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First 'net-zero' school sets a fine example

Energy-efficient construction is celebrating one more milestone. It is now possible to build a facility -- perhaps even a home -- that is able to produce, on site, as much energy as it uses over the course of a year.

Demonstrating this is the opening last year of the Richardsville Elementary School in Bowling Green, Kentucky, the first net-zero school in the United States. This achievement includes features like solar power and an innovative concrete wall system. To date, the entire building has achieved efficiencies beyond all expectations.

"Richardsville Elementary was built at costs comparable to other conventional schools in Kentucky," says principal architect Kenny Stanfield at the Louisville location of Sherman, Carter, Barnhart Architects, the lead firm on the project. "And yet, it has lower operating costs than comparable schools; in fact, it has no energy costs. This school began saving dollars on its first day of operation."

One of the suppliers also explained that any construction project today can aim at net-zero, but to do it cost-efficiently, the building envelope must deliver maximum insulation. The walls of Richardsville, therefore, are built with a technology known as 'insulated concrete forms' (ICFs), a system that replaces the traditional building methods.

"This school sets a standard that can be applied to homebuilding too," says Todd Blyth at Nudura, supplier of the ICFs. "If, at the outset, all building decisions are made carefully regarding the walls, windows, roofing, water management, ventilation and indoor climate control, you are well on your way to completely offsetting energy consumption -- and big operating costs."

Here are a few of the net-zero design components of Richardsville Elementary:

* A roof designed with 40,000 solar panels that convert solar power to electricity and deliver clean, renewable energy back to the community grid.

* Geothermal heating and cooling for environmentally responsible efficiency.

* Walls of concrete. The Nudura system (nudura.com) is comprised of stay-in-place, pre-assembled blocks, steel reinforced, and then filled with concrete. It replaces traditional building methods. The durability and energy efficiency of concrete has shown to reduce energy costs up to 70 percent. Better still, the entire structure (www.nudura.com) is reported to be up to nine times stronger, with far more fire protection and with far more sound insulation.

* Ventilation includes a CO2 monitoring system to keep good air quality indoors and allow no more outdoor air than necessary.

* Positioning is north-south allowing for effective day lighting (without glare) so that all artificial lighting can be off during 70 percent of school hours.

* Computers are wireless. Five carts, each loaded with 30 laptops, save energy as well as the wiring and construction of a dedicated computer lab. Laptops use a fraction of the energy used to run a typical desktop computer.