It will be nearly impossible for students to tell they are indoors when they enter the Highland Park Elementary School in Stillwater, OK. The building design includes numerous courtyards and the “tree well” shown above.

Stillwater Public Schools (SPS) of Stillwater, Oklahoma, is rebuilding two elementary schools that are targeting LEED Gold and Silver certifications. The two schools, Will Rogers and Highland Park elementary schools, comprise 184,000 aggregate square feet and will be completed in summer 2013, just in time for the new school year. The schools house nearly 1,200 of the SPS’s 6,000-student population, and according to Jim Ryan, assistant superintendent for operations at SPS, “What we’re learning in these new buildings with regard to energy management and sustainability is going to be replicated in all of the buildings in our district.”

Ryan’s push for sustainability comes from his interaction with Oklahoma State University’s department of long-range facility planning when the university helped on a project to construct a new football stadium in the public school district. The university had its own sustainability goals, and in 2010, Ryan began to make sustainable concepts a priority in SPS’s plans for replacing and retrofitting its aging school infrastructure.

“We sent out an RFP to 77 firms in Oklahoma, including an emphasis on integrated design and how we wanted a minimum of LEED certified for these new schools,” Ryan says. “We ended up getting responses from all over the country.”

SPS selected the Tulsa, Oklahoma-based firm Selser Schaefer Architects, which partnered with Chicago-based Ross Barney Architects, to design the two new schools. “These firms were dedicated to giving us sustainable buildings,” Ryan says. “It has been interesting because the community doesn’t quite understand what we’re doing, so it’s also been an opportunity to educate our community about the process.”

Ninety percent of the open space at Will  Rogers Elementary School will be preserved in the new school design.

Ninety percent of the open space at Will
Rogers Elementary School will be preserved in the new school design.

Will Rogers is a 92,000-square-foot school being built at a cost of $17.2 million. Its educational program is designed to suit approximately 600 pre-kindergarten to fifth-grade students, and the two-story building will preserve 90 percent of the open space on the 12-acre site. By recycling and diverting construction materials; using daylighting, materials with recycled content, and low-VOC finishes; and maximizing open space, Will Rogers expects to receive a LEED Gold certification.

Highland Park, which is targeting Silver certification, has the same square footage and building cost as Will Rogers, yet it is located on a site twice the size at 24 acres. The school itself is designed with several interior courtyards to blend indoor and outdoor spaces, and it is located adjacent to the high school’s 20-acre agricultural education farm. “We’re connecting the elementary school to the high school’s agricultural education program,” Ryan says, “so the students will be able to learn about animal husbandry and horticulture by walking just a few hundred yards.”

More than 95 percent of construction materials on the two new schools are being recycled. “We’re hardly taking anything to the landfills, and we’ve gotten a financial benefit as well as LEED points for this,” Ryan says. “We’re getting paid for our wood and metal, and this is something new to the subcontractors who are doing it, so everyone is getting educated here.”

Both of the schools use colorful exterior finishes, glass corridors, and oversized landscape elements such as concrete letters and numbers at Highland Park. They also use exposed concrete architecture, open stairwells, and community-oriented design, which is contrary to the schools’ formerly cloistered aesthetics.

Ryan says that these new schools are setting a precedent for the entire district, which is already switching to an interconnected and remotely controlled energy management system. Both Will Rogers and Highland Park are using geothermal systems, and the other buildings in the district will soon be eschewing rooftop HVAC equipment for the more functional and aesthetically agreeable geothermal systems.

“The technologies we’re employing for energy management and lighting control in the new buildings are also going to be a model for our other schools,” Ryan says. “Schools can’t afford to be inefficient anymore. The community recognizes this, and we’ve passed $92.5 million in bonds in the past five years to help build [schools] that the community is proud of.”