“We learn from our building.” This statement was made at a recent presentation to the Arlington School Board by Kathy Olmsted, a fifth-grade teacher at Discovery Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia, a Green Schools National Network Catalyst School. Discovery, completed in 2015, was awarded Zero Energy (ZE) Certification by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) in April 2018. It is one of only four schools in the U.S., and the largest building of any type, to have been certified ZE by ILFI. Of the many awards Discovery has received, the most significant was being named a 2017 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School. This is because the award is made as much for the teaching and learning that go on in and around the building as the design and performance of the building itself. Though many aspects of the building support teaching and learning, it is the energy dashboard/Sphere (Discovery Sphere) that prompted Kathy’s statement. Every day students learn authentically from the data the dashboard collects: notably how the building performs in relation to the weather, season, and climate; how students travel to and from school each day; and how much uneaten food is sent to the local food bank each Friday.


Arlington Public Schools (APS) has grown from about 18,500 students in 2007 to almost 27,000 in 2017 and is projected to reach 30,000 students in 2021. Discovery was the first new school built to accommodate this growth. It relieved crowding in a cluster of schools in a relatively high-income, low-diversity section of Arlington County. Quite reasonably, residents of more diverse and mixed income neighborhoods question the equity of Discovery, and want to know what APS is doing to apply what it’s learning from Discovery to new and existing schools in their neighborhoods.


The vision is broad: dashboards at every one of APS’s 33 schools, networked together and providing all sorts of real-time data for authentic learning within schools, between schools, and across the school division. It will take us some time to get there but we are making progress:

  • Fleet Elementary, our second new ZE school, is under construction and on schedule to open in September 2019.
  • Our third new ZE elementary school at the Reed site is in design and set to open in September 2021.
  • Both Fleet and Reed will be equipped with energy dashboards.
  • APS staff is evaluating proposals for a Power Purchase Agreement, under which it will lease roof space at the new Fleet school and four existing schools to vendors. These vendors will install solar panels on the schools’ roofs and sell the power they generate to APS at lower rates than the local utility company, thereby reducing utility costs and mitigating exposure to long-term increases.
  • When the installations are complete all five schools will have energy dashboards.
  • We are evaluating Performance Contracting, under which the energy and environmental performance of existing schools would be improved and funded through the resulting savings in utility costs, and through which the energy dashboard network would eventually be extended to all schools.


Progress toward this vision is not entirely smooth. Rapidly escalating construction costs in the DC metropolitan region are pressuring APS to build more for less. This is forcing the architecture/engineering teams with which it collaborates to find new, less costly ways of constructing the extremely low energy buildings needed to make ZE possible. APS had to work through the Virginia legislature to force its power provider to allow a pilot program, under which the excess energy generated at Discovery may be applied to utility bills at other schools. It may take years for APS to realize its vision for a divisionwide dashboard network. When the division does realize its vision, the energy dashboard will surely have a much better name, collect far more data, and students and teachers will be using it to learn from their buildings in ways we cannot yet conceive.


John C. Chadwick, AIA has served Arlington Public Schools since 2011, first as Director, Design and Construction, and currently as Assistant Superintendent, Facilities and Operations. He led the district’s response to sustained student enrollment growth through three biannual Capital Improvement Plans, and several capital projects, notably Discovery Elementary School, which opened in 2015 and was designed to achieve zero net energy and integrate learning, design, sustainability, and environmental stewardship.