Four Years Later
Four years after its opening and several accolades later, Tom DeKyser, principal of Michigan’s first Silver LEED-certified school, Whitmore Lake High School, says using a geothermal heating and cooling system has made a real impact on several fronts.
“We have less absenteeism and the percentage of freshmen failing one or more classes has dropped dramatically since 2005. When we opened in 2006, the failure was reduced by more than half of what we experienced in the old building. We used to see approximately 30 to 40 percent of freshmen with at least one failure. Today, that percentage is seldom over 10 percent. Attendance is consistently above 95 percent.”
DeKyser shared five key benefits of using a geothermal heating and cooling system at his school and its impact over the last five years.
- On-demand heating and cooling — the heat pumps are great at reacting to a cold Michigan morning followed by a hot afternoon.
- Energy costs are considerably less.
- A geothermal system is a great teacher tool. It brings several subject areas together in one concept — math, earth science, government, technology and social studies.
- A portion of the property will always remain undeveloped because the school uses a horizontal looping system.
- It is a great public relations topic for the school.
Located in a suburb of Ann Arbor, Mich., community support was key to getting Whitmore Lake High off the ground in 2006. “The community supported this project in overwhelming fashion. They out-voted the opposition three to one. What the community heard was ‘efficiency.’ They assumed, and were correct, that our non-conventional energy source would result in a public building with lower operating costs. I am sure there were some that appreciated the environmental stewardship in which we were engaging but the majority equated the idea with spending money up front to save in the future.”
The school also saw a difference in test scores, a key barometer of student performance. “We did see an immediate increase in college placement test scores. However, those scores are cyclical.”
The impact on health of the school’s occupants was also realized through better indoor air quality. “The major difference is in circulation. You can feel the movement in the building. There are no stagnant areas.”
During its design stages, DeKyser viewed the environmentally friendly design only in terms of dollar savings. “My initial reaction to the project was like the community’s reaction — I saw green only in the dollar savings. We do see a cost savings compared to other buildings in our district. For instance, our high school is three times the size of our elementary school building and the energy costs are about equal. If we didn’t have to account for a pool, the costs would be much lower.”
Today, he sees the utilization of a geothermal heating and cooling system at the school in a totally different light. “This was a worthwhile project because of the message it sends to our students. As a public organization, we should consider the environment when making decisions. In fact, it should be one of our top considerations. We teach energy efficiency, water conservation and environmental stewardship traits to our student body. They are learning from what we built. There is no price you can put on that. The community absolutely adores the building. Our new parents and visitors often stand, mouth agape, in awe.”
The school has also spurred interest among students in technology and social studies. “We stress that ‘green’ projects are often impaired by civic, economic and technological issues as much as science issues. Therefore, we try to blend the content when teaching about the building.”
Whitmore Lake High School, Mich.
Area: 151,000 square feet
First comprehensive LEED Silver-certified high school in Michigan
- Environmentally friendly design
- Use of natural light, motion sensors and photo sensors adjust use of artificial light
- Uses geothermal heating and cooling systems
- Extensive energy recovery units
- Waterless urinals; metered faucets
- Locally produced products
TMP Architecture, Inc., Bloomfield Hills, Mich. was the architect for the project, and worked in association with Mitchell & Mouat Architects, Ann Arbor, MIich.