New high school is one of a kind

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One look at the rooftop courtyard section at the new T.C. Williams High School and it was obvious that this green, environmentally sound new building is paving the way for new city schools for years to come.

The second floor courtyard features a rooftop bed of soil planted with sedum and thyme  plants that absorbs the rainwater, decreasing runoff, while acting as a biology and chemistry lab so T.C. students can monitor the plants and run tests to see how much is absorbed by the soil.

One section of the garden will be reserved for the culinary arts students to grow vegetables and spices used in their menu planning. This rooftop laboratory is just one facet of the school building that recently earned it a 2007 Virginia Green Innovation Award in the Institutional Project category by the Virginia Sustainable Building Network.

Were going to have an area we call a chefs area, said Mark Burke, director of planning and construction at the Alexandria City Public School system. Burke pointed at the sample trough where the water collects after it drains through the four to five inches of soil in the garden. The water can then be tested to see how many impurities were absorbed by the soil. Its designed to be a teaching station, not a lounging section, he said.

Other green features include a 450,000-gallon underground cistern to collect and store rainwater for use in toilet flushing, air-conditioning operations and irrigation; waterless urinals; expansive windows to maximize natural lighting; automatic shut-off sensors for classroom lights; and an open environment where students can see the outside a lot more than in conventional schools. There are a number of studies that say they [natural lighting] improve test scores too, said Burke.
On the official LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) checklist, the school achieved seven goals in the materials and resources category, and six in the indoor environmental quality category, which will earn it a silver LEED rating.

The total price tag on the school is approximately $98 million, said ACPS spokesperson Amy Carlini. The additional green options in the building were at an added cost of approximately $1.5 million, Burke said, but will save thousands [of dollars] every year through electricity and water use. Recycling water in the cistern alone is designed to save us $30,000 to $40,000 a year, Burke said.

The air conditioners and heaters recycle air as well, increasing the savings. That energy is recovered, Burke added. The only other school in the area to be LEED certified is the Langston Brown School in Arlington, but in Alexandria, some green measures have been incorporated in all the schools, Carlini said.

David Peabody, a member of the Alexandrians for a Green T.C., was a driving force when the idea was being developed. Although his two children have graduated from T.C. Williams and are now in college, Peabody is looking at the future of sustainability and conservation. Any school built in the future should incorporate some if not all the green features possible, he said. It only makes sense, energy costs are not coming down, he said.

Over time, it will pay for itself, Peabody added.

Walk thru
The rotunda area facing Chinquapin Park acts as the front door, although it is not facing King Street like the old school. In the rotunda, an entrance opens to the main gym, which is surrounded by a hall containing a weight room, a wrestling room, locker rooms, the auxiliary gym, auto shop and the construction technology lab.

To the right is a hall that passes one of five academy areas. Scholastically, the students will be assigned academies where they will attend a majority of their core classes in addition to PE and specialty classes such as art and drawing elsewhere in the building. There are two more academies on the second floor, and two more on the third.

The first floor also houses the kitchen, the 650-seat cafeteria and 1,184 seat auditorium. The cafeteria features several options for breakfast and lunch, and is laid out in a similar fashion to a food court at the local shopping mall. Also on the first floor is the drama department with a smaller black box theater, and facilities for band and orchestra.

On the second level, there is a media center, art studios, a photo lab with darkroom, and drivers education classrooms facing the park area. There are special chairs in the media center that rock and cater to a student obsession for leaning back on the back two chair legs when reading. On the second level of the rotunda, is a circular meeting room. The roof garden can be accessed on this level as well.

The third level is dominated by classrooms and science labs, with teacher centers with natural lighting throughout.

Parking woes for now
Besides putting the finishing touches on all the new facilities, officials are now looking at the major task of destroying the old building and putting in a new parking garage. This year, students will have to walk to school more, take the bus, or find other areas to park. The old school lasted 42 years, which Burke called about average. The new school is expected to last at least 50 years.

Burke has been building schools for most of his 17 year career and he finds the new T.C. building by far the finest, he said.

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