Holcim Foundation


Net Zero Energy schools are best in class

Sustainable design across the entire life cycle for Swift Lee Office’s modular school buildings

Swift Lee Office’s Net Zero Energy (NZE) High-Performing School Prototype has been successfully built on three sites in California. SLO is now a contender to design and manufacture the prototype classroom buildings for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) at various school sites, where it is shifting the discussion on building cost away from the short term to examine sustainability across the building’s life cycle.

The NZE Prototype uses “off-the-shelf” components and modular panels to create a system for solar, acoustic, and environmental control that is tailored to achieve a bespoke climate-responsive solution for each individual site. The project won the LafargeHolcim Awards Silver for North America in 2011, and was praised by the jury for its coherent technical concept that retained spatial and conceptual simplicity – but was put on hold when the LAUSD lost funding in late-2013.

Gloria_Lee_Twin_Rivers_03.pngWith persistence, the design has since been constructed on three sites: as a 1,142 square-meter single-level version for the Rocketship Fuerza Community Prep in San Jose, California. From start to finish, construction took just 14 weeks, and six laborers erected the structural frame in only two days, opening in August 2014. Two more NZE buildings were constructed for the Twin Rivers Charter School near Sacramento, California. A school building with nine classrooms and a gymnasium over 1,770 square meters opened in late 2015; while the 1,950 square-meter elementary school with 12 classrooms, media center and administrative services opened in early 2016.

In an interview with French/English architecture magazine L’Architecture d’Aujhourd’hui (‘A’A’), Gloria Lee confirmed that SLO is currently competing against other modular building firms to design and manufacture the prototype classroom buildings as single or multi‐level configurations at various school sites for the LAUSD.


Gloria Lee summarized SLO’s commitment to sustainable construction: “We have always embraced Buckminster Fuller’s maxim of doing the most with the least, which lies at the core of our practice, and which we view as prerequisite to economical and sustainable design. We remind ourselves that with great challenges there are also significant opportunities for change and innovation that can shape the future,” she explains.

The NZE Prototype is wrapped with a solar skin that creates a double façade for solar, acoustic and environmental control. Consisting of modular panels of different aperture, transparency, profile, and directionality, the solar skin permits the prototype to adapt to fluctuating climatic, solar orientation, and site conditions to optimize energy performance. The solar skin represents the integration of performance, form, and fabrication. Additionally, rooftop photovoltaic panels, skylights, natural daylight and ventilation, and a low-energy heating and cooling system will enable the NZE Prototype to achieve its net zero energy target. The NZE Prototype produces as much energy as it uses on an annual basis, harvests rainwater to offset demand on the municipal system, and incorporates materials that are resource efficient with low life cycle impacts on the environment such as recycled steel and low-carbon or carbon-negative concrete.

Gloria_Lee_Twin_Rivers_04.jpgThe building form and geometry are deliberately simple. The design eschews grand architectural statements and instead focuses on the structural, programmatic and spatial flexibility within the shed-like enclosure. The structures are assembled from pre-fabricated and factory-built components to reduce construction time, cost, and construction-related waste, traffic, and pollution. Factory based production also enables easier and more efficient recycling of surplus construction materials. The building is designed for disassembly (via bolted connections rather than welded, floating concrete slab, minimal finishes, and modular kit of part components) for easy recycling or re-use of the structure at the end of the its useful life.

By focusing the design of the NZE Prototype on systems and performance, the discussion of building cost is shifted away from the short term cost of construction to life cycle cost – providing a much truer measure of value, and a more responsible means of assuring maximum return on investment.

Last Updated: March 10, 2017
Article Details
Yuba City, CA, USA
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