By Jeff Harder
The public schools of Lake Mills are becoming high-performance centers of learning.
About 35 miles east of Wisconsin’s state capital is Lake Mills—quintessential suburbia with a gazebo-adorned town center, a weekly farmer’s market, and the rural neighborliness of Anytown, USA. But until recently, its Eisenhower-era Prospect Elementary School was an eye-sore in the community: a rambling collection of brick buildings with boarded-up windows, lights casting a headache-inducing yellow, buckets to capture rain pouring through a leaky roof, and mildew growing in storage rooms. “Every classroom I walked into smelled damp and stale,” says Theresa Lehman, a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) AP, a LEED Fellow, LEED faculty member, and director of sustainable services for Wisconsin’s Miron Construction—the firm responsible for building a new school for the community. Bad air quality and poor ventilation led to increases in allergies and absences among students and staff, and lack of daylight and poor acoustics made it a difficult place to teach and learn.
Theresa Lehman, LEED AP, LEED Fellow, LEED faculty member, and director of sustainable services for Wisconsin’s Miron Construction
But strolling through the new 93,284-sq-ft LEED Platinum Lake Mills Elementary School (formerly Prospect Elementary), which opened in 2014, that cold and crumbling institutional setting seems like a distant memory. Windows bathe the interior in natural light. Interconnected classrooms with sliding partitions, reading nooks, and spacious hallways create an environment for kindergarteners through fourth graders that is centered on collaboration, engagement, and safety. A 10-kw photovoltaic system, vegetated roof, solar thermal hot water system, and other sustainability features contribute to saving the school district more than $91,000 in operating costs annually. Perhaps even more importantly, the new school has made a significant improvement to the health and well-being of the staff and students, resulting in fewer absences, fewer illnesses, and improved test scores, along with giving students a school worthy of community pride.
Certified LEED Platinum under the BD+C rating system, Lake Mills Elementary School was one of 120 projects that piloted the LEED v4 beta program. The $18.7 million school has become a point of pride throughout the 5,700-resident community, joining the renovated and expanded Lake Mills Middle School, which opened in 2010 and was the first public K-12 school in the world to be awarded LEED Platinum in 2011, and consequently was named “The Greenest School in the World” by The Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).
The elementary school also illustrates how shifting away from straight-row, institution-style schools toward high-performance sustainable buildings gears 21st-century children for what awaits them. “In our new world, kids are going out into a working field where they have to really find their own way and create their own jobs,” says Amanda Thompson, principal of Lake Mills Elementary School. “We want kids to be prepared for that. If they’re in an environment where they’re only taking commands and directions from teachers, then they won’t have the creativity or leadership and communication skills to be able to find their own way.”
The story of a reimagined Lake Mills Elementary School began a decade ago with a deadlock over the district’s middle school. Taxpayers voted six times against funding a replacement for its overcrowded, structurally failing counterpart. In 2007, the new district administrator hired Miron Construction, which approached residents with an eye toward collaboration and transparency, gauging their priorities for a new school and showing them the full life cycle cost of a LEED-certified school. The district administrator led tours of the existing middle school to show the public the school’s stuffy hallways, exposed electrical wires, and layout that failed to conform to the Americans with Disabilities Act. “Believe it or not, after we engaged the community, the referendum passed,” Lehman says.
The LEED Platinum middle school, built at about the same cost as a code-compliant counterpart, opened to rave reviews. Low-flow plumbing fixtures immediately produced a 40 percent reduction in water use. The geothermal heating and cooling system along with a high-performance building envelope and lighting system and associated controls yielded a 50 percent reduction in energy costs. (Residents originally asked to preserve the middle school’s gym, home of so many school dances, basketball games, and sentimental moments. When they learned that heating the gymnasium cost as much as heating and cooling the rest of the school, however, they quickly approved the gym for deconstruction.) The health benefits were palpable and immediate, too: a shop teacher, who had worked in the old school for 20 years, no longer needed to take his five-pill-a-day allergy regimen, due to improved ventilation.
When the district approached taxpayers to fund a new elementary school in 2011, voters approved the new elementary school on the first try. Building a sustainable elementary school, in fact, had become a priority. “People appreciate honesty, trust, and transparency, and money ended up taking a back seat to health improvements,” Lehman says. “I think people see that as an investment, and they see their tax base for the city rising. Lake Mills has young families choosing to move into the community because of the quality of the schools. Prior to the schools, the population was stagnant for more than 20 years, and there has not been any new industry or businesses brought to the community to create new jobs. It is really impressive that by word of mouth, the quality of the schools and the quality of the education is breathing life back into the community. I’m really proud of the administration, the school board, and the community for trusting the project team. It has been a dream to work with the Lake Mills Area School District. They turned a community with outdated, inefficient, and unsafe schools that cost an arm and a leg to operate, into an award-winning mecca. Three years later, the elementary school still has to schedule monthly tours. Other school districts have come as far away as Turkey to see this amazing facility.”
Part of the design process meant inviting a cadre of teachers to offer insights into how they taught, how students learned, and the impediments to learning they had endured in the old school. A major issue was the lack of physical space, says Katie McNeely, a second-grade teacher at Lake Mills Elementary. “There were limited options to alleviate the feeling of being too cramped,” McNeely says. “This was troublesome for kids who needed a quieter atmosphere to work. I used to run small groups at a table that was in close proximity to the workspace of the rest of my class, which was a distraction to both my small group and the kids who were working independently. The acoustics in the room, with its brick walls and stuffy air, made the class volume sound louder than it actually was. All of these factors created an overstimulating environment, for both my students and myself alike.”
The school district once again hired Miron Construction—a USGBC Gold level member company—along with Eppstein Uhen Architects and Sustainable Engineering Group LLC to deliver a high-performance, healthy building. Meanwhile, Lehman discovered that USGBC was looking for LEED v4 pilot projects. It would be the only K-12 school involved in the beta program: The school board was happy to oblige.
The final design of Lake Mills Elementary School was organized around five groups of classrooms—“neighborhoods,” in the school’s parlance—for each grade level. “From wherever you stand in the neighborhood, you can see daylight, the green on the trees, and the blue of the sky,” Thompson says. In the classrooms, an array of flexible and movable furniture—standing-height tables, wheelie-chairs—means students are not forced to sit still until the final bell, while built-in alcoves and dry erase smartboards help foster creativity and collaboration. “In our new building, we have an ample amount of space to cater to a diverse array of learning needs,” McNeely says. “Within the second grade ‘neighborhood,’ students have access to several different learning spaces. We have our main classroom, of course, but we also have a small group room that is attached. It has glass windows so that I can monitor all of my students from every angle, yet they have an opportunity to work in a more secluded, quiet space.”
Improved acoustics means even students in the back of the classroom can hear the instructor clearly. The cafeteria features floor-to-ceiling windows, daylight and motion sensors that help save energy during off-peak hours, and includes doors that automatically lock down to protect students in the event of a safety incident. A school garden, tended year round by both students and members of the community, grows produce used in the cafeteria. Building materials were specifically chosen because they do not contain carcinogenic volatile organic compounds (VOC) or added urea-formaldehyde, which off-gas, triggering allergies, asthma, and other respiratory illnesses. Many of the materials have environmental product declarations, confirming their individual materials and chemical transparency, and the wood was FSC certified. As for the old Prospect building, Thompson says 90 percent of it was recycled when it was demolished.
Since opening, Lake Mills Elementary School has won 16 awards, including a national Best of the Best K-12 Education Project from Engineering News-Record and a Best of Green Schools Award from The Center for Green Schools at USGBC in 2011. More importantly, in its first year the school saw numerous year-after-year improvements in test scores, a 75 percent decrease in allergy- and asthma-related complaints, and a 15 percent reduction in absenteeism. Ten new families have moved to Lake Mills, in part because of its new schools. Teachers like McNeely have seen a surge in student enthusiasm. “I have seen an improvement in their engagement during learning times due to the array of choices they now have. For example, during a lesson, my students can choose to sit on the floor, sit on a chair with wheels, or sit on a cushion. When they’re comfortable, they learn at a higher rate. Children who typically require more movement during the day choose furniture that provides them with that movement. It’s wonderful to see.”
The students, by all accounts, have an abiding pride in their school and the commitment to sustainability that it represents. “I like that we are saving energy by using solar power and that we are a green school,” says Zach, a fourth grader at Lake Mills Elementary. “I think it’s neat how our school was made to represent Lake Mills.”
The district has now engaged in master planning and a feasibility study for a new high school. While its future remains an open question, pride in its sustainable buildings runs through the community at large. Lehman recalls paying a visit to the local grocery store off the town green and hearing employees—sporting her USGBC-logoed sweatshirt—boasting about their LEED Platinum schools. Thompson recalls a grandmother coming up to her in tears, proud that her community had built this space for her grandchild. “The future leaders of our world are coming to a place where they’ll learn about sustainability, they’ll learn to be stewards of our environment, they’ll learn those 21st-century skills of collaboration and communication, and they’ll know this place was built just for them,” Thompson says.
Zoe, a Lake Mills Elementary third grader, sums it up even more succinctly. “I’ll be sad when I have to leave here. But my little brother will be coming to this school someday!”