Inside the New T.C. Williams
Unfinished School Already Shows Planners' Pursuit of the 'Green' and the Modern

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 21, 2006

A large garden on the roof. Giant pop-up skylights. A soaring, glass-enclosed media center with 28-foot ceilings.

Workers at the new T.C. Williams High School, which for the last two years has been rising alongside the old building, have moved beyond the basic construction phase and are now focusing on details that administrators hope will win the building national certification as a "green" school.

The three-story, $90.4 million building for 2,500 students will incorporate design and construction elements that are environmentally friendly. The school is among the first in the country to apply for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council to structures that qualify in several areas. The council will audit the building after it has been finished next year to determine whether it qualifies.

Thirty schools nationwide have certification, including one in Virginia Beach; 220 schools are in the process of applying. The new Great Seneca Creek Elementary School in Montgomery County has applied for certification; other local schools, including Washington-Lee High School in Arlington and Sidwell Friends middle school in the District, plan to seek certification for their buildings.

The District and Montgomery County recently initiated mandates for public and private projects to meet LEED standards, and Arlington County plans to announce a similar policy for public buildings.

Among other green elements, the 461,000-square-foot T.C. building will have:

· A large roof garden that will provide additional insulation to the building, material for science classes and a "chef's corner" with herbs for culinary arts classes.

· Waterless urinals.

· Fluorescent "up-lighting" in classrooms. This feature diffuses light and makes computer screens easier on the eyes.

· A 450,000-gallon cistern beneath the building that will collect rainwater runoff to be used for toilet-flushing and irrigation. "It's an idea that's as old as biblical times," said Mark X. Burke, director of planning and construction for Alexandria City public schools.

Adding points for LEED certification is a plan to recycle most of the debris from the old T.C. Williams when it is torn down next year.

Original plans for T.C. did not involve constructing a green building. But early in the planning, a group of parents and community members, Alexandrians for a Green TC, made a presentation to City Council and School Board members outlining benefits of the green approach.

"We told them about the health issues, the energy issues and the learning issues," said David Peabody, one of the leaders of the effort who is an architect and parent of two T.C. graduates. The air in a green building is free of formaldehyde and petroleum, he said, adding that studies show that children score higher on tests when they are taught in rooms that have natural light.

As for cost, he said, "These buildings are much cheaper to run over time. After seven to nine years, [the extra cost of green elements] pays for itself, and with energy prices what they are, it will pay for itself even sooner than that."

LEED certification, which started in late 1990s, is awarded on a points basis. Buildings qualify on the basis of such criteria as efficiency of water use, energy consumption, use of recycled materials, and indoor environmental quality.

School officials in the 1990s initially proposed building an addition to T.C. Williams. But expectations of higher enrollment and the major renovations required in the old structure convinced administrators that raising a new building was more economical.

The structure is being built in phases. The new building stands in the footprint of the old career center and parking lot. When students move into it next fall, the old building will be replaced by a two-story parking lot.

The Alexandria school system has convened a task force to look at ways to keep the building pollutant-free by such means as more recycling and using environmentally friendly cleaning products.

Nine months before the expected start of classes there, the new building, designed by Moseley Architects and constructed by Hensel Phelps, is starting to feel like a school. Workers have installed wall tiles in T.C. colors (red and blue), and the hallways are lined with bright-red lockers.

The price tag has gone up by about $2 million since construction started because of unexpected costs such as removing asphalt debris that was discovered during excavation, new requirements by utility companies and minor modifications of the plan.

"It remains within the overall project budget," said Burke, adding that although installing the green elements also cost more at the outset, the $30,000 to $40,000 to be savedannually would soon account for the increased project cost.

Burke has been leading teachers, City Council members, administrators and students on tours of the towering brick building, which occupies what is said to have been a sorghum field.

On a recent tour Burke walked visitors through the gym, a 26-foot-high space with Neo Shok maple floors that will hold three basketball courts and seat 2,800 spectators. Bars of sunlight slanted into the dust-coated hallway as workers in hard hats sawed a sheet of corrugated metal. Burke pointed out the school's television studios, black-box theater, darkrooms, planetarium and an auditorium with state-of-the-art acoustics. The school will also be equipped for wireless communication.

"People are going to be able to see just how high an emphasis the city puts on education," he said.

For a few students, the new building has already provided educational opportunities. Students from building-trades classes have gone to the site to learn about carpentry, masonry, plumbing and electrical work; photography students have taken pictures of the school; earth science classes have analyzed the soil; and physics classes have made calculations about the construction cranes.

Teachers' requests were also taken into account in the design, Burke said, saying that teachers tend to ask for operable windows, natural lighting and control over the thermostat.

David Keener, head of the school's science department, said he looks forward to having more spacious labs after 17 years teaching in the current building, which opened in 1965.

The halls of the new building do not give the feeling of a traditional high school, said Keener, who has taken three tours. "Instead of everything being sharp edges and rectangular, there are a lot of curves," he said. "I think they tried to give it a more collegiate feel."

The new building will be divided into five smaller learning communities, or academies, each with its own wing and advisers.

It will also have a food court with indoor and outdoor seating. Students will no longer be allowed off campus for lunch as they are now.

For Lindsay Smith, a junior, high school has been one big construction project, with extra noise and less recreation space. But Smith, 16, considers herself luckier than students just one year ahead of her.

"They feel like they're kind of getting gypped," she said as she gazed up at the new building. "They've been here for all the construction and they don't get to see the final product."

Michaela Balderston, 16, said her older sister, a University of Virginia student who graduated from T.C. two years ago, can't believe her eyes on her visits home.

"They're all so jealous," she said of her sister and her friends. "Every time they come back, they're astonished."

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