exterior of John lewis elementary, rectangular building with a flat portico and orange columns

This Hyper-Sustainable Elementary School Is the First of its Kind

Perkins Eastman rebuilds and revitalizes the John Lewis Elementary School in Washington, D.C., aiming for net-zero-energy, LEED Platinum, and WELL certification.

Joseph Rodman West Elementary, near Washington, D.C.’s Petworth neighborhood, appears not only modernized but resurrected. And the firm behind the new and improved structure is behind several other public buildings in the District of Columbia.

Perkins Eastman has renovated at least 14 D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) buildings since the district dedicated $4 billion in 2007 to making its facilities healthier, more energy efficient, and sound. This one, which the firm completed before the school year in August 2021, aspires to be the world’s first net-zero-energy, LEED Platinum, and WELL-certified public school. But before its doors opened, it needed a new moniker.

exterior of elementary school with stairs
WELL, FIRST Perkins Eastman’s design for the John Lewis Elementary School in Washington, D.C., is aiming to be the world’s first net-zero energy, LEED Platinum, and WELL-certified school. Through these certifications, the 90,000-square-foot building wants to reduce life-cycle costs, prioritize well-being, and enhance user performance. The building was designed to be read as a “series of intimate houses” that blend in with the larger residential neighborhood.

In July 2021, Mayor Muriel Bowser approved legislation to rename the building John Lewis Elementary School. Joseph Rodman West was a U.S. senator, a Union general, and a chief executive of the District of Columbia. But in a statement, Bowser said he was much more than that. 

More from Metropolis

“As a commander, he gave the order to torture and murder Apache chief Mangas Coloradas, who had come to meet with him to discuss terms of peace,” Bowser wrote in a letter to D.C. Council chairman Phil Mendelson. “DCPS finds that John Lewis, a lifelong champion for justice, is a far superior role model for students in the nation’s capital. Despite numerous attacks, injuries, and arrests, Lewis remained a devoted advocate of the civil rights movement and nonviolence.”

detail of solar array
SOLAR INSPIRATION The first thing visitors will notice when entering the school is a large photovoltaic array. The firm describes it as a “civic presence,” hoping it will “inspire the entire community to embrace sustainable design.”
interior of gymnasium with large windows
BRING TO LIGHT Because the previous Brutalist building featured few windows and little natural light, Perkins Eastman paid extra attention to bringing in daylight. In addition, through an interactive online dashboard, students and teachers can learn about how they are interacting with the building

This change was part of a citywide effort to rename public buildings and spaces whose current namesakes don’t align with “District values.” Thanks to Perkins Eastman’s rigor in creating one of the highest-performing schools in the country, the recently built school, which has a capacity to serve more than 350 students in grades PK–5, aligns not only with sustainability goals but with wellness and educational aims as well. 

Sean O’Donnell, director of Perkins Eastman D.C. and the principal-in-charge for the project, says the new building has an enhanced ventilation rate in comparison with other schools of its generation. The original 1976 building had few windows. The Brutalist structure also was an “open plan school,” with open and continuous spaces that flowed into one another. “It was unfriendly to look at from a community perspective,” says O’Donnell.

interior library with multiple levels and staircases
DELIGHTFUL DISCOVERIES The school’s library acts as the “heart of the school” and prominently features different textures, colors, and materials that define various discovery zones and reading nooks. A large-scale mural designed by local artist MasPaz also serves as a backdrop for the school’s makerspace.

Construction on the $77.5 million project began in February 2020, and the completed school comprises approximately 90,000 square feet spread across two floors and a total of 32 classrooms. The new building includes an outdoor amphitheater, a ball field, and playgrounds. An interactive dashboard, available both in person in the school and online, also showcases and celebrates the building’s energy consumption and generation, while addressing topics such as water conservation and social and environmental justice.

Omar Calderón Santiago, design principal for the project, says that the designers “trie[d] to be a good neighbor” by reducing the scale compared with the original building to make the new school more closely resemble the surrounding community.

interior of a classroom with orange walls
CLASSROOM COMFORT Indirect light floods the 32 classrooms, improving thermal comfort and quality of light through operable windows, manual window shades, and occupant-controlled ventilation.

Santiago also describes something that he refers to as the “heart” of the school, which is the library, or the “media center,” as he called it. “There are no boundaries between the library and the rest of the common spaces around the school,” he says, adding that this “center of knowledge” is in the geographic center of the building, linking the school both horizontally and vertically.

Already, the building has seen success, winning the 2022 Award of Merit at the AIA Education Facility Design Awards, the Award in Architecture at the 2022 AIA|DC Chapter Design Awards, and the Learning by Design Spring 2022 Education Facilities Design Awards’ Citation of Excellence Award.

diagram showing various sustainability features

Quite an improvement from the former, concrete-laden school, which O’Donnell says “felt a bit like a bunker.” But Santiago says, “We are collectively here on a mission to make sure that these high-performance, healthy places to learn are accessible to everyone and not just the few, and I think it’s important to not forget about the disinvestment that’s happened for decades.”

O’Donnell describes this new “trendsetter” of a building as perhaps “unusual or extravagant when we started,” but he says the D.C. government’s pursuit of the three certifications—net-zero energy, LEED Platinum, and WELL—is a “demonstration and commitment by the District of Columbia to continue to pursue the idea of what we call a ‘high-performance learning environment.’”

“We’re quite proud to be part of this process,” he says. 

Would you like to comment on this article? Send your thoughts to: [email protected]