Growing Up Net Zero

By Rachel Kaufman

Hood River Middle School’s net-zero music and science building is growing the engineers of the future.


If children are the future and conservation starts with them, then it follows that green schools are the future and conservation begins there.

Welcome to Hood River, Oregon, where the Hood River Middle School’s new science and music addition, a LEED Platinum building, recently marked another milestone: its third year running as a net-zero building, meaning it produces all the energy it needs on site. The 6,900-square-foot building is a showcase as to what’s possible when you think to the future.

Hood River Middle School’s main building is 89 years old, and the former music area was a sagging bus barn from the 1940s. When the school board approved $25 million to upgrade school buildings across the district, though, the addition wasn’t on anyone’s minds.

“We were doing projects at nine different schools and [the board] decided they wanted one project to be LEED-certified,” says architect Alec Holser of Opsis Architecture. But a science teacher, Michael Becker, who’s been at Hood River MS for 10 years, came to the design charrette—and he brought his students.

“They were the ones who brought up a net-zero energy building,” Holser says. “They even helped us identify resources.” At the same time, Becker, who was running the school’s Food and Conservation Science program—a “green home-ec 2.0,” he calls it—was independently raising money for a greenhouse for students to use. That $75,000 got integrated into the new building, which now opens straight from the science lab to the greenhouse to the outdoor gardens.

The new building is a world apart from the old one—and even from the historic main addition. “Our main building has a giant boiler,” Becker says. “On a cold day, you go into the building and it’s boiling, and by the afternoon it’s freezing, because you can’t run the heater all the time or you turn the kids into beef jerky. Kids walk in [to the new building] and recognize with their bodies that it’s the right temperature.”

That climate control is achieved by radiant heating thanks to a geothermal system that runs horizontally under the school’s football field and through a nearby stream, a 35-kw photovoltaic system, and a “solar preheater” that warms fresh air as it enters the building.

The new school has an abundance of natural daylighting such as clerestory windows.
Photo: Michael Mather

The building also boasts excellent insulation, natural lighting, and a 14,000-gallon tank that collects rainwater to flush toilets and water the gardens. And 90 percent of the bus barn, including old-growth hardwood, was recycled into the new building.

That helped with the new building’s aesthetics. The original building is on the National Register of Historic Places. The new doesn’t look like a green building. “All the details, the brick walls, the roof shapes, all of these things come from references to the [main] building. People … don’t think of it as a green building, which was one of our goals,” Holser says. In addition to the LEED certification, the music and science building has been decorated with major awards for its green-ness: an American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment award and a 2030 Challenge award.

And if that’s not enough, the music and science wing is not just a place where students learn, it itself is a teaching tool. “It’s not like everything happens down in the basement, and nobody knows what’s going on,” says Becker. In fact, the mechanical rooms were designed with wide stairs so a class of students could all see what was going on; wall cross-sections are visible so students can learn about insulation, and seventh and eighth graders maintain and redesign the systems.

Through the Outdoor Classroom Project, Michael Becker connects students to the environment and community, creating a multidisciplinary, multisensory learning experience.

Through the Outdoor Classroom Project, Michael Becker connects students to the environment and community, creating a multidisciplinary, multisensory learning experience.
Photo: ©Adam Smith.

“We worked closely with [Becker] and the students to come up with systems they could actually control and understand,” Holser says. “I think there’s a lot of buildings that say they do that, but all they do is have a display in the lobby that says ‘Here’s the amount of energy you’re using.’ We have one of those, too, for the general public, but the students kind of ignore the display—but they can tell you everything about the building and how it works, and they can go online and show you how much energy it’s using.”

“We have a lot of college professors come to do tours,” Becker says. “They think they’re going to do the tour with me, but they get the tour from eighth graders and it blows their mind.”

Building a LEED Platinum addition—and then going to net zero—wasn’t cheap. “There was a concern about the cost,” Holser says. But ultimately the school board saw the value.

“We had the chance to do something unique and different … We are housing a program that has a lot of momentum behind it … And then yeah, we’re looking at a 12-year payback on the extra money we spent.” With no electric bills for the life of the project, the county should be sitting pretty for the building’s probable 100-year lifespan.

Ultimately, though, the building is growing a new generation of conservationists—and not just kids who grow up to shop organic. The curriculum, which integrates conservation and food production into science, is growing budding engineers. “We’re working now on developing an environmental engineering certification,” Becker says. He adds, “By the time the kids are eighth graders, it’s amazing the level of ownership they have. They show up wanting to work on the building—knowing that the first thing I’m going to say is you have to make scale drawings and do your background research—I have a lot of kids show up with that work done over the summer. It’s like, ‘How do I get to work?’”

EDUCATION NOTE: USGBC educational offerings support the LEED professional credentials. Earn 1 CE and for more on Hood River Middle School click here