Growing awareness of the devastating repercussions of the global warming crisis is causing people to rethink their actions, whether it be how they travel to work, what kind of products they purchase, or how spaces are designed, built, and lit. However, those of us now standing at that crossroad are light-years behind the green-minded people responsible for the newly renovated and expanded Sidwell Friends Middle School in Washington, D.C.—the first LEED Platinum-rated K-12 school in the world and the first Platinum project in Washington, D.C.

Founded in 1883, the Sidwell Friends School is a Quaker co-educational institution that has proven its commitment to environmental responsibility throughout its existence. The school's curriculum is based on the belief that students must acquire a deep appreciation for the natural world and recognize the implications of their relationship with it. So when the directors of the school decided to expand the existing Middle School, they saw an opportunity to express and embody the core values of the institution.

Guided by the Quaker principle of stewardship to the Earth, Sidwell Friends hired Philadelphia-based KieranTimberlake Associates (KTA), a firm known for its research and innovation, to head the project. KTA was charged with transforming the undersized existing 55-year-old Middle School into a 72,000 square feet state-of-the-art sustainable teaching environment. Completed in 2006, the Middle School serves as a dynamic demonstration of the broader network of systems that support any such complex. These systems, including storm water management, waste-water recycling and solar electricity generation, typically hidden from users are exposed at the new Middle School, allowing students to observe and quantify their interrelationship with natural resources, the local habitat, and the built environment. Sidwell Friends' desire to not only maximize green systems, but also to readily reveal them was integral to their concept for the expansion. According to KTA's Richard Hodge, project architect, “The integration of demonstration into the mix was unique, as was the client's ambition to make LEED a part of the school's curriculum.” To that end, KTA worked with the Lucid Design Group to develop a monitoring and display system that allows students to interact with the school's living systems through an internally hosted website providing both real-time and historical data pertaining to the overall performance and health of the building and its individual systems.

Among the Sidwell Friends' many innovative green components is a constructed wetland—the first of its kind in the District of Columbia—that receives and biologically cleans the school's wastewater and returns it to the building's ecosystem to serve as grey water for the toilets and cooling systems. The school also hosts a green roof, developed in part as an outdoor classroom, which filters rainwater that feeds a biology pond and supports natural habitat. Solar chimneys located alongside the green roof provide passive ventilation and roof-mounted photovoltaic panels provide 5 percent of the electrical demand for the building. Additionally, a large percentage of the materials used in the renovation and new construction of the Middle School are composed of recycled, natural, locally produced or rapidly renewable materials. One example is the western red cedar reclaimed from fifty-year-old wine casks used for the vertical fins that enliven the addition's façade and the third floor of the existing building.

As impressive as these green features are, the lighting design, and in particular, the daylighting of the Middle School was a key aspect in creating a truly sustainable building. The success of Sidwell's lighting program is thanks to the partnership and ingenuity of Sean O'Connor, of Sean O'Connor Associates Lighting Consultants, and Jim Benya, an internationally recognized expert in daylighting and sustainable lighting design. Working as a team, O'Connor took on the role of lighting designer, while Benya assumed the role of daylighting designer, which also included responsibility for certain aspects of the challenging site master planning. As Benya describes, the southwestern orientation of the existing building was, “The biggest daylighting challenge of the project.” However, through analysis of site and use patterns, O'Connor and Benya realized that the most devastating solar gain would occur after three o'clock in the afternoon—when school was out. This allowed the designers greater flexibility in their daylighting solution. According to Benya, the characteristic red cedar fins on the façade were “essential to making this building work from a daylighting standpoint.” Through careful calculations and extensive modeling, a precise angle was determined for the fins that would allow sufficient diffuse light from the sky, but prevent direct solar sun from entering the building before 3pm. While the classrooms also have interior shading systems, the fins are critical in keeping the solar sun, and therefore the heat, from entering the classrooms. These fins, in combination with modest glazing, create a classroom environment that can function solely with daylighting for the majority of the year.