First Zero Energy School About To Be In Session

Earlier this year I shared the good news that Richardsville Elementary School was working towards becoming the first net-zero energy public school. As you can imagine, that is quite an undertaking and will be quite an accomplishment when it opens. Well… good news would have it, construction is nearing completion and Richardsville Elementary is on target to be open by the end of August!

As principal architect on this project, Kenny Stanfield AIA and LEED® AP (Accredited Professional), described it:

For our team, the goal of achieving a net zero school was simply the next step – to go from a proven, design operating facility (Plano) that requires only 28 kBtus of energy per square foot annually to a facility that needs 18 kBtus to operate.

The design for this net zero energy school was even awarded the Green Design Concept Winner 2008 Green Education Design Showcase.

Now, if you are unfamiliar with the term “net zero building”, it basically describes a structure that generates as much (or more) energy than it needs to operate. It does that through renewable energy resources such as wind and solar.  This doesn’t mean it isn’t connected to the electric grid, but it does mean the building itself generates more energy than it consumes.

Besides the fact that it completely generates its own energy, Richardsville Elementary is a relatively “typical” school in that it has classrooms, a gymnasium, cafeteria, library, etc. Another difference though is that it was designed and built as a tool to educate students on the value of energy conservation, solar, water conservation, recycling and more.

Let’s take a look at some of the features that take Richardsville Elementary up to the next level in educational building standards.

First there is the design layout of the school property:

As you can see, it includes a full array of solar panels on the main building as well as the covered drop-off/pick-up area in the parking lot. Renewable materials were used during construction whenever possible and ICFs (Insulated Concrete Forms) were used as a green construction measure to provide smart insulation. Additionally the building was laid out in a north-south site orientation in order to increase solar output and naturally conserve energy.

As you can tell from this picture of the front entrance, the building has a clerestory spine running down the middle of the building. This was designed to allow for maximum natural daylight and minimal lighting costs. The windows themselves are made from Nanogel® filled sandwich panel glass to provide a nice aesthetic for the building without lowering energy efficiency.

This photo shows the rear of the school building, with the media center on the second floor and a covered outdoor classroom below it. The stair towers to the left and right are encased by windows and decorated by sunshades at each level to minimize heat/glare.

The south facing facade (classrooms) clearly shows the use of daylighting as well as the incorporation of sunshade devices in the design and practicality of the building.

The new gymnasium floor was made mostly from bamboo with the dark hardwood sections salvaged from the old gymnasium. Acoustical wall panels were added to give the room optimum acoustics. You can also see a bit of the clerestory daylighting in place here as well.

With regard to the kitchen area, Energy Star rated equipment was used and combi-ovens were chosen as a healthier option to traditional fryers and skillets. So not only will the cafeteria be energy-efficient, it will be able to provide healthier food choices to the students as well.

In terms of overall construction costs, the building and site itself ran about $12,160,000 with the solar/Photovoltaic costs adding an additional $2,753,124. Bringing the total construction costs to a little under $15 million. As the building is 77,466 sq ft, that breaks down to approximately $193 per sq ft.

One note though, as this is a net zero building, the project was able to get a federal bloc grant through the Kentucky Dept of Energy for 50% of the solar costs.

If you are interested, you can follow some of the final construction via the Warren County Public Schools’ webcam.

A special thank you to Kenny Stanfield from Sherman-Carter-Barnhart for providing me with photos and additional information on this great accomplishment of the first net-zero energy school – Richardsville Elementary in Warren County, Kentucky. For more information on Sherman-Carter-Barnhart’s other green projects, you can check out their website.

Congratulations to all involved! Building the first net zero energy school is definitely a historical moment and hopefully there will be many more schools following suit. I can’t wait to hear more about Richardsville Elementary once school is in session.


  • Susie M

    The greatest part of this project is that it will teach the students the importance of alternative non polluting energy sources and that these zero energy goals can be achieved. Thank you for posting this information. It was truly inspirational.

  • Stephanie

    Great descriptions and photographs! I love the passive solar techniques that were incorporated as well. Congratulations to the new school and the lucky students that get to attend Richardsville Elementary!

  • Hart

    A zero emission school with SUVs parked out front? Gimme a break. Where’s the bike corrals for the kids to lock their rides to?

    This is what a school that takes sustainability seriously looks like:

    • Tara

      Thanks Susie – yes it is very cool that they will teach the students about the importance of renewable energy, etc. 🙂

      I agree Steph, they have incorporated quite a bit into this school and I’m sure there is much more that I didn’t cover. It’s pretty exciting actually.

      Hi Hart – thanks for your comment. But please remember, just because there is an SUV in the design photo, doesn’t mean the school doesn’t have bike corrals. I’m sure many kids will ride their bikes to this school! And sustainability isn’t just about riding bikes, there is a lot involved – but I agree, riding bikes is a good part of practicing sustainability. Thanks for sharing that video too!

  • Kenny Stanfield

    Thanks for the input! There are two bike corrals on either side of the main entry as well as designated parking for hybrid vehicles. I will get our graphic artist to find a Prius for the renderings- but there are still a lot of SUV’s on the highways!

  • Jill Barry

    This is a great project and hopefully set an example for many projects to follow. In addition to all the features listed the greatest benefit is the effect it will have on the students.

    I wish people would read things before posting comments: HART the school is zero energy, not zero emissions, and I believe an award winning green building trumps a bike safety class.

  • Sean

    “A zero emission school with SUVs parked out front? Gimme a break.”

    Oh get over yourself. The school’s green, should a parent’s choice of vehicle prevent the child from attending?

  • Billy Bob Joe Jr.

    how good does the basketball bounce on that yankee bamboo floor?

  • Colleen

    Ok everyone who worried about the SUVS – get over yourself!

    You obviously missed the bigger picture here – this is an incredible undertaking and they should be congratulated for their hard work.

    Kentucky has every right to be proud of this project it is a huge undertaking and they are moving our ceiling up!

  • Cameron

    Congratulations! My hats off to Kentucky and the team in recognizing that a dollar spent on the envelope (e.g., in this case, ICF, good windows and roof) translates into a reduction of more than a dollar on what is perhaps the generally regarded as the more sexy side of green e.g. solar, wind etc.

  • Bruce

    Can someone give me comparative economics on this? How does $193/SF compare to traditional school construction costs, and what’s the payback period from no energy bills? I did not see that info in the article, and it is critical.

  • NJD

    Hart, you did not look at picture # 2 there are bike racks!!

  • Paula

    Hello, I went to the old Richardsville school. The local paper printed an article about the new school opening today. The community is excited.

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