Discovery Elementary School

Award Winner 2021

Arlington, Virginia

Discovery Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia is the winner of the 2021 Livable Building Award. The school opened in 2015 and includes a host of innovative features that make it a tool for learning and contribute to zero-energy performance and a healthy indoor environment. This project is the fourth K-12 school — and the second by VMDO Architects — to be win this award, which each year recognizes excellence in architecture, sustainability and occupant satisfaction. The announcement about the award results, and the story about the creation of this school, are featured on CBE’s Centerline blog.

The award decision was made by a jury of building industry professionals from CBE’s industry consortium who were impressed by the many ways that the design team considered the experience and wellness the students and teachers, and many ways that the students can engage with the building and learn from it as they grow. For example, the designers implemented a set of environmental themes, one for each grade, so that students begin as ‘backyard adventurers’ in kindergarten, evolving through increasing scales until becoming ‘galaxy voyagers’ in fifth grade. (The concept was inspired by the Powers of Ten, a film on the science of scales by renowned architects and designers Charles and Ray Eames.) Additional learning elements include themed classroom names and displays, and a roof canopy oculus that converts the entry plaza into a sundial which is used in classes, as shown in this time-lapse video.

The project is especially noteworthy by being one of only a few schools worldwide that meet zero energy certification, with accreditation from several third-party organizations. This goal was accomplished by reducing the energy use intensity (EUI) to 23 kBTU/sf/yr, or about one-third of a typical area school. The building uses both passive and active building systems, so that 1706 roof-mounted photovoltaic panels (viewable from the upper level and used for teaching) provide all the energy needed and save approximately $110,000 annually.

The HVAC design eliminated conventional boilers and chillers, and instead uses a system of 58 distributed heat pumps linked to a geothermal system that includes numerous piping loops that reach hundreds of feet beneath a new sports field. These micro-zoned units are controlled by occupancy and CO2 levels, responding to the building occupants in real-time, allowing the temperature to fluctuate to conserve energy then rooms are not in use. The fully electric building has eliminated the use of natural gas on-site, following a rapidly emerging trend in ZE and low-carbon buildings. Eliminating natural gas in the kitchen yields multiple synergies —healthier meals, greatly reduced kitchen exhaust (which improves energy efficiency) and fewer greenhouse gas emissions from on-site combustion.

More information is on this VMDO project page. Discovery Elementary School has been published widely, and has received too many awards to list here, from the AIA, USGBC (including the 2017 AIA COTE Top Ten Award), ASHRAE, Fast Company, and also state, local and federal organizations.

See the project's Livable Building Award submittal

Project Comments

“Discovery Elementary School is the epitome of a learning building — optimizing learning for users, learning from itself to consistently improve and allowing others to learn from its success.”

“The building is an impressive example of low energy design and showing how features that benefit occupant experience and wellness can enhance building performance. Even more inspiring are the multiple ways that the students can engage with the building and learn from it as they grow.”

Additional Finalists

In addition to this winning project, the jury considered these other finalists that also got high marks from the occupant survey, and that demonstrate many sustainable features: American Society of Landscape Architects, Washington DC, Arup Offices, Seattle WA and the Gorecki Alumni Center, Grand Forks, ND.

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