Discovery Elementary School
Architect: VMDO Architects
Owner: Arlington Public Schools
Location: Arlington, Virginia
Project site: Previously developed land
Building program type(s): Education–K-12 School
Discovery Elementary School is the largest zero-energy school in the US. The challenge was to integrate a 98,000 sq ft building into a residential neighborhood while keeping the entire PV array on the roof. By terracing the mass into a south facing hill, the project met local goals for scale, community goals for preservation of flat, open space for recreation, and global goals for ideal orientation for solar generation. Discovery offers a positive example of a solution to the global crisis of climate change–and along the way emboldens students with the expectation that they are creative participants in those solutions.
Discovery Elementary is Arlington Public Schools’ first elementary school designed in the 21st century. Built to address rapidly growing enrollment, the project was designed to meet a larger goal: to prove what can truly be achieved with a new public school facility. Under particular scrutiny, this was the first project in a capital improvement program that is in the process of adding over 500,000 sq ft of new school construction to the nation’s smallest county.
Two important design process criteria were paramount: challenge the tendency of low expectations, and focus on children first. The resulting primary design goal was to provide a joyful and engaging environment for learning–a place students couldn’t wait to get to in the morning and didn’t want to leave in the afternoon. The secondary goal was to design a building that would not just use less resources, but make a regenerative contribution to the well-being of its occupants, site and the world at large—specifically regarding the crisis of climate change.
A specific site challenge was to integrate the 63,000+ sq ft building footprint into a residential neighborhood hostile to the urbanization occurring elsewhere in the county. By breaking down the mass and terracing the building into a south facing hill, the project met local goals for scale, community goals for the preservation of flat, open space for recreation, and global goals for ideal orientation for solar generation.
The school is the first net zero energy school in the Mid-Atlantic, the largest in the US, and the second largest fully-conditioned zero energy building of any type in North America. Discovery offers a positive example of a solution to the global crisis of climate change—and along the way emboldens students with the expectation that they are creative participants in those solutions.