Jury: “What is interesting about this project is that it is succeeding at the area where green building has struggled in that last decade, which is to work on the third leg of the stool—the social equation.”

Architect: “People thought this was a throwaway site. Now it’s a great example of regenerative architecture. … If there was a lesson learned, it’s that no site is too terrible that you can’t do something really significant with it.” —Jane Rath, AIA, principal at SMP Architects

The most impressive performance figures out of Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts in Philadelphia might not be about energy or water-use (although those are admirable). The most impressive figures may instead only be indirectly related to the new building.  In one year of the 88,450-square-foot school’s operation, truancy dropped from 35 percent to zero, test scores quadrupled, and graduation rates increased from 29 percent to 69 percent. In advocating for the high school, a teenage activist group in Philadelphia called Youth United for Change asked for a small high school that provided a healthy learning environment that encourages students to graduate. The new school designed by SMP Architects in collaboration with SRK Architects looks to be meeting that goal.

The project grew from a challenging site: a long and narrow, blighted lot that was formerly a freight-rail terminus and was currently bordered by a noisy elevated transit line. A compact design plan allowed the team to keep a substantial amount of green space on the small site. The academic portion of the building is U-shaped with two classroom wings that create a protected, private outdoor classroom and garden in between. The athletic facilities were clustered in the noisiest end of the site.

A geothermal system allowed the mechanical area required on site to be cut by 10,000 square feet (its incorporation was justified by a five-to-seven year payback). As a result, 68.7 percent of the final plan is green space that includes a playing field for the community. On the ground, invasive plant species were replaced with native species such as Pennsylvania wildflowers. All stormwater is managed on site via permeable paving, rain gardens, green roofs, and rainwater harvesting Forty-five percent of the roof area was outfitted with vegetation and rainwater is harvested from the other portions. (Design studies showed that using all of the roof area for rainwater collection would have supplied more water than could be used.) Along with low-flow plumbing fixtures, the water-management strategies have reduced water use 65 percent from the baseline case.

Classrooms are oriented for optimal daylighting and the circulation in the building is a combination of double- and single-loaded corridors. The double-loaded corridors borrow light from classroom entrances, corridor ends, and skylights, while all single-loaded corridors look out onto the garden, lobby, or green roof space. Capitalizing on the daylight available, the lighting systems have multiple operation modes with occupancy controls. The lighting controls are also integrated with the HVAC system so that ventilation air in unoccupied rooms is cut back, and heating and cooling are adjusted.

Since opening, the school theater and gym has been used for events such as rainwater-barrel construction, weather stripping and recycling workshops, and sustainability fairs to promote sustainability to local residents. The project also was the first step in “the Big Green Block” project of the New Kensington Community Development Corporation. Since its completion, other projects have followed, including a green renovation of a recreation center to the east of the school, three mural projects, and the greening of a nearby local street.

Building gross floor area: 88,450 square feet
Estimated percent of occupants using public transit, cycling, or walking: 95
Percent of daylight at levels that allow lights to be off during daylight hours: 98
Percent of views to the outdoors: 100
Percent of spaces within 15 feet of an operable window: 92
Percent reduction of regulated potable water: 65
Is potable water used for irrigation: No
Percent of rainwater from maximum anticipated 24-hour, two-year storm event that can be managed onsite: 100
Total EUI (kBtu per square foot per year): 59
Net EUI (kBtu per square foot per year): 59
Percent reduction from national average EUI for building type: 22
Lighting power density (watts per square foot): 1
LEED rating: Platinum, LEED for Schools, v2
Total project cost at time of completion, land excluded: $25 million

Data and project information provided by architecture firm via AIA COTE Top Ten entry documents.

For an extended view into SMP's philsophies on sustainable design as well as a showcase of the firm's other green projects, click here.  For more information on each project, as well as a database of past Top Ten projects, visit aiatopten.org.