The Case for a Net Zero Energy School Building in Harrisonburg

A coalition of a number of local activist groups is on a mission.The Harrisonburg City Public School Board is in the planning phase for a new middle school to be located next to either the Harrisonburg High School or the present Thomas Harrison Middle School. It is the perfect time to consider designing a showcase net zero energy building (ZEB) which can function as a model and learning center for area students as well as offer significant energy and money savings benefiting our climate and taxpayers.

NZEB image
image from’s story on New York City’s first net zero energy school

CAAV is one of the members of the coalition, dubbed New Middle School LEED/ZEB Project. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, a program of the U.S. Green Building Council which offers nationally accepted certification for sustainable building. CAAV member Bishop Dansby says: “The City of Harrisonburg School Board is going to build a new middle school. The architect, Crabtree, Rohrbaugh and Associates Architects, has been chosen but the design has not been developed, yet. We are on a campaign to convince the school board to make the new middle school a net zero energy structure. This will mean that via the addition of about 500kw of solar panels, the school’s net energy use over the course of the year will be zero!”

“… schools are the best opportunity to build NZEB (net zero energy buildings). They have low energy density (50% commercial), have long holidays and summer where use decreases, and the ‘owner’ has a long investment horizon (to justify the investment in solar).

You can think of NZEB as LEED plus solar. Of course, you could have NZEB without LEED, since some of the aspects of LEED have little to do with operation energy cost. However, when LEED is combined with NZEB, you have the best we humans can do for sustainability at this point in time. Further, the school becomes a learning laboratory for school children, and this is the way these schools have been used in other states.

This would be the first NZEB school in Virginia, but there are several around the country.

Frankly, the proposed new Harrisonburg middle school is large. It is actually at least as large as the Lady Bird Johnson Middle School, in terms of number of students. I found out from the meeting last night  (School Board Meeting, 10/15/2013, see Architects Agenda)   that the estimate of 900 students is a low estimate. This will make this NZEB project even more outstanding: it is one thing to build a small NZEB, but even more interesting to build a large NZEB. This could mean the solar array could be even larger than 500 kw.

… the School Board has the option to buy the solar array outright or to enter a power purchase agreement (PPA). Today, for a system this size, solar will cost $3.00 per watt, for a total or $1.5M for a 500w system. If we want to put pressure on the School Board, we can make the case that it would be economically irresponsible to not at least enter into a PPA, as this would reduce their power cost by 10% with no investment. By the way, we have found no evidence that LEED cost more than conventional construction, but let me know if you know different.”

Formed by the Harrisonburg Rockingham Green Network, the coalition currently consists of the Climate Action Alliance of the Valley, the local Shenandoah Group of the Sierra Club, Valley 25 X ’25, The Voluntary Gas Tax, and local architect Charles Hendrick’s The Gaines Group, PLC. Becky Johnston of the Harrisonburg City Schools’ Safe Routes to School has also endorsed the effort. They will be “reaching out to actual users of the schools, that is, the parents of the children in the school district where it will be located (basically on the northwest side of town).”

Paul Hutton, AIA, LEED AP, founding Principal of Hutton Architecture Studio, in Denver, Colorado writes for the Council of Educational Facility Planners International: “One of the fastest growing trends in school design is Net Zero Energy Schools. There are now at least a dozen or more schools completed or in construction that have achieved, or have committed to, this incredible level of energy efficiency.”  Bishop recommends his article Zero Energy Schools – Beyond Platinum for an “excellent primer on the subject.”

LEED accredited architect Charles Hendricks of the Gaines Group writes about this project on his website, Design Matters: Why build a ZEB Middle School in Harrisonburg.

A Zero Energy Building solution shows the community that our leaders care about future costs to run a facility, tax burdens imposed on community members, and the health of our environment. More important, it shows that our community cares deeply for our children and their future.  – Architect Charles Hendricks

green school factsLearn more about the benefits and cost savings of LEED-certified schools from Ashley Katz of the U.S. Green Building Council here.

“LEED-certified schools provide students, teachers and visitors with clean and healthy air to breathe, better acoustics, regular access to daylight, thermal comfort and moisture control. LEED for Schools emphasizes strategies to create spaces that enhance learning …”

va beach sustainable schoolsBy way of example, Virginia Beach City Public Schools subscribe to a sustainability plan where, “Any new or renovated building will be designed to achieve a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) silver rating at a minimum.”

walk and bike on opening day
City Council meeting, March 28, 2013
photo from Becky Johnston

Earlier this year, the Harrisonburg City Public School Board’s request to the Harrisonburg City Council for the new school drew a packed audience interested in seeing that bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure be included in its planning and funding. See the Northend Greenway’s post about this here.

To further the coalition’s efforts to promote a net zero energy (and bike/ped accessible) Harrisonburg Middle School:

Journalist Emily Sharrer covered this project for the Daily News-Record on November 11, 2013, here.

Bishop Dansby’s Open Forum piece in the Daily News-Record on November 23, 2013, here: New School Should be Green.

New Middle School LEED/ZEB Project co-leaders Bishop Dansby and Jeffrey Tang offered comments about the new middle school design at the Harrisonburg City School Board meeting on Tuesday, November 5. Click on either image below for video of the meeting. School discussion begins at 44 minutes.

bish with coalJeff at Bd meeting school petition
Click on this image to sign the coalition’s online petition!


December 10, 2013 update from Tom Domonoske:

Dear All:

Last week Bishop and I went to a meeting at the School Board’s offices that we were told was with the architects. It turned out to be a meeting with the architects, the engineers, both mechanical and physical, school reps and a person from Chicago helping to organize the design process. They were very interested in the concepts and made clear that the limiting factor is how the City Council makes the money available. If, as in the past, the City Council provides a lump sum and says “build the best school you can with this money” then the money is hard to allocate to future energy savings beyond what the Building Code requires.

They repeatedly said that LEED certification at one level is almost a given because of Building Code requirements. That does not necessarily translate into energy efficiency or production because LEED points can be obtained in a number of different ways.

The real work is on City Council and the budget process. The issue is that savings from future budgets regarding lower utility payments are a totally different budget than capital improvements budget for putting up the building. We need the City to add the current value of the future savings into the dollars made available for the building. Then the School Board can spend money on energy efficiency.

I do not know when will be the best time to have a bunch of people attend a City Council meeting, but we need to figure that out and plan it. I am assuming it will be after a site is chosen in January but am really not sure.

Also, I have added Scott Kettelkamp to this list. He is local contractor who has built three passive solar townhomes in Harrisonburg that also have active solar panels. They include things like shades on light sensors that automatically open and lower, etc. He has data on how they have performed through the seasons that is Harrisonburg specific and his wife teaches elementary school in the City Schools and they have children in the school system. We need people like him to attend whatever meeting we will have in front of City Council to present their experience and what they want.

Finally, if you have not filled out the school’s survey, then please do so. Go to

Thomas D. Domonoske
461 Lee Avenue
Harrisonburg, VA 22802
(540) 442-7706
Member, National Association of Consumer Advocates,

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