Sam Kittner

“They will have an immediate impact on anyone walking in the buildings. They’re breathtaking, new, and vibrant.” That’s a Baltimore City public school official describing the opening of Charm City’s first two net-zero energy schools. One of the school principals is more succinct: “This is what equity looks like.”

Welcome to Graceland Park/O’Donnell Heights Elementary/Middle School and Holabird Academy, both Title 1 K–8 schools. For a community and public school system grappling with challenges, the opening of two LEED Platinum–certified net-zero schools is a welcome vote of confidence in the area’s underserved.

A Question of How

“The school system is … ecstatic,” says Paul Bradshaw, principal of Grimm and Parker Architecture, the firm responsible for designing both 94,000-square-foot schools. “This is a fulfillment of a structural and educational vision. This points the way forward.”

That path had its share of challenges. For Bradshaw and his design team, it wasn’t a question of convincing city officials to invest in net-zero sustainability. That was a given. The looming question was how to design the firm’s first net-zero project.

Bradshaw says their team undertook a comprehensive investigation of net-zero design. That discovery process led them to Arlington, Va., and the aptly named Discovery Elementary School, one of the region’s first net-zero schools.

Surprise Strategy

Many of the Virginia school’s conservation strategies were familiar to Grimm and Parker, such as geothermal wells supporting a battery of heat pumps. However, one sustainability strategy caught them by surprise.

“It was new to us. It was new to our structural engineer. I believe it’s also new to Maryland school construction,” Bradshaw reports.

The Virginia school is built with insulating concrete forms. ICF is a wall system formed by stacking foam-framed, Legolike blocks to create a cast-in-place concrete wall. The Virginia school’s energy use is impressive, with documented energy use averaging 15.8 kBTU per square foot per year versus a projected usage of 21.1 kBTU per square foot per year.

“Yes, you can get to net zero with a traditional building method,” Bradshaw says. “Both our team and the owner agreed: Let’s go with ICF.”

Beyond Net Zero

Bradshaw says that decision proved to be a boon to the Baltimore projects for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Project Cost. “ICF is cost neutral. Cost estimates were comparable to traditional steel and CMU construction. It was on par with the state’s budgeting guidelines,” Bradshaw explains.
  • Construction Speed. “The GC worked with a [subcontractor] on both schools that specialized in ICF installation. The GC was surprised by how fast they enclosed the building during a very wet winter,” Bradshaw reports. “We had another school project being built using traditional methods at roughly the same time. ICF speed was obvious.”
  • Design Flexibility. “Every construction system has things you can and can’t do. We didn’t feel limited by ICF at all. Once it as a go, we embraced it. We weren’t hampered in any,” Bradshaw says.

Today both schools are actively transforming the lives of about 450 young scholars and their families. “We’re helping create a new generation of sustainability natives,” Bradshaw says. “The students will carry these ideas forward as long as they live.”

Learn more about how ICF can help your firm achieve net zero project success.