Sustainability makes the grade at Chula Vista’s High Tech High

When we think of high school, many of us fondly recall football games, proms, great classes, great teachers and great friends. But for students at Chula Vista’s High Tech High, you can add photovoltaic arrays and climate-based irrigation controls to those memories.

High Tech High Chula Vista is an award-winning campus designed and built for sustainability.

The first High Tech High was chartered in 2000 after local civic and business leaders began addressing what they foresaw as a critical shortage of qualified individuals for local, high-tech careers. The campus opened in Point Loma in September of that year serving 200 ninth- and 10th-graders with a core set of educational values designed to inspire, enable and develop the next generation of community leaders combined with a thorough mastery of the skills needed for 21st century success.

The Chula Vista program opened in 2007 with 150 students and moved into its permanent, 10-acre site the following year at a cost of $11 million. The campus has grown to serve 1,250 students in grades K-12, with 550 of those in the high school. In addition to its commitment to students, the Chula Vista staff is committed to environmental sustainability. That commitment is reflected by a campus embracing sustainable principles and practices.

To deliver a sustainable facility, High Tech High leaders turned to one of San Diego’s leading architectural firms, Studio E. The company has extensive experience with sustainable design and brought an expertise that served High Tech High’s objectives and goals well.

Eric Naslund, a partner at Studio E, said it’s more a matter of will than a matter of technology. The design team and the school “need to share a vision and plan ahead,” he said.

Naslund should know. His firm has won three National Honor Awards from the American Institute of Architects and most recently won a Best Sustainable Development award for their UC Davis West Village Square project from Student Housing Business Magazine.

Among its many accolades, High Tech High’s Chula Vista campus won the Award of Merit from the United States Green Building Council’s San Diego chapter in 2011. It was named by the American Institute of Architects as one of America’s top 10 green buildings of 2011. The school’s second phase, which was completed last year, achieved the coveted LEED for Schools’ Platinum certification.

Naslund credits much of this recognition to their use of recyclable materials like Homasote for the wall coverings and drought-resistant plants in the landscaping. Homasote’s recycled products decrease air pollution by up to 73 percent and use 40 percent to 70 percent less water.

Much of the campus was built using a modular construction process, which cut up to six months off the schedule and caused less environmental disturbance to the site. Landscaping and irrigation also serve as a biosump that Naslund says acts as a “natural filter that treats run-off before it reaches our storm drains.”

The environmental benefits don’t stop there. The roof-mounted photovoltaic arrays, which are owned by San Diego Gas & Electric and were installed as part of its Savings by Design program, produced 467,000 kilowatt hours last year. That is about 72 percent of the campus’s annual energy demand and more than 5 percent better than projections.

High Tech High officials estimate an annual electricity savings of $190,000. Naslund said there was no significant cost difference in building the school to sustainability standards.

And it’s not just all about sumps and arrays. Christopher Gerber, High Tech High's director of facilities, said that many of the sustainable features enhance student learning.

“Students can access the school’s weather station as a reference for their work,” he said. “And they can use the school garden and fruit orchard to learn about nutrition, economics and the various sciences. Our (teaching) approach is rooted in project-based learning, and the curriculum is easily adaptable to the sustainable design.”

Not all of the sustainable features are so apparent. Gerber said much of the design has hidden benefits, such as enhanced acoustics, better indoor air quality and reduced toxicity. Students may not be as aware of these elements, but when they’re pointed out, “they are always amazed at the various campus features they’ve never noticed before.”

Gerber also said there are no special maintenance issues with the sustainable campus. He said it is “beautiful and simple” and requires no special training for facilities crews to maintain.

With the great success of the Chula Vista campus, Gerber says High Tech High will apply many of the lessons learned to future campuses and will retrofit many existing schools to meet sustainable objectives.

“We are developing one new school every year and will apply best practices to every campus,” he said.

The new High Tech High North County campus in San Marcos is using the same irrigation techniques, edible gardens, tensile fabric shade structures and other systems first tested at High Tech High Chula Vista.

The big lesson, Gerber said, is that a campus built to sustainable standards can be just as “beautiful, functional and durable as sites using much more water, toxins and money.”

High Tech High Chula Vista proves that every day.

Hamilton is a San Diego-based development and planning consultant and a member of ULI San Diego’s Sustainability Committee.

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