Making the Invisible Visible: Reaching Net-Zero at Buckley Elementary SchoolOct 17, 2023
It’s hard to miss the first net-zero public school in Connecticut. Located in Manchester, Connecticut, community members and passers-by alike can instantly point out Buckley Elementary School: Look for the Smartflower blooming at the entrance! The renovate-as-new project was completed in late 2022 and was designed and overseen by the architectural design firm TSKP Studio. The studio focused on renewable energy sources like solar panels and geothermal wells, energy efficiency, and innovative learning, which resulted in the school receiving the Award of Excellence: Sustainable Architecture award from CREW CT in 2023.
TSKP first learned about the Smartflower when one of their Interior Designers stumbled across the product in the wild. She quickly shared it with the rest of the studio, and the solar flower remained in the back of their minds as a potential option for future projects. When they started work on the Buckley Elementary School project, the team realized the potential Smartflower had to elevate their design. The school had an existing circular driveway in front of the main entrance, and the team had been looking for a signature marker to encapsulate the school’s net-zero efforts. “The solar PV array would be on the roof, so the building would have looked like any other ordinary building. I wanted a landmark that would stand out and get people driving by to say, ‘Oh, that’s the net-zero school’. The Smartflower was the perfect solution,” said Michael Scott, Senior Associate at TSKP Studio.
Getting to net-zero at Buckley Elementary School relied on three main components: Solar panels, geothermal wells, and an energy-efficient tight building envelope. In addition to the Smartflower, the school installed a 391-kW solar array on the roof, created a geothermal wellfield comprised of sixty 500-feet deep geothermal wells, and integrated high-performance building systems to ensure all energy generated is used as efficiently as possible. As the project progressed, it became clear to the building committee that they wanted to take the net-zero school to the next level: they didn’t want to use fossil fuels at all, not even in the kitchen. “Our tagline was: Nothing gets burned in this building, not even the tater tots,” said Luther.
An energy dashboard can be found in the school lobby, where students can monitor the energy production from the Smartflower and the rooftop solar array in real-time or track it throughout the day. Given the young age of the school’s students, the combination of the energy dashboard and the kinetic Smartflower helps them better understand the relationship between the sun, solar energy, and the electricity that energy produces. Students can look out the window and recognize the sun, identify it with the position of the Smartflower’s panels, and then link it to the numbers on the energy dashboard. “The Smartflower acts as an icon for the sustainable initiatives happening within the school, and the dashboard tells the detailed story of those initiatives. Our STEM teachers plan to integrate the Smartflower and the dashboard into their lessons this year,” said Ann Johnston, Principal of Buckley Elementary School.
Sustainability and renewable energy were topics that the Manchester town community felt needed to be addressed. It was the community that pushed for zero energy programs within their schools. Even the students at Buckley Elementary School got involved—under the guidance of the Library Media Specialist at Buckley Elementary, Kendra Montstream, 8 elementary students conducted research on geothermal energy and how it would be incorporated into their net-zero school. The students then presented their research to the Board of Education, demonstrating how important renewable energy was to community members of all ages, children and adults alike. When the school had its initial Groundbreaking Ceremony, Mayor Jay Moran and other local committee members were present to show their support.
Students at Buckley Elementary were quick to adopt the Smartflower once it was installed—the solar flower can be seen from the library windows where students can easily see the change in its position. “The Smartflower is cool in my opinion because it moves with the sun and it has multiple solar panels,” said Alison D., a fourth-grade student. “I love the Smartflower. It helps bring power to our school and that is really cool,” said Chelsea N., a third-grade student. “It is beautiful!” said Jaslyn C., another third-grade student.
“Not only is the Smartflower a beautiful structure to look at and an amazing source of renewable energy, but it also provides many conversations through our library windows about how it works and helps our school each day,” said Montstream. It’s not just the Buckley Elementary students that are enthralled, however. Neighbors who live near the school and other community members like to keep an eye out for the Smartflower whenever they drive by, and a class at a nearby university even organized a trip to learn more about the net-zero program at the school!
When reflecting on the Buckley Elementary School project and the Smartflower, Randall Luther, Architect and Partner at TSKP had this to say:
“When we worked on this project, we asked ourselves: How can you signify the complex technical aspects of the building, what the kids are learning about sustainability, the support of the community, and combine them into one visible emblem?
“The Smartflower makes visible so much of what is invisible. Almost all the net zero components of the school aren’t instantly recognizable. It looks like a normal building, but the Smartflower takes all of that and combines it into one iconic piece that stands for everything you can’t see.”
Learn more about TSKP at tskp.com.
Learn more about Manchester Public Schools at www.mpspride.org.
Want to read up on other Smartflower installations? Click here.