Spurred by student initiative, this Minnesota magnet school has become the host for a unique collaboration focused on auditing and improving its mechanical and environmental performance. See how the partnership has gotten off to a solid start in conducting what is far from your average extra credit assignment.

In the summer of 2014, two ambitious high school students reached out to the USGBC-MN chapter and requested assistance to pursue LEED v4 certification for their environmentally focused magnet school in ISD 196. Members of the industry immediately recognized the opportunity to make an impact, and they agreed to donate their time to help with the effort. Sebesta took on the role to facilitate the LEED process and Trane signed up to perform the Energy Audit.

During the 2014/2015 school year, the unique and challenging nature of the opportunity became apparent. The conventional roles of the LEED Facilitator and Energy Auditor involve going into a building and managing the process with the goal of minimizing the responsibility required of the building staff and occupants. In the case of this school project, the students are the LEED facilitators and the energy auditors while the professionals from Sebesta and Trane are guiding them through the tasks required to complete their certification goals. Some of these students will take the experience forward as they seek their passions in work and life.

While we often make a positive impact on building occupants, it is usually in an indirect manner. In this case, it is 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.

size and scope

The School of Environmental Studies, or SES, was established in 1994 as a unique partnership between the school district, Independent School District 196, and local and state government: the City of Apple Valley, MN, and the State of Minnesota. SES offers an immersive experience, enabling students to study a broad range of environmental topics and issues while working with and often alongside professionals in the field. The school offers a progressive approach to learning, through the use of student-led projects with the support of the faculty. Thus, when two students proposed the idea of a LEED certification for their school, it resonated with the goals and overall mission of the school. The faculty at SES not only helped to support the students pursue their goals, but encouraged them to strive for a certification under the new and challenging LEED v4 rating system for schools.

The overall timeline for the project has been set for two years, with the goal of certification completed by the end of the 2015/2016 school year. The current junior class will be completing the work started by the seniors. Ongoing efforts by the faculty at SES will ensure that the accomplishments achieved during this certification will continue.

The uniqueness of the school is apparent in the facility and how it is used. The building is composed of four main pods with large open areas where the students learn, work, and collaborate. While there are some traditional classrooms, such rooms are the exception. A large open forum and library serves as the main hub of activity. The facility is located on Minnesota Zoo property — when you look outside you cannot help but think about the natural beauty that surrounds the building and how well it meshes with the school’s purpose.

The 71,200-sq-ft building is well constructed and sits upon a low-impact site boasting a native landscape that does not require irrigation. Conscientious of their material purchases and waste impacts, the facility buys green cleaning products and avoids using disposable lunchware in the cafeteria. As an optional high school with students traveling from all over the metro area, the impacts due to single-occupancy transportation have been reduced by offering bus commuting from the local area high schools to SES.

The mechanical systems consist of several VAV AHUs with hot water heating and DX cooling served by roof-mounted split systems. The zoo provides district high temperature hot water that is converted to heating hot water at the school and circulated to the air handling units and VAV boxes. One constant volume energy recovery AHU serves the animal lab and other areas that require substantial fresh air and exhaust.

The typical LEED Existing Buildings facilitation strategy would comprise five or six months of intensive data collection and building operations analysis. An energy study consistent with an ASHRAE Level 1 Audit would normally involve a day or two on site and analysis to establish current building performance and identify and evaluate potential improvements. To involve the students at SES, we had to go about things quite differently, and the approach can be described by three key attributes: partnership, hands-on, and delegation to teams.


From the outset, the LEED certification was to be a collaborative effort, with the school enlisting the help of a few organizations. The USGBC Minnesota chapter served as connector, bringing in a small group of professionals from various organizations ranging from consulting engineering firms to product and service providers. In turn, this collaborative team reached out and recruited a few others, and so far the partnership includes:

  • USGBC-Minnesota: To provide project coordination and public relations

  • Sebesta: To provide project management and sustainability expertise.

  • Wold Engineers: To provide the indoor ventilation evaluation and calculations.

  • Trane: To conduct the energy audit.

  • Dakota Electric: To provide support as the utility and to engage in the energy audit.

  • Noble Conservation Solutions: To conduct a lighting survey as part of the energy audit.

  • GreenGrade: To provide an online platform for project scheduling and documentation.

  • SES: Faculty and staff engaged in the partnership, stewarding, and advising the students.

Hands-On Workshops

The energy study performed by Trane was an early task, allowing other activities to follow to complete all of the tasks necessary for LEED certification. The energy study tasks were broken down into a series of hands-on workshops:

  • Buildings and energy overview. A presentation served to educate the students on buildings and energy addressing questions such as:

            • “How many existing buildings are in the United States?”

            • “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 camera, notepads, and IR temperature guns in hand, we explored the building’s mechanical spaces where the students could observe the working systems.

  • Electrical/lighting site survey. In a similar fashion, a workshop focused on lighting allowed the students to learn about the latest lighting technology and trends, and it enabled the lighting study to be accomplished in record time with students fanning out to conduct all of the necessary lighting counts.

  • 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 the students in the process. We introduced them to a variety of tools to measure temperature and airflow rates in duct work. Dakota Electric provided a thermal imaging expert and equipment, so the students got to use and see how thermal imaging could be used to enhance the examination of systems.

For data logging, pairs of students learned to setup 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, downloaded, and analyzed the data. The students also observed deployment of data loggers in AHUs and VSDs, and the resulting data was shared with the group.

In parallel with the energy study workshops, Sebesta provided an overview of LEED and sustainability to prepare the students for the remainder of the work associated with the process. The established goals for this project are to obtain a certification that captures their current operations while keeping additional costs to a minimum. With that in mind, the possible LEED credits were determined for each of the categories; Location and Transportation, Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, Energy and Atmosphere, Materials and Resources, and Indoor Environmental Quality. Once the scorecard was completed, the students split into groups based on their interest within each category.

  • Location and Transportation. The students will capture current commuting patterns and implement programs to encourage alternative methods of transportation, such as public transportation, bicycling, and carpooling.

  • Sustainable Sites. The natural landscape of the site has been preserved and boasts native plant life along with a small lake. Lessons are currently taught about environmental issues and preservation by taking advantage of these surroundings. The students will implement a policy that helps to protect this site along with researching sustainable approaches to maintain its health and beauty, including rainwater management, light pollution reduction, site management, and the joint use of facilities.

  • Water Efficiency. Access to plentiful clean potable water is becoming increasingly scarce. The students will research and implement strategies on how to reduce the potable water use in the building by looking at plumbing fixture water use, advantages of water metering, and outdoor water use for irrigation.

  • Energy and Atmosphere. As previously mentioned, the students participated in extensive workshops to learn about energy efficiency and reduction within the building. Additionally, energy benchmarking through Energy Star and the necessity of proper refrigeration management is researched and discussed.

  • Materials and Resources. The students will be empowered to make changes to the building operations by implementing purchasing and waste policies, directly impacting which materials will be used along with how waste is disposed of.

  • Indoor Environmental Quality. The students will research the importance of sustaining a high-quality indoor environment. This broad category covers a wide variety of occupant health concerns, including proper ventilation, green cleaning (chemicals, paper products, and equipment), indoor air quality, thermal comfort, daylight and quality views, pest management, and occupant comfort.

Teams and Delegation

The students assembled themselves in groups, with each focused on a LEED category. The group focused on Energy and Atmosphere has been assisting with the energy audit. The next step in the audit effort is to use all of the collected data and information to complete the analysis and report with the help of this student group. Tasks to be delegated to the students include energy benchmarking, report development, photography, and data analysis. Students also expressed interest in developing a final report and participating in its presentation to the school district’s facilities team.

For the remaining LEED categories, each group is determining roles, responsibilities, tasks, and deadlines along with identifying realistic projects that can be accomplished by each member. The students will have to work out of the classroom to complete these projects, including implementing plans and policies at the school district level.

This student engagement with substantial depth and hands-on experience is not only helping move them towards their goal while making a meaningful contribution, but it is providing a learning experience that extends far beyond the classroom. Throughout the duration of the project, the tasks will continue to be a challenge that have the support of the industry but is driven by the students at SES. And, hopefully, it is an experience that influences and informs their educational and career choices to come.


The authors would like to thank the following people for making this project possible and contributing to its success.

  • School of Environmental Studies: Jane Tunseth and Ron McCarthy

  • School of Environmental Studies Foundation: Bob Haider

  • ISD 196: Mike Schwanke and Peter Shaw

  • Minnesota Zoo: Ken Kornack and Abby Moore

  • City of Apple Valley: Mayor Mary Hammon-Roland and Tom Lovelace

  • USGBC Minnesota: Sheri Brezinka, Steph Leonard, James Lafayette, and Shannon Pinc

  • USGBC: Jeanne Carswell and Jaime Van Mourik

  • Dakota Electric: Jane Siebenaler and Dave Reinke

  • Wold Architects and Engineers: Kevin Marshall and Zachary Schmiess

  • Noble Conservation Solutions: Larry Pepper

  • Trane: Amy Dorsett, Pete Magnan, Justin Konopaski

  • GreenGrade: Aubrey Flater