Student-Led Design Team Leads Minnesota High School to LEED Gold Certification
School of Environmental Studies students gained real, hands-on training that will positively impact their careers — and the Apple Valley, Minnesota, school — for years to come.
The School of Environmental Studies (SES), a magnet high school of Independent School District (ISD) 196, located in Apple Valley, Minnesota, strives to provide students with real-life experience via authentic, relevant projects; professional skills guidance; writing and analysis development; and early environmental career exposure. It is known by colleges and professional networks for preparing students with collaborative work experience and competence beyond high school academic content.
In 2014, under the guidance of SES teacher Jane Tunseth, students explored the importance of LEED certification and questioned what it would take for the school to reach that level of performance.
“At that time, Leah Havlicek, a senior at SES, thought to herself, ‘I go to a school called the School of Environmental Studies, why don’t we already have, or why aren’t we currently pursuing, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification for our school?’” said Griffin Peck, a 2018 graduate of SES and champion of the project. “Leah thought it was a no-brainer to initiate this process. So, for her senior capstone project that year, she decided to jump-start the process of LEED certification by calling the U.S. Green Building Council in Minnesota. However, she knew this certification process was going to be different. It wasn’t going to be done by people who had spent their entire careers in the sustainable architecture field, independent contractors, or even adults, for that matter.”
This LEED-certification project, at a school that lives and breathes hands-on education and experiential learning, was going to be conducted by students.
The process took much longer than anticipated and had gone through ebbs and flows of activity. In the fall of 2017, Tunseth asked students if they were willing to put in the necessary work to get the project over the finish line. The students — led by Peck and Anna Amodeo, a class of 2019 graduate — accepted the challenge.
“At that time, and even still today, the idea seemed revolutionary,” said Peck. “Nothing like it had ever been attempted before.”
Amodeo, who joined the project during the 2017-2018 school year, said the LEED process proved to be much more difficult than they’d ever imagined.
“Pursuing LEED certification was difficult with our limited tools,” she said. “And though we did not anticipate our age being a factor, we discovered it absolutely was. District and other contacts were slow to respond to us, either because they did not take us seriously, were too busy, or did not share our sense of urgency. With only a school year ahead to complete the project, we knew we had to keep a strict schedule in order to achieve our goals before graduation. It took a lot of persistent follow-ups and SES faculty support to secure the information we needed for each step in the certification process.”
Once the project was established, numerous members of the local HVACR industry recognized the opportunity to make an impact and agreed to donate their time and resources to help with the effort.
HGA, a Minneapolis-based engineering firm, helped to facilitate the LEED process; representatives from Trane agreed to perform the energy audit; USGBC Minnesota provided project coordination and public relations; Wold Architects Engineers offered indoor ventilation evaluation and calculations; Dakota Electric provided support as the utility; Noble Conservation Solutions conducted a lighting survey as part of the energy audit; GreenGrade served as an online platform for project scheduling and documentation; Melissa Rappaport Schifman, a sustainability consultant, played an integral role in moving the project forward; and SES faculty and staff engaged in stewarding and advising the students.
Student leaders enrolled in Tunseth’s environmental leadership class assumed the roles of LEED facilitators and energy auditors, which involved going into a building and managing the process with the goal of minimizing the responsibility required of the building staff and occupants.
Various industry professionals guided them through the tasks required to complete their certification goals throughout the semester.
“While we often make a positive impact on building occupants, it is usually in an indirect manner,” said Jeff Seewald, P.E., CEM, senior energy engineer/project developer, Trane – Upper Midwest Region. “In this case, it was direct — working with the students and involving them in the process.
At first, it seemed a little overwhelming to determine how to conduct LEED facilitation and an energy study while involving about 25 students in a meaningful way, where they felt like they were both contributing and learning, but, ultimately, the students were a joy to work with.”
The 71,000-square-foot school facility was well-suited for LEED certification. The building is well constructed and sits upon Minnesota Zoo property at a low-impact site boasting a native landscape that does not require irrigation. The school is unique in that it is composed of four main pods with large open areas where the students learn, work, and collaborate. While there are some traditional classrooms, these rooms are the exception. A large, open forum and library serves as the main hub of activity. The mechanical systems consist of several VAV air-handling units (AHUs) with hot water heating and DX cooling served by roof-mounted split systems. The Minnesota Zoo provides district high-temperature hot water that is converted to heating hot water at the school and circulated to the AHUs and VAV boxes. One constant volume energy recovery AHU serves the animal lab and other areas that require substantial fresh air and exhaust. A building automation system coordinates operation of the HVAC systems.
For the project, the students assembled themselves into groups, each focused on a LEED category, including benchmarking, report development, photography, data analysis, and energy and atmosphere. The energy and atmosphere group assisted with the energy audit. Collectively, students used the data and information that was collected to complete the analysis and report.
“For the majority of my senior year, this project was all about the data,” Peck said. “For example, in LEED O+M certification, so much of the certification is based on the performance of the building, which, for me, meant taking over five years of data and uploading it into the Portfolio Manager.
“Luckily, USGBC had just launched Arc Skoru, and our mentor Steph Leonard introduced us to it,” continued Peck. “This provided us with a way to not only track and measure data, but it also gave us a way to communicate data points with students and broke complex numbers down into digestible facts. For example, if another student or staff member wanted to look at our data for energy consumption, they would just see the raw energy usage in kWh that we received from our energy provider. With Arc’s software, we could break down the monthly energy consumption and put a number to individuals’ consumption as well as to CO2 emissions from the consumption of that energy. This allowed us to communicate how our school was performing to a wider audience.”
SES students divided the energy study tasks into a series of hands-on workshops:
- Buildings and energy overview — A presentation served to educate students on buildings and energy, addressing questions, such as, “How many existing buildings are in the U.S?” “How much energy do they use, and what does it cost?” and “What are the important trends around buildings and energy?”
- Mechanical/HVAC site survey — A workshop was dedicated to surveying the site’s mechanical and HVAC systems. With cameras, notepads, and infrared (IR) temperature guns in hand, students explored the building’s mechanical spaces and observed its working systems.
- Electrical/lighting site survey — In a similar fashion, a workshop focused on lighting allowed students to learn about the latest lighting technology and trends. Students fanned out to conduct all the necessary lighting counts and accomplished the task extremely quickly.
- Data logging and instrumentation — While not typically included in a Level 1 energy audit, an element of data logging and instrumentation was added to further engage students in the process. Students were also introduced to a variety of tools to measure temperature and airflow rates in the ductwork. Dakota Electric provided a thermal imaging expert and equipment, allowing students to learn how thermal imaging could be used to enhance the examination of systems. For data logging, pairs of students learned to set up and use Onset HOBO data loggers. Each pair of students was responsible for a data logger or two to capture space temperature, lighting, and occupancy. After a couple of weeks, the students retrieved their loggers and downloaded and analyzed the data. Students also collected data from within the AHUs and variable-speed drives (VSDs) and shared it with the group.
The energy study and data-gathering process suggested a retro-commissioning of the building automation controls, including revised controls strategies, such as demand control ventilation; the upgrading of the school’s DX cooling units; the consideration of thermal ice storage; interior and exterior lighting upgrades; and the addition of a solar photovoltaic (PV) system.
Because the building performed so well, there was no need to implement any of these upgrades prior to gaining LEED certification.
“Going forward, we’d advise some of these suggested upgrades,” said Seewald. “The most needed and beneficial changes include recommissioning, the lighting upgrade, and the conversion of DX cooling to chilled water. The DX cooling upgrade is more about replacing aging equipment with reciprocating compressors than the resulting efficiency. Adding thermal storage for cooling would also be advisable to reduce demand costs.”
The project was not without its fair share of challenges. Students had to overcome setbacks in the planning, communication, project management, coordination of the assignment, and more.
“How does a group of high school seniors take on a complex, professional project among their other commitments?” asked Amodeo. “As students leading peers, we were concerned that there would be a lack of motivation to see the project through. The attention of high school students can be short-lived, and we worried about how we would inspire action if disinterest took root.”
To combat potential waning interest over time, project leaders asked each team member to self-select tasks involving portions of the project they were most interested in.
“This served to organize the team into two groups, which streamlined scheduling and task completion and ensured that those involved were learning what they aimed to from the project,” said Amodeo. “We divided into policy-writing and data management teams. Those working on the policy team tracked down the district and school-specific policies on purchasing, waste, energy efficiency, remodeling and renovations, refrigerant management, green cleaning product use, and IAQ management. We revised the templates provided by the USGBC into policies suited to the school and, in some cases, the district. The most difficult piece of this part of the project was coming to an agreement that satisfied our demands, the school’s budget, and the district’s existing policies.”
Over the last two years of the project, various pieces were picked up by different individual students, which proved to be a challenge all in its own.
“Jane Tunseth helped lead the project from year to year after outgoing seniors graduated and incoming seniors picked it back up,” said Peck. “During this time, the project evolved into a course at SES, where students learned about the school facility and its systems.”
The students submitted the project in February 2019 and resubmitted a revised application that incorporated updates requested by the USGBC in March.
After five years and five senior classes, the project officially gained LEED v4.1 Gold O+M certification in April 2019.
“The work of the students at the School of Environmental Studies was highly inspiring,” said Stephanie Leonard, project manager, West North Central Region, USGBC. “They were the first school to achieve LEED v4.1 Operations and Maintenance certification and, as far as we know, the first-ever high school student-led certification. Their work helped shape curriculum — like Building Learners, which is now available through Learning Lab, a Center for Green Schools platform — and helped influence the elements in the Green Students Mentoring Program that USGBC works with across the West North Central region. Additionally, the students won the Malcolm Lewis IMPACT Award and were honored at Greenbuild in 2019. The award provided a gift to the school leaders that will allow them to continue to use their school as a green building teaching tool for future students.”
Tunseth called it a privilege to help guide the students on this journey.
“The vision of our school is to be ‘a thoughtful community of leaders engaging with others to create a more sustainable world,’” she said. “This project was the perfect realization of that vision, and these students have gained so much.”
Looking back, Amodeo said the LEED project served as a natural fit within SES’s deeply rooted approach to active learning and working with a diverse set of community and professional organizations to achieve change.
“LEED provided us with a way to combat climate change by improving our constructed environment,” she said. “It also taught us the most important skill of all — problem-solving. The challenges we faced required detailed planning, communication, and coordination.”
Peck and Amodeo are hopeful this achievement is the first of many in their professional careers.
Amodeo is currently enrolled at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, is pursuing internships in the green building sector, and hopes to one day earn a master’s degree in environmental design.
“We are inspired to keep leading,” Amodeo said. “Our work with professionals in the green building community has led me to pursue a career in environmental architecture and design. I am passionate about the relationship between people and their environment and improving that relationship by connecting ourselves and our built environment with the natural world. I am fulfilled by the knowledge that I can act on my motivations and am no longer just learning about the problem, I am part of solving it.”
Peck currently attends Lake Superior College in Duluth, Minnesota. He is hoping to eventually transfer to a larger institution in pursuit of a degree in environmental studies.
“At the end of my senior year, we had the opportunity to present at the regional USGBC IMPACT conference,” he said. “The opportunity to present at that conference gave us a way to begin to tell our LEED Gold story to a broader audience. I am hoping to land an internship for this summer with a green building organization or sustainability firm and continue making a difference in the industry in the near future.”