbia Public Schools. The best practices applied by DGS and Skanska demonstrate how to produce schools that meet modern con- struction and sustainability standards and expand educational opportunities despite tight budget constraints within an existing community with needs of its own. The following projects illustrate individualized approaches suited to challenges faced at two different D.C. schools:


The team designing Horace Mann Elementary School, located in northwest Washington, decided to augment the existing 20,000-square-foot facility built in 1931 with two new additions totaling 37,830 square feet, nearly tripling the school’s size and alleviating overcrowding. Skanska was responsible for this multi-phased modernization and expansion of an existing Pre-K through 5 elementary school. The project consisted of first fully upgrading the existing facility during the summer months and then constructing two additional steel-framed buildings with an open atrium entrance, connecting the additions to the existing structure over the course of the next year. Students occupied the school throughout its renovation and the completed school opened in fall 2015.

The two additions to the original building form a “U” shape, which creates a courtyard between the buildings. In the atrium that connects old and new, there is an interior green wall with plants growing on a felt back and trickling water behind it. The extensive curtainwall and generous use of skylights throughout the school flood the space with light and increase the feeling of the school’s connection to the outdoor environment.

For athletics and other outdoor activities, the renovated facility includes extensive new landscaping with a relocated basketball court along with a soccer field already in place. A theater was made possible when the creation of an expanded parking lot allowed Skanska to use a retaining wall as the base against which the seating wall was installed. The area connects to a playground and an out- door learning area, which was designed to be natural and organic at the request of the community.

The school’s rooftop includes potted food-bearing plants grown vertically. Students can work with staff from local organic restaurants and teachers licensed in cooking to learn how to grow their food and then cook meals in a kitchen adjacent to the roof.

The school also utilizes a stormwater management system and uses 100 percent LED lights for energy efficiency. The LEED Gold certification for the project ensures long-term utility cost savings.


Skanska and DGS’ newest renovation at Lafayette Elementary School is scheduled for completion in time for school in fall 2016. Originally constructed in the 1930s, Lafayette Elementary School was the larg- est elementary school in the district at 113,600 square feet and served nearly 700 students before its renovation. Community involvement encouraged designers
to renovate the historically significant main building and preserve the Georgian brick fac?ade common to the area. A 1970s addition was razed and replaced with one matching the style of the original building, expanding the facility to 120,000 square feet to serve 805 students. A temporary campus was built onsite to accommodate students while the renovation and addition were completed.

Rather than simply sprucing up the existing spaces, DGS; Skanska; and Hartman-Cox Architects, Washington, completely redesigned its layout, putting the cafeteria below grade with skylights to brighten the space and a green roof overhead. Bringing it to the center of the school, they were able to make the flow of students through the cafeteria less disruptive and also save a significant amount in construction costs.


About the Author

Pamela Murray Johnson
Pamela Murray Johnson is vice president of New York-based Skanska USA where she has overseen the construction of several school projects for the District of Columbia Department of General Services, including several modernization projects.

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