Promoting energy and water reduction, while simultaneously improving the built environment for quality education, in the design of school buildings.

    Case Studies - information and presentations for each of the seven case studies

    Planning - steps to master planning for Zero Net Energy (ZNE)

    Concepts - basic principles of building energy and water use, and the role of behavior and education

    Costs - cost estimates and comparisons for each of the case studies

    Resources - presentations, DSA sustainability articles, and press coverage

    Learn More


The purpose of 7x7x7: Design Energy Water is to encourage school districts throughout California to develop long-range master plans to reduce energy and water consumption on their campuses, while improving the quality of educational spaces. A central goal is to facilitate the achievement of zero net energy (ZNE) for all existing K-14 facilities by 2030.

The effort was inspired by California Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr.’s ambitious efforts to reduce energy and water use at state facilities while at the same time drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

As Brown has declared, “Doing something real about the growing threat of global warming requires more than just new laws. We must lead by example. Greening the state’s buildings will shrink our environmental footprint and save taxpayers millions of dollars.”

Incorporating sustainability into the design and construction of new school buildings and campuses in California has become the norm. But for every new sustainable school building constructed, there are thousands of existing buildings with plenty of life left in them that have the potential to be far more energy and water efficient. It is time that we capitalize on this potential and reimagine how our existing schools can be renovated to enhance the learning environment and reduce energy and water usage.


In order to inspire a statewide conversation, the Division of the State Architect (DSA)—a branch of the Department of General Services (DGS)—launched 7x7x7: Design Energy Water. DSA engaged seven architectural firms to develop seven conceptual case studies in school design that will reduce energy and water consumption and result in a better learning environment, on seven campuses (six K–12 schools and a community college). The seven campuses are representative of typical building types from different eras constructed across California's varied climate zones.

Previews of the conceptual case studies were presented in January 2016 at four regional events at community colleges and schools of architecture in San Diego, Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo, and Berkeley, and at a culminating “call to action” event held at the Crest Theatre in Sacramento on February 23, 2016.


Tim Culvahouse, FAIA, compared and contrasted the case studies, and wrote the content for this webpage. Mr. Culvahouse is an architect, academic, editor of architectural journals, and a highly-regarded consultant to architects.

This project would not have been possible without the excellent work and assistance from our partners. DSA would like to thank the following for their invaluable contributions:

The American Institute of Architects-California Council (AIACC) provided event planning and outreach.

Big Ass Fans and DPR Construction sponsored the five events.

The California Energy Commission (CEC) provided energy models for the seven schools.

Neff Construction and XL Construction provided cost estimates for the seven case studies.

West Los Angeles College (Los Angeles), New School of Architecture & Design (San Diego), Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo, and the University of California-Berkeley, each hosted one of the regional events.

Videos from the "call to action" event are now available on YouTube:
DSA 7x7x7 Call to Action Event - YouTube Playlist

Case Studies

Seven schools that are representative of typical building types from various eras of school construction in California were selected for the case studies. Each architectural firm was assigned one of the schools and was directed to focus on a maximum of two buildings on the campus: one classroom building and/or one large, open-space building.

Building Type Key

Outdoor Circulation

  • Single-loaded (single row of classrooms; two sides of each classroom face out-of-doors)
    • One story: Trajan Elementary School, Orangevale, ca. 1981
    • One story: Bubbling Wells Elementary School, Desert Hot Springs, ca. 1991
  • Double-loaded (two rows of classrooms, back-to-back; one side of each classroom faces out-of-doors)
    • Two-story: 122nd Street Elementary School, Los Angeles, ca. 1961
    • One story: Bubbling Wells Elementary School, Desert Hot Springs, ca. 1991

Indoor Circulation

  • Double-loaded (classrooms flank central corridor; one side of each classroom faces out-of-doors)
    • Two-story: Santa Barbara High School, Santa Barbara, ca. 1924
    • Two-story: Lincoln Elementary School, Oakland, ca. 1959
    • Two-story: San Diego High School, San Diego, ca. 1974
  • Corridor around core (classrooms at perimeter; one side of each classroom faces out-of-doors)
    • Multi-story: Los Angeles Trade Technical College, Los Angeles, ca. 1970
  • Oakland: Lincoln Elementary School
  • Orangevale: Trajan Elementary School
  • Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara High School
  • Los Angeles: Los Angeles Trade Technical College
  • Desert Hot Springs: Bubbling Wells Elementary School
  • Los Angeles: 122nd Street Elementary School
  • San Diego: San Diego High School

Oakland: Lincoln Elementary School, ca. 1959

Lincoln Elementary School Building Exterior

Two-story, indoor circulation, classrooms flank central corridor, one side of each classroom faces out-of-doors

WRNS Studio

WRNS Studio / Integral Group / Interface Engineering / Bellinger Foster Steinmetz Landscape Architecture / Sherwood Design Engineers / Loisos + Ubbelohde

Look for moves that solve many problems at once.

WRNS Studio began by exploring how Lincoln Elementary School is connected to the City of Oakland around it. A source of community pride, Lincoln nevertheless suffers from ills common to urban schools: too much pavement and too much noise. Its classroom building, constructed when energy conservation was not an issue, has—like a teenager—“good bones and bad skin.” Poorly insulated, its rooms are often too hot or too cold, making uncomfortable settings for learning.

With this overview, WRNS Studio invoked the image of a team of superheroes to engage students in identifying ambitious goals: to “banish broken classrooms, take STEM out of the box, push the limits of learning, boost students’ superpowers, and make a place that is comfortable for everyone, everywhere, every time.” To accomplish these goals, they emphasize the importance of a strong design team, working closely with the school administration in a systematic process to:

  1. Investigate the interaction of the campus and its urban and natural context.
  2. Walk and measure the campus itself.
  3. Engage the users and hear their stories.
  4. Examine human and building records.
  5. Budget energy and water use goals.
  6. Gather evidence of current energy and water use, especially identifying inefficiencies.
  7. Challenge assumptions and one another.
  8. Strategize: “What is the best way to use our powers to do the most good?”
  9. Keep your eye on the target.

Lincoln Elementary School drawing showing proposed energy and water saving improvements

The result is a set of ideas that solve many problems at once. Cisterns collect rainwater for teaching gardens, plantings buffer the classrooms from the play area, and vertical gardens cool and improve air quality. The increased planting reduces heat gain and increases stormwater infiltration. Along with pervious play surfaces, this reduces runoff by 90 percent, keeping waterborne pollutants out of nearby Lake Merritt and the San Francisco Bay. Adding plants, such as rosemary, lavender, sunflowers, Canyon Prince, and aloe, gives students an understanding of the regional climate, productive edibles, and pollinator pathways.

Similarly, renovation of the building skin solves several problems, reducing unwanted heat gain and loss, as well as street noise. New planting along the street-facing windows provides a further buffer, at the same time displacing smokers that often gather outside classroom windows.

The full case study is available here:

For construction cost estimates, refer to:

Orangevale: Trajan Elementary School, ca. 1981

Trajan Elementary School Building Exterior

One-story, outdoor circulation, single row of classrooms, two sides of each classroom face out-of-doors


Lionakis / Siegfried / Glumac

Apply a hierarchy of solutions.

For Trajan Elementary School, Lionakis introduces a hierarchy of methods, from least to most costly, which it dubs BEST, for Behavior, Efficiency, Systems, and Transformation. Behavioral changes are the first, no-cost steps in changing culture and creating environmental stewardship—plant a garden, form a green team—steps that you can begin today without any plans for modernizing. Efficiency encompasses passive strategies and best practices that reduce demand for water and energy. Systems are those active strategies that respond to energy and water needs, such as HVAC systems or lighting controls. If Behavior, Efficiency, and Systems are the steps that get you to “Net Zero Ready,” Transformation comprises those efforts that take you over the top.

Lionakis applies the BEST hierarchy to three key areas: daylighting, the building envelope (walls and roof), and site water use. They note that good daylighting is one of the most important, “biggest bang for the buck” classroom decisions we can make in the renovation of existing schools, because of its ability to reduce energy loads while improving student performance. In one of these classrooms, with its roof gable running east-to-west, three north-facing tubular skylights bring daylighting up to desirable levels. With the reduced need for artificial light, coupled with changing fluorescent lights to LEDs that are appropriately monitored and controlled, this alone can save up to 80 percent of energy costs.

Improvement of the building envelope begins with behavior: using existing windows and blinds effectively for lighting and ventilation. As mentioned earlier, the Center for Green Schools trains teachers to operate their classrooms safely and efficiently. At the next level, passive strategies reduce energy demand by improving roof insulation and installing dual-pane windows (Lionakis recommends one with an integral blind, inverted and sandwiched between the two panes of glass to act as a mini light shelf, reflecting daylight deep into the room). The next step is a more efficient HVAC unit—in this case a Variable Refrigerant system with energy recovery. Real-time energy monitoring, publicly displayed, reinforces effective behavior. With energy demand lowered and efficient systems in place, rooftop PVs can bring the classroom to net zero.

Similarly, landscape water conservation can be approached in stages, beginning with simple educational tools: signage explaining the relationship of onsite water use to the local ecosystem, a cistern to collect rainwater for a teaching garden, and an outdoor classroom. The next step includes removing turf from areas other than sports fields and replacing it with drought tolerant plants, adding smart controllers and moisture sensors for irrigation management, and installing more extensive rainwater harvesting for use in teaching gardens. Another step up mitigates stormwater runoff by improving soil structure, introducing permeable paving, and creating retention basins and bioswales to retain peak run-off and allow infiltration to recharge the groundwater.

The full case study is available here:

For construction cost estimates, refer to:

Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara High School, ca. 1924

Santa Barbara High School Building Exterior

Two-story, indoor circulation, classrooms flank central corridor, one side of each classroom faces out-of-doors

Hamilton+Aitken Architects logo

Hamilton+Aitken Architects / Capital Engineering Consultants, Inc.

Plan a path to ever-increasing benefits.

Santa Barbara High School is typical of schools built throughout the state in the 1920s and ‘30s with reinforced concrete construction, and high windows and beautiful ornamental detailing. Typical, also, are building systems that are at the end of their useful life—among them steam radiators, generous, but uninsulated windows, and aging plumbing. Hamilton+Aitken Architects underscores the need, when replacing such systems, to look ahead, so that short-term changes make a path for further, later improvements, rather than foreclosing on those possibilities. More broadly, they encourage us to craft a sustainability transition plan to guide every building so that, as buildings are improved or repaired over time, they make progress toward a ZNE and zero net water future. To put this idea into practice, Hamilton+Aitken Architects structured their proposals in phases.

For the windows, the first step is high-performance glazing, double-paned, to reduce heat loss, and Low Emissivity (Low-E)-coated to reduce heat gain. Glass with a low Solar Heat Gain Coefficient (SHGC) and high Visible Light Transmittance (VLT) increases daylighting while moderating heat gain. In Santa Barbara High School’s tall windows, the upper panes can be specified for a higher VLT, to enhance the operation of future, interior louvers—step two—that act as mini light shelves, bouncing daylight deep into the classroom.

drawing showing proposed window/lighting improvements in Santa Barbara High School building

The upgrading of the heating system begins with reducing reliance on fossil fuels, by switching from steam to hot water heating (requiring less energy than steam) and using solar thermal panels to pre-heat the water. Ceiling-mounted radiant panels will serve double-duty in the future as sources of radiant cooling. Step two replaces the fossil fuel-fired boiler to a heat pump boiler, with PVs supplying electricity to the heat pump. Step three adds an evaporative chiller to send cold water to the radiant panels for hot weather cooling.

The first step in a long-range water conservation plan introduces dual piping—conventional pipes for potable water, plus “purple pipe” for non-potable water. With purple pipe in place, the 320,000 gallons of rainwater that falls on the roof annually can be captured, treated to non-potable standards, and used for toilet flushing. Step two is to capture 337,000 gallons of “gray water” from hand washing, treat it to non-potable standards, and also use it for toilet flushing. In step three, wastewater from toilets is captured and treated, on site, to non-potable standards, and recycled, closing the loop on the water used for flushing. Finally—one day—gray water will be treated to potable standards, closing the second loop.

In addition to the crucial task of saving water in our drought-burdened state, the treatment processes—in constructed wetlands and water treatment laboratories—will become educational resources, and the campus itself will become a community resource in times of disaster.

The full case study is available here:

For construction cost estimates, refer to:

Los Angeles: Los Angeles Trade Technical College, ca. 1970

Los Angeles Trade Technical College Building Exterior

Multi-story, corridor around core with classrooms at perimeter, one side of each classroom faces out-of-doors

HGA logo

HGA Architects and Engineers / Lynn Capouya, Inc., Landscape Architects

Change the question: start at zero instead of ending at zero. Employ powerful tools to optimize solutions.

It can be hard to keep track of the complex, cumulative effects of the many individual decisions that go into the design—or redesign—of a building. In HGA Architects and Engineers’ case study of LA Trade Technical College, they have mustered an ensemble of powerful tools to optimize the collective impact of all decisions. Doing so makes it possible to rethink the question, to treat ZNE and zero net water, not as the goal, but as the starting point for buildings that contribute positively to the greater environment.

The first tool is a set of aspirational targets—targets that exceed the mandated goals of the assignment and guard against settling for easy solutions. They devised gauges to measure performance beyond the minimum expectations, pushing the team to look beyond the known possibilities and to think innovatively.

The second tool is the set log, a graphic matrix for facilitating collaboration among a sizable team of experts in many fields. Sets of solutions—“design sets”—occupy the rows of the matrix; the columns represent performance criteria. Each expert—say, for example, a mechanical engineer—can easily record how well a particular design set fulfills the performance criteria for his or her specialty. Design sets that perform well across a broad set of criteria stand out vividly.

A third tool is rapidly advancing, cloud-based software that models and analyzes such phenomena as the penetration of daylight into the interior of a building. It is only recently that architects and engineers have had the ability to quickly and accurately assess how, for example, raising the height of a window affects the amount of light falling on a desk surface anywhere in the room.

The fourth tool is parametric modeling—the use of software to quickly compare the thousands of possible combinations of a set of variables to identify the optimally-performing combination.

Using these and similar tools, not in a single, linear pass, but in a cycle, the design team can tease out possibilities that could hardly have been imagined even a few years ago. They are one reason that goals that, not long ago, were unreachable, can now be met and surpassed.

The full case study is available here:

For construction cost estimates, refer to:

Desert Hot Springs: Bubbling Wells Elementary School, ca. 1991

Bubbling Wells Elementary School Building Exterior

One-story, outdoor circulation, single and double rows of classrooms, one or both sides of each classroom face out-of-doors

DLA Group logo

DLR Group / Lynn Capouya, Inc., Landscape Architects

Use abundant resources effectively.

Bubbling Wells Elementary School is located in the extremely arid Coachella Valley, a difficult environment in which to maintain comfortable indoor air temperatures without using a lot of energy, and to cultivate an attractive and functional landscape without using a lot of water.

DLR Group’s response to this challenge is based on a principle that can apply anywhere: Rather than using scarce resources efficiently, use abundant resources effectively. They began by asking, “What are the abundant resources of the Coachella Valley?” The answers are: sun and wind. They put these resources to work in both expected and surprising ways, supplementing them with recent advances in related technologies.

Throughout their case study, they match the costs of—or, more accurately, the investments in—improvements against the standard modernization budget.

The first step is to harness the valley’s endless sunshine with photovoltaics (in this case, integrated into the roofing membrane) for electricity generation, and prismatic skylights for daylighting.

They then employ the principle of thermal mass to moderate the swing of daytime and nighttime temperatures, just as the ancient inhabitants of the valley used the stone of cliffside caves. But, here, they do so with a modern twist: the use of a phase-change material, which, through freezing and melting at 68 degrees Fahrenheit, absorbs and releases excess heat in a way comparable to materials like stone, but without the mass. These materials look like bubble-wrap and can be easily installed in roofs and walls, keeping the building cooler during the day and then releasing heat to warm it in the chilly desert nights.

The steady winds of the desert can be used to generate electricity, as well, but surprisingly they can also be used to harvest water from thin air. While the relative humidity of the desert air rarely reaches the 100 percent required for precipitation, it averages between 50 percent and 80 percent, year-round. This is more than enough for water to be drawn out of the air as condensate on a cool surface—think of the water that drips from a window air conditioner. A single wind turbine with eight condensing units can harvest enough water to supply all of the school’s drinking water, three times over, leaving almost 2,000 gallons to contribute to the controlled irrigation of hybrid, low-water consuming turf.

Bubbling Wells Elementary - conceptual impressionistic drawing showing wind turbine and school landscape

In hot, dry places, water can also be used to cool the air through the process known as evaporative cooling: as the water turns to water vapor it absorbs heat (another example of a phase-change process). The drier the air into which the water is released, the greater the cooling effect, so the case study uses PV-generated electricity to dehumidify the air entering evaporative cooling units that supply air to the classrooms—another example of the use of an abundant resource, sunlight, for an unexpected purpose.

The full case study is available here:

For construction cost estimates, refer to:

Los Angeles: 122nd Street Elementary School, ca. 1961

122nd Street Elementary School Building Exterior

Two-story, outdoor circulation, rows of classrooms back-to-back, one side of each classroom faces out-of-doors

Ehrlich Architects logo

Ehrlich Architects / Mia Lehrer + Associates Landscape Architects / ME Engineers

Enlist the landscape.

The 122nd Street Elementary School case study emphasizes the role of the landscape in creating a resource-efficient campus that enhances the educational experience and strengthens the community.

Ehrlich Architects notes that the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is the second largest landowner in Los Angeles, with 900 campuses covering nearly 7,000 acres, and serving approximately 700,000 students. At the same time, Los Angeles is one of the most park-poor cities in the United States: nearly 1.5 million children under the age of 18 do not live within walking distance of a park. With many LAUSD schools located in park-poor neighborhoods, the campuses and their open spaces can serve as shared-use recreational facilities by the surrounding community after hours and on the weekends. 122nd Street Elementary is such a school.

The landscape scheme includes not only elements internal to the life of the school—learning garden, outdoor classroom, and even a small arroyo that returns a slice of the campus to a native state—but also elements that reach out to the neighborhood. Demonstration gardens are integrated into the perimeter parking areas, fruit trees and habitat gardens line the western edges of the site, while the eastern edge features a bioswale for capturing stormwater and returning it to the soil. Entry gardens and a vertical garden at the multipurpose assembly building welcome visitors to community events on campus.

While the focus of this case study is on the landscape, it does not neglect the buildings, which themselves contribute to the operation of the landscape by capturing rainwater from the roofs. “Discovery learning boxes”—planting boxes atop supply cabinets—line the outside of the classroom window walls, extending the learning space and taking advantage of the outdoor circulation characteristic of this common building type.

Sketch showing integration of natural daylight and natural ventilation through use of solar tubes, fans, and operable windows

Tubular skylights bring daylight to the first floor classrooms through vertical passages that serve double-duty, creating a “chimney effect” to draw fresh air into the building for passive ventilation—an example of an element that solves more than one problem at a time.

The full case study is available here:

For construction cost estimates, refer to:

San Diego: San Diego High School, ca. 1974

San Diego High School Building Exterior

Two-story, indoor circulation, classrooms flank central corridor, one side of each classroom faces out-of-doors

Aedis Architects logo

Aedis Architects

Expand your perspective.

Aedis Architects’ case study of San Diego High School addresses the challenges of a double-loaded corridor layout, and then goes on to propose an expanded view of the project context, introducing the idea of the “eco-district.”

A central corridor, with rooms opening off either side, is perhaps the most familiar layout for classroom buildings, and it presents characteristic challenges: providing natural ventilation (when only one side of each classroom opens to the outdoors) and, in two-story buildings like this one, bringing daylight to the lower floor. Recognizing that the second floor corridor is wider than needed for circulation alone, this case study solves both problems by transforming the corridor into a linear atrium, bringing daylight through the center of the building to the ground floor. New interior windows admit daylight from the atrium into first floor classrooms while allowing cross-breezes, drawn up and out through the atrium’s skylit roof. Together, the effects of this bold move significantly reduce the amount of energy required for lighting and cooling. The system further enhances cooling by flushing the space with cold nighttime air, enlisting the thermal mass of the building to moderate temperature rise during the day. With demand reduced, PVs can readily bring the campus to ZNE.

Drawing of San Diego High School building with atrium integrating use of natural ventilation and nighttime cooling

While the sunlight that powers PVs is an infinite resource, water is a finite resource. Recognizing that the water that falls on the San Diego High School campus is not enough to meet all of its demands, even if all of that water were captured, Aedis Architects has introduced the idea of the “eco-district”—a cooperative relationship among adjacent landowners, pooling water resources for common benefit. San Diego High School is especially well-situated for such an arrangement, sharing with a community college the downhill edge of the watershed that includes Balboa Park. Such situations are not, however, as uncommon as one might imagine; Aedis identifies similar ones in Palo Alto, Sacramento, and Fresno.

If expanding your geographical area of influence is one way to cooperate beyond boundaries—reaching out to your neighbor, to the block, and to the town—two others are time (the current funding cycle, the succeeding funding cycle, your successors and the next generation) and financing (conventional funding, public-private partnerships, and joint powers authorities). Aedis Architects suggests that, while ZNE is usually achievable within the campus and within a single funding cycle, zero net water will often require such an expanded perspective.

The full case study is available here:

For construction cost estimates, refer to:


Creating a Master Plan

The fundamental goal of 7x7x7: Design Energy Water is to encourage California’s 1000-plus school districts to develop education-enhancing, energy- and water-conserving master plans, with a target of ZNE for all K–14 facilities by 2030. The steps to an effective master plan include:

Set Aspirational Targets

chart showing simple, moderate, and difficult steps to be taken in six areas (heating, cooling, ventilation, energy, water, and daylighting) towards goal of zero net energy

A long-range plan should look past easily imagined goals—the “low-hanging fruit”—toward more challenging goals, even ones that don’t seem achievable today. Building technology is advancing rapidly, especially in the areas of energy and water conservation. You can dream large, and you’ll be rewarded if you do.

Use Abundant Resources Effectively

scenic photograph of desert with cacti at sunrise

As DLR Group points out in their case study of Bubbling Wells Elementary School, rather than struggling to use a scarce resource efficiently, we should look for opportunities to use abundant resources effectively. In the Coachella Valley, the abundant resources are sun and wind. What are your abundant resources? How can you make the best use of them?

Re-think Budgeting: Lifecycle Investing

example of spreadsheet showing life cycle costs for various construction components

It is human nature to favor immediate benefits over long-term benefits, and tight budgets only reinforce this impulse. But short-term savings can often lead to far greater long-term costs. An inexpensive material that has to be replaced every five years may end up costing more than a more expensive material that lasts twenty years; plus, the better material will give greater satisfaction. A master plan allows the school district to budget for the long term, thinking of capital expenditures as investments, rather than costs. Take advantage of this opportunity to implement lifecycle budgets.

Plan a Clear Pathway

exterior photo of Santa Barbara High School with palm trees

The long-term perspective of the master plan encourages phased modernization. Rather than implementing the most immediately obvious solution—such as replacing a boiler with the currently-most-efficient version of that boiler—it opens up the opportunity to implement more forward-looking, interim solutions that will accommodate further enhancements in succeeding funding cycles. Every step should be an investment in the future.

Advocate for Change

School board members are well situated to lead efforts to change local policies to accommodate technological advances that conserve energy and, especially, water. Our technical capability to capture rainwater, and treat and recycle gray and black water, is well in advance of what current policies may allow. The master planning process should be paralleled by a process of policy progress.

School as Community Resource

The master planning process will be energized by the recognition that energy- and water-conserving campuses not only set an example of civic responsibility, they also serve as everyday community resources and resilient refuges in times of disaster.

Expand the Frame

drawing of expanding cube showing concept of expanding areas of influence over time and funding cycles

A single project on a single campus within a single funding cycle can only accomplish so much. The master plan affords the opportunity to consider district-wide goals, explore expanded areas of influence (see the idea of the eco-district introduced by Aedis Architects in their case study of San Diego High School), extend the timeframe to include several funding cycles, and enlist other entities, such as public-private partnerships and joint powers authorities.

Creating a Project Plan

The project plan takes the framework provided by the master plan and applies it to the specific needs of the campus. Investing sufficient time, energy, and resources in the development of the project plan will pay big dividends over the life of the modernization.

Design for Education

It is tempting to think of a modernization project as a necessary distraction from the real business of the school—education—especially when the most tangible goals are to reduce a utility bill or replace an obsolete boiler. Yet every building improvement is an opportunity to enhance the educational environment and strengthen the community. In fact, many of the strategies for energy and water conservation have a direct impact on the quality of learning. Daylight and glare-free views enhance student performance, and capturing rainwater makes natural cycles visible.

Good Questions, in the Right Order

A good project plan is comprehensive in its outlook, not piecemeal. To make it so requires us to ask good questions and to address them in the right order. While these questions will vary from project to project, typical ones include:

  • What are the educational goals of the proposed project?
  • What are the assets and liabilities of the existing facility?
  • Among the liabilities, what systems (plumbing, heating, glazing, etc.) are nearing the end of their useful life?
  • What are the most efficient current alternatives to those systems?
  • What are reasonably foreseeable advances in such systems, and what could be done now to make it possible to take advantage of future advances at the least cost?
  • How much can the energy and water needs be reduced before designing systems to supply those needs?

And a good question to ask early and often is:

  • How much can we accomplish with a single stroke? That is, can a given element solve more than one problem at a time?

drawing showing relationships between design, energy, and water improvements, and resulting positive outcomes

Working with the Design Team

design team members in discussion in front of white board

To take full advantage of the knowledge, insight, and talent of your design team, it is important to understand what they do. Architects, and the consultants with whom they collaborate, don’t just “draw up” a design. The drawing up, while it produces a well-defined, tangible result—the construction documents—is subsidiary to the real work, which is thinking up the design. Doing so involves the analysis and imaginative integration of innumerable factors, traditionally gathered under three headings: “firmness” (stability, durability, safety), “commodity” (comfort, performance, fitness for use), and “delight” (beauty and pleasure). In our experience of buildings, these factors are inseparable. A good space for learning, for example, provides both commodity and delight, within a structure that is stable, durable, and safe.

The architect typically leads the design team, because he or she has the most comprehensive view. Other consultants know more than the architect about their specialties. The mechanical engineer knows more about plumbing, and the electrical engineer knows more about electrical loads. But the specialization that enables deep mastery of a particular discipline comes at the expense of a comprehensive understanding of the project as a whole. That is what the architect brings.

To work effectively with your project team, it is helpful to put all of your goals on the table at the outset, so that the relationships among them inform the design from the beginning. Sustainability isn’t something that can be added on at the end; neither is economy. Having all the knowledgeable contributors in the room from the beginning helps assure that the diverse goals of the project are harmonized. Using the available tools—like energy modeling, set logs, and parametric modeling (see HGA Architects and Engineers’ case study of Los Angeles Trade Technical College)—helps assure harmony of the diverse goals, as well. As the client, you can insist that your design team, in both its members and its tools, covers all the bases from the outset.

Include Maintenance and Operations, Wisely

Energy and water conservation systems only work if they are maintained and operated as they were designed to be. It is therefore essential to involve the school and the district’s maintenance and operation leaders in the design process. At the same time, our conservation goals cannot be reached if we limit ourselves to outdated technologies. Maintenance and operations staff must be open to adopting new equipment types and new monitoring and control devices, and districts must support their maintenance and operations staff in learning how to properly maintain and operate these systems.

Monitor and Adjust

example of tablet control for building monitoring system

We used to think of the design process as ending when construction was complete, but modern building systems are actually designed for ongoing monitoring and adjustment—continual redesign, if you will, to respond to changing patterns of use. Digital wireless tools seamlessly integrate related systems, like automatic window shades and artificial lighting. And the public display of energy- and water-use data encourages responsible behavior.


Energy Basics

As you develop a long-range master plan or an individual project plan, it will be helpful to understand a few basic principles of building energy use. A working knowledge of key concepts will enable you to work more collaboratively with your design team as you make strategic decisions.

generic chart indicating levels for energy efficiency


To gain a comparative, “apples-to-apples” understanding of the amount of energy a building uses, the professional community has developed an indicator known as energy use intensity, or EUI. EUI is calculated by dividing the amount of energy used by the gross floor area of the building; in the United States, it is kBTU/square foot.

Site Energy vs. Source Energy

Site energy is the amount of energy used on your site. If you are not generating any of your own energy (for example, using photovoltaic panels), site energy is the amount represented on your utility bills. Site energy is not, however, the total amount of energy required to operate the building, because it does not include transmission, delivery, and production losses. To account for those losses, as well, we use source energy, the total amount of raw fuel consumed. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the nationwide source-site ratio for electricity is 3.17. In other words, more than two-thirds of the energy produced from the raw fuel consumed is lost on the way to your electrical panel.

Zero Net Energy (ZNE)

The goal of 7x7x7: Design Energy Water is to facilitate the achievement of ZNE for all public K–14 campuses, statewide, by 2030. A campus is at ZNE when the amount of energy it produces equals the amount of energy it consumes over the course of the year. For example, during the day, a campus might generate more electricity than it uses, sending the excess into the regional grid and, during the night, it might draw electricity from the grid. If these amounts balance out, the net electricity used is zero. This example is based on site energy, and ZNE on a site energy basis is readily achievable.

Electrical Generation and Storage

The two most common types of onsite electrical generation are photovoltaic (PV) panels, which transform sunlight into electricity (without any moving parts), and wind turbine generators. Neither produces environmental emissions. Sun and wind vary, both daily and seasonally, so the trick of any onsite generation system is to coordinate electricity supply and demand. The simplest way to do so today is to maintain a connection to the regional electrical grid, feeding electricity into the grid when onsite generation exceeds onsite needs, and drawing from the grid when it falls short of needs. Advances in battery technology are beginning to make it possible to disconnect from the grid entirely.

It is worth noting that photovoltaic panels and storage batteries produce direct current, which is what light-emitting diode (LED) lighting and most of our electronic devices (such as laptops and cellphones) use. For such uses, it is possible to eliminate the conversion to alternating current (AC) and back again, eliminating, as well, the loss in efficiency that comes with each conversion.

hilly landscape with tower and power lines

Passive vs. Active Methods

Any system, or piece of equipment that uses energy to do something, is said to be “active.” An air conditioner is active, as is an electric light. Passive methods are those that do something without using energy. Daylight is passive lighting. Letting the breeze flow through is passive cooling. An energy-efficient building makes the most effective possible use of passive systems first, before introducing active systems.

Passive Shading and Orientation

Deciduous trees in front of south-facing windows offer seasonally responsive thermal control, shading the windows in the summer, but not in the winter when the leaves have fallen. Properly-sized, horizontal overhangs above south-facing windows do the same thing by blocking the high summer sun while letting in the low winter sun. This approach works well on the south-facing side of the building since the southern, midday sun is always relatively high in the sky. It doesn’t work on east- or west-facing sides where the early morning and late afternoon sun is low. Accordingly, one of the most important decisions in laying out a building is its shape and orientation with respect to the cardinal points.

Thermal Mass and Phase Change Materials

Heavy, massive materials—brick, stone, concrete, even water—take a long time to heat up and to cool down. A massive wall that heats up gradually during the day will release its heat gradually during the night, moderating the temperature extremes of the space it surrounds. Water heated by the sun not only stores and releases heat gradually, it can also be circulated throughout a building, heating areas that do not receive sunlight directly. Recently developed phase-change materials transform from solid to liquid at a desirable air temperature, absorbing excess heat as they melt and releasing heat as they freeze, mimicking the moderating effects of thermal mass without the mass.

outdoor photo of large rocks landscape, illustrating concept of thermal mass

Water Basics

Zero Net Water

Just as ZNE means using no more energy than you generate onsite, zero net water means using no more water than occurs naturally on your site, through rain and snow fall (and, less commonly, inflow through waterways). While, in the case of electricity, it is a fairly simple calculation to achieve ZNE by trading electricity back and forth with the grid, calculating such tradeoffs with water is more complex, since water discharged from a site doesn’t directly replace water supplied to the site by a municipal water system. For this reason, the simplest way to confidently achieve zero net water is to disconnect from the municipal supply—to go off the water grid. While technically challenging today—and often not allowed by building codes—full onsite water recycling will soon become a realistic proposition in many locations. Hamilton+Aitken Architects’ case study of Santa Barbara High School looks at this emerging possibility in detail.

Water Quality

In the context of buildings, water is categorized in four levels of quality: potable, non-potable, gray, and black. Potable water is safe to drink. Non-potable water is not safe to drink, but is safe for other uses, such as toilet flushing and irrigation. Gray water includes water that has been used to wash hands, dishes, and clothes. And black water is water containing human waste.

Flowchart showing cycles of rainwater, treated potable water, non-potable water, grey water, and waste water

Water Recycling

All water on earth is recycled, falling out of saturated air as rain, snow, sleet or hail, soaking into the earth to be drawn into plants and then released back into the air through respiration, or flowing into lakes and seas to re-enter the air through evaporation. Humans recycle water, as well, treating the water we take from the environment to make it safe for consumption, and again treating the water we have used before releasing it back into the environment. While this treatment cycle is typically done at the municipal level, there are good reasons to do it at smaller scales, even at the scale of the single building. The large-scale distribution of water incurs tremendous loss through leakage, and municipal water infrastructure is expensive to maintain and vulnerable to natural disasters and evildoers. The first step in making onsite recycling possible is the separation of potable and non-potable supply lines (non-potable supply is designated by the use of purple pipes). With such infrastructure in place, it is simpler to introduce onsite capture of rainwater, which is considered non-potable, and onsite treatment of gray and black water.

illustrated flowchart showing integration of rainwater into the water system

Rainwater Capture

Roofs are convenient devices for capturing rainwater. All it takes is rerouting the downspouts through appropriate filtering devices to above- or below-ground storage. To calculate the amount, in gallons, of rainwater that can be captured from a roof, you simply multiply the roof area in square feet by the rainfall in inches and multiply that product by the conversion factor of 0.623. The simplest form of filtering is the first-flush diverter, which lets the first rain that falls bypass the collection system, taking with it much of the dirt that has accumulated on the roof. More sophisticated filtration systems are available for different uses. As rainwater capture becomes more common, types of storage tanks are becoming more diverse, including above-ground tanks that double as walls and other landscape elements.

Behavior and Education

Understanding how to use the Building

The design team designs the building with performance goals in mind, and the maintenance and operations staff keeps the big systems—HVAC, irrigation, etc.—in tune, but the actual performance of the building remains largely in the hands of its daily users: faculty and students. A classroom designed to replace the use of artificial lighting with daylight fails if the teacher tapes posters to the windows or leaves the lights on when they are not needed. Teaching students what the building is capable of is a powerful conservation tool. It is a wonderful thing to hear a student remind a teacher to turn off the lights. For just $60, the Center for Green Schools trains teachers to be Green Classroom Professionals who know how to operate their classrooms safely and efficiently.

wall light switch with don't forget reminder post-it note

Circadian Rhythms

A school that makes effective use of daylight is a logical place to pay attention to the circadian rhythms of young people. As architectural researcher Lisa Heschong notes in an interview accompanying Lionakis’ case study of Trajan Elementary School, “Adolescents naturally tend to stay up later and get up later and later, until they’re about 18 to 20 years old… It seems to be part of an evolutionary pattern. The one thing that could really help them is more exposure to daylight early in the morning. Physical activity, more exposure to the outdoors, more daylight helps to reset that circadian clock. Putting PE classes in the morning, not having students study advanced calculus in the basement at seven a.m. You want them studying advanced calculus in a day lit space at ten in the morning.”

The Campus as a Teaching Tool

In addition to implementing energy- and water-saving strategies and systems, the campus can make these strategies visible and employ them actively as teaching tools. Teaching gardens of native species that attract butterflies and use captured rainwater provide a window into the local ecosystem. Building “dashboards” that display real-time energy use raise awareness while offering material for physics and mathematics classes. Constructed wetlands and water treatment labs are vivid tools for the natural sciences.

photo/drawing combo showing student vegetable garden with rainwater-collecting cisterns that will be used to irrigate teaching gardens

Green Natives

Our youngest generations, raised with computers, are “digital natives,” people for whom computing is a natural part of everyday life. The energy- and water-conserving campus prepares a new generation for whom sustainability is similarly natural: “green natives.”


The following cost estimates represent opinions of potential costs for key attributes featured in each case study. The information provided is intended to provide a general ballpark of potential costs. Actual costs may differ over time, and depend on individual locations and the project’s overall scope of work.

Cost Estimates

XL Construction

Neff Construction Inc.


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