LEED by Any Other Name

A Canadian school charts its own path to sustainable design.

Campbell River, British Columbia, a small community of about 30,000 and the unofficial salmon capital of the world, is best known for Ripple Rock, an undersea nautical hazard that in 1958 was packed with 1,375 tons of explosives and blown to bits in what still stands as the largest nonnuclear explosion in history. The large, smooth boulder in front of Ripple Rock Elementary School is not an actual remnant of that detonation, but the school has strong ties to the town’s history and culture. It’s also a model for sustainable design—although not the kind that its designers, Larry McFarland Architects, pra­cticed for the nearby Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, a $3.1 million project that earned the firm Canada’s first LEED Platinum certification. Instead, Ripple Rock demonstrates how the principles of LEED can be applied on a more modest scale—and on a much tighter budget.

The Vancouver-based firm was chosen by the school district in part for its experience with sustainable design, a consideration important to the ­community—which includes a large number of First Nations people, whose ancestors settled the region and whose children make up approximately 40 percent of the school’s students. Highlighting local materials, particularly wood from Campbell River’s prominent logging industry, became a key part of the building’s program. “We’ve done a lot of First Nations design, and they really push the use of wood because it has a cultural importance to them,” says Craig Duffield, an associate at Larry McFarland Architects. And although the wood used in this case was not FSC-certified, it came from second-growth forest and was locally milled—fulfilling basic considerations of good environmental practice.

But the firm made its biggest strides toward sustainability inside. The building’s ventilation system was designed on air-displacement principles to function almost like a massive slow-turning fan; rather than actively blowing air into the classrooms, it circulates large volumes at a low velocity, which requires far less energy. The decision to forgo an AC system—hardly a necessity on temperate Vancouver Island—increased the building’s efficiency. And north-facing windows in the classrooms and along the top of the spacious two-story central corridor reduce the need for artificial lighting.

Given these sustainable moves —and a host of smaller ones, including energy-efficient bulbs, low-flow fixtures, and low-VOC materials—why not go for LEED certification? “It was just budget,” says Marty Cole, the school district’s director of facilities. Inflation in materials costs diminished an already lean allowance from the government, making LEED an unaffordable luxury—not that the architects or the school district ignored it entirely. “We basically took the principles of LEED and incorporated them into the building without going through the actual application process and being certified,” Cole says. He guesses that the school would have received a Silver rating if certified; Duffield is unwilling to speculate, but he emphasizes that LEED-worthy design is not solely the province of big-budget projects: “We’ve found that you can pretty much hit a Silver level without spending any more money, but by just being smart about the decisions you make.”

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