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Case study: Cherokee school takes the LEED

By on 03/16/2009

When the WNC Green Building Council first got involved with the new school being built in Cherokee, it was little more than a concept: Create a K-12 facility that would incorporate green-building principles as well as cultural elements important to the Eastern Band of Cherokee

Let there be natural light: Kids learn better in well-lit classrooms, and the windows at Cherokee let the sunshine in. photo by Jonathan Welch

The Cherokee Central School Campus is near completion. By September 2009, Cherokee children and youth will fill its halls, enjoy the comfort of geothermal heating/cooling, admire stonework laid by native craftsmen, flush toilets filled with harvested rainwater, and study the native plants that will be featured in much of the landscaping.

It’s one of the largest “green” schools east of the Mississippi, by most counts. The Cherokee campus encompasses almost 500,000 square feet of school buildings for its elementary, middle- and high-school students. It includes almost 11,000 square feet of dining space (separated by school groups), a shared 7,750 square-foot kitchen, four gymnasiums, a stickball field for the traditional Cherokee sport, football and baseball fields, a track and generous open spaces on its 50-acre site near the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

In technical terms, project leaders and designers are aiming for a silver certification from the United States Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, says Maggie Carnevale, an architect at Padgett and Freeman Architects, the local firm overseeing the project. She explains that silver is the third-highest certification, which will be an exceptional achievement for a project of such a grand scale. An initial review for the LEED certification process has been completed, rewarding the project 22 points out of 33 needed for a silver certification, Carnevale adds. The remaining points will be reviewed once construction is complete.

One of the first approaches to LEED certification means considering how the structure lies on the land, Carnevale observes. Every effort was made to maintain views of the mountains, respect existing wetlands, situate buildings in relation to natural topography and use floodplain areas for such components as the ball fields and parking, she continues.

Seen from high above, the new school might remind you of the outline of the Big Dipper — a short handle with two circles at the end. Zoom in, and you see the rings are actually two-story buildings encircling impressive, one-acre courtyards, and the handle holds a stadium and sports arena. The rooflines slope, curve and swell like the surrounding mountains; landscaped walkways wind between stone-trimmed buildings; windows soar skyward at entrances.

Another exterior feature, built into the stucco walls, are designs that mimic traditional Cherokee basket-weaving designs, such as a pattern called “Noon Day Sun,” Carnevale mentions. That’s appropriate, because inside the school, the designers have taken advantage of a combination of passive-solar and high-tech methods to get as much natural light into the school as possible, she continues. In the classrooms, sensors will dim or brighten the lights depending on the amount of natural light entering the space. The type of windows installed and the shading vary according to a building’s orientation to the sun. On west facades, for example, “you don’t want so much light entering because that overheats [the room], particularly in the summer, so you install more shading to deflect the light,” Carnevale says. She also mentions the use of solar tunnels that bring light to interior rooms, classrooms and gymnasiums.

The overview: From the enviro-friendly turf of the football field (bottom left), to the roundup of classroom buildings (center left) to the ball fields, every effort has been made to create a school that demonstrates greenbuilding principles. photo courtesy of Padgett & Freeman Architects

Researchers with the Heshong-Mahone Group for Pacific Gas & Electric report that student performance can be enhanced 7 to 18 percent when a classroom is well lit with daylight. To that end, the high-tech sensors, the passive-solar approach and windows with the appropriate characteristics per orientation will be complemented by such things as reflective painted ceilings that will disperse natural light more deeply into the classrooms.

Then there’s water conservation at the new school. Some of its toilets will flush with water stored in two 30,000-gallon cisterns that will harvest rainwater off the surrounding roofs. That water will also supply the school’s landscaping irrigation, which incorporates conservation methods such as rain gardens and permeable parking areas, as well as native plants important to Cherokee culture, such as river cane for basket-making, and traditional herbs and plants used for dye, says Carmaleta Monteith, school design coordinator for the tribe’s Central Schools Board. A semi-retired school administrator and Cherokee native, she emphasizes that the school will integrate its green features with cultural and environmental education. “One of the most exciting parts, for me, is not just to save resources and protect the environment, but to teach the students about [green issues] while they’re experiencing it,” says Monteith.

From that point of view, it’s very appropriate that the large multigrade school will use an earth-based heating-and-cooling system: Almost 300 wells have been dug to 450-feet depths to pump water in a closed-loop geothermal system. Although the school is about 40 percent larger than Cherokee’s two existing schools and facilities, the energy savings from this system and other green-building methods is expected to be substantial, says Carnevale. Despite the greatly enlarged new campus, the anticipated energy cost per year is expected to result in a 50 percent savings over the current energy cost of the existing facilities.

Part of that equation meant incorporating SIPs — structural insulated panels — into the exterior walls and in roof construction. The SIPs are 8.25 inches thick for the walls, 10.25 inches for the roof, Carnevale reports. That’s an effective R-value for the SIP walls of R-28.6 and the roof of R-36.1.

The geothermal nexus: The Cherokee Central School campus is heated and cooled by a geothermal system that draws on the earthpower of about 300 wells. photo by Jonathan Welch

The project also boasts another kind of savings: More than 90 percent of the construction waste incurred has been or is being recycled. Brush and small trees, for example, were mulched during site preparation and kept on-site to use in landscaping. Timber felled from clearing the site is being used for interior woodwork, which features about 96,000 board feet of walnut, cherry, sycamore, white oak, red oak, pine, poplar and other trees.

Then there are the floors. Many public institutions use VCT (vinyl composition tiles). “But we had the idea of using ground-and-polished concrete floors,” says Carnevale. Compared to VCT, such concrete flooring requires less maintenance and doesn’t exude the chemicals typically used in regular waxing and polishing maintenance. Other flooring choices include environmentally friendly carpet, cork flooring, and true linoleum, which is made of naturally antimicrobial linseed oil and wood (or cork) pulp.

A few other features of the new school include plans for a greenway that connects it to town, high-tech stations for students to balance cultural and traditional education with state-of-the-art components, shared and linked spaces, and even school buses that run on biodiesel (already in use). Monteith insists that it’s all a crucial part of creating a new school. She says, “We have to do the best job we can, not just for now, but for the future.”

Margaret Williams is contributing editor at Mountain Xpress, and writes a weekly environmental news column for the newspaper called “Green Scene.” She can be reached at or at (828) 251-1333, ext. 152.