Ventura High School, in Ventura, Calif., was founded in 1889.
Fettlemap via a Creative Commons License Ventura High School, in Ventura, Calif., was founded in 1889.

Comprising a widespread cross-section of architectural genres, construction methods, climate zones, and geographic locales, schools are ideal candidates to become exemplars of environmentally responsible design. But with most states reporting decreased per-pupil funding for schools as compared to the pre-Great Recession era, building maintenance—much less new construction or modernization of existing infrastructure—is often sacrificed, opening the door for larger issues and costs down the road.

Last week, California’s State Architect, Chester A. Widom, FAIA, signed an initiative to highlight the importance of modernizing the state’s aging public-school stock to become more sustainable. Sponsored by the Division of the State Architect (DSA), a part of the California Department of General Services, in partnership with the California Energy Commission and AIA California Council (AIACC), “7x7x7: Case Studies in School Energy and Water Reduction,” dubbed “7x7x7: Design, Energy, Water,” engages seven architecture firms to develop a total of seven conceptual case studies for seven representative school campuses. The state has more than 10,000 existing K–12 public school campuses and 112 community college facilities, according to the program’s request for qualifications (RFQ), issued on July 22, 2015.

Diamond Ranch High School, in Pomona, Calif., by Morphosis Architects, 1999
Carol Highsmith / U.S. Library of Congress; Highsmith Archive Diamond Ranch High School, in Pomona, Calif., by Morphosis Architects, 1999

The case studies, each of which will examine the retrofit of a hypothetical classroom building, a multipurpose building, or both, are intended to serve as training programs and to foster conversation among school administrators and facilities members to “reimagine together how schools can be renovated to reduce energy and water usage and create great opportunities for education,” Widom said in a press release. The cost savings gained in reduced utility expenditures coupled with those in long-term maintenance and operation, he said, “can then be redirected to student learning and education.”

The selected firms, which are all based or have offices in California, and their DSA-assigned campus scenario, are as follows:

  • San Francisco–based WRNS Studio will examine a two-story, 1950s elementary school in downtown Oakland.
  • San Jose–based Aedis Architects will develop a 1970s high school built with steel and concrete construction in a park-like setting in San Diego.
  • The Sacramento office of Lionakis will examine a 1980s elementary school with wood construction located in a local suburb.
  • Ehrlich Architects, in Culver City, will develop designs for a 1960s elementary school in Los Angeles that has concrete classrooms and a wood-and-steel constructed assembly room.
  • The Riverside office of DLR Group will examine a midcentury modern elementary school set in a desert climate, designed by architect Donald Wexler, and built in the 1980s.
  • Hamilton + Aitken Architects, in San Francisco, will look at a historic high school built in the 1920s in downtown Santa Barbara, near the southern coast.
  • The Santa Monica office of HGA will develop a case study for a 1970s, four-story technical college in downtown Los Angeles.

Each firm will receive a $7,000 fee and up to $5,000 in reimbursable expenses. In the RFQ, Widom noted: “As an architect and a former architectural firm owner, I would like for us all to consider that this initiative goes beyond monetary investment. By providing school facilities decision makers with creative and practical examples for reducing their energy costs and water consumption while simultaneously improving the built environment for quality education[,] we are making an investment in California’s future.”

Anaheim High School was first established in 1898.
Eli Pousson via a Creative Commons License Anaheim High School was first established in 1898.

In January 2016, the seven case studies will be presented at regional events hosted by California Polytechnic State University, in San Luis Obispo; the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles; and the New School of Architecture and Design, in San Diego. Tim Culvahouse, FAIA, an AIACC writer and founder of design consulting company CulvaHouse, will compile and compare the firms' proposals in a report that will be published after a call-to-action event in Sacramento next February (check the "7x7x7" website for event updates).

The "7x7x7" initiative supports Gov. Jerry Brown’s Executive Order B-18-12, which mandates the use of sustainable building practices and specifies targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, energy and water consumption, and material usage for public buildings, renovations, and build-to-suit leases meeting certain criteria. It also complements the California Clean Energy Jobs Act, also known as Proposition 39, which invites schools to request state funding to make building-performance improvements by submitting an energy expenditure plan.