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Inside a New School Built to Be Climate-Resilient

The Lake Osewego school district in Oregon is no stranger to climate crises and their impact on students, families, and the broader community.

After years of close encounters with extreme weather and wildfires, as well as the constant threat of earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest, the district south of Portland rebuilt one of its elementary schools in the hopes of never again being caught flat-footed.

The 79,000-square-foot facility can accommodate 600 students. But what sets it apart is that it’s specially designed to withstand the compounding and often difficult-to-predict fallout of climate change, which the community has experienced over and over in recent years.

It is believed to be one of first K-12 schools in America to get its energy from a microgrid—a self-sufficient energy system that can operate independently from the area’s electric grid, supplied in part by an onsite solar panel array. The setup means the school’s power can stay on, even when the rest of surrounding area goes dark. That could translate to fewer emergency school closures as the building is able to maintain power and heating and cooling systems. And it’s part of what makes the school suitable as an emergency shelter for the community during natural catastrophes.

Starting with the onset of the pandemic in early 2020, the area was hit with a barrage of crises, from a “heat dome” that brought several days of temperatures eclipsing 115 degrees to wildfires that put thousands of people in Lake Oswego on standby evacuation orders to a massive ice storm that knocked out thousands of miles of power lines and left residents without power for up to three weeks.

The back-to-back-to-back extreme weather events are emblematic of the problems school districts across the country are contending with increasingly as climate change alters regular weather patterns and sparks more frequent climate-related emergencies.

Extreme heat and smoke from wildfires have increasingly forced schools to call off classes in recent years. And even when those events haven’t prompted closures, extreme weather has affected students’ learning. Students don’t learn as well in classrooms that lack climate control or have poor air quality.

Plus, schools still are largely burning fossil fuels for heat and rely on diesel-powered buses to get students to school.

Experts say districts need to be planning now to become less reliant on fossil fuels and to brace for the impacts of climate change on their operations, outfitting their schools with the necessary infrastructure to withstand extreme temperatures, as well as events like earthquakes and wildfires—a costly and time-consuming endeavor that can take years.

So, with memories of recent extreme weather in mind, that’s exactly what the Lake Oswego district, with a population of just shy of 7,000 students, is doing.

In May, the district opened River Grove Elementary School, which runs fully on electric energy, rare among K-12 facilities that traditionally have run on fossil fuels and used backup energy from fuel-powered generators, and is designed to remain standing—and available as a place of refuge for the community—amid earthquakes, severe storms, wildfires, and extreme temperatures.

The district held a ribbon-cutting event for River Grove in May, and it will fully open to students in the fall. The new school replaced an old facility that was built in the 1960s.

The design process for the school began in early 2020, and was influenced by the pandemic and other natural disasters that hit the Portland area soon after.

“The issues were really hitting front and center as we were leading up to the design,” said Tony Vandenberg, executive director of project management for the school district. “Resiliency and sustainability came up over and over in conversations with the community as we observed and dealt with the things that kept hitting us. It really confirmed the work we were doing, and pushed us to continue to gather the momentum we needed to do this work.”

Now, the community has a versatile and resilient facility to show for it.

River Grove is able to withstand earthquakes

Portions of the building can continue to function during prolonged, large-scale power outages thanks to the school’s microgrid, which includes a multi-part battery backup system. The school can also capitalize on this infrastructure when there’s not a crisis.

For example, if the school recognizes that it’s using more energy at certain times during the day, it can employ its back-up power system to supplement its usual power supply, in turn reducing the demand on the grid at peak times, conserving energy, and saving money, project leaders said. The backup system recharges when it’s not in use.

The school also features electric-powered heat pumps for climate control and hot water, and energy-efficient windows and insulation to reduce energy demand.

The architects and school staff have worked closely with the Red Cross, local emergency departments, and county government leaders in designing River Grove to ensure it meets the requirements to be used as an emergency shelter and command center should disaster strike, said Josh Checkis, an engineer with sustainability consulting firm Glumac, who worked on the River Grove project.

The school is certified at the highest-level “structural performance code,” meaning its structural integrity is stronger than that of a traditional school, mechanical equipment has been tested to ensure it can withstand the trauma of an earthquake, and the building can be immediately occupied following a temblor. Typically, facilities including hospitals and fire stations have similar structural integrity.

Long-term benefits outweigh upfront cost

Admittedly, building River Grove wasn’t cheap. The district spent about $44 million building and outfitting the school before it opened in May.

It’s a big, upfront investment that may not feel feasible for many districts, project leaders acknowledged, noting that the River Grove project was the product of a successful bond measure that voters supported. But the long-term benefits and savings can be extraordinary, too.

“When you look at the life cycle of the building, and the fact we’re going to have a building after a major event and systems that still work and be able to support our students and community—not to mention the significant saving on our utility bills from using cleaner energy—that adds up tenfold over the years,” Vandenberg said.

School leaders and teachers also plan to use the building’s features to aid classroom lessons about climate, energy, and ecosystems, Vandenberg said.

“These systems are great and they’re there, but how do we know that they’re there? How do we use this building as a teaching tool? That’s another big component that we’ve been talking about,” he said.

The River Grove project is the culmination of a series of smaller-scale sustainability projects that have been deployed across the district—seismic upgrades at its nine other schools so they can better withstand earthquakes and the installation of solar cells that convert sunlight into electrical energy, for example. The new school also signals a paradigm shift in how the community thinks about sustainability.

It’s a shining example of what’s possible in Oregon and beyond, said Rebecca Stuecker, architect and educational planner at the architecture firm Arcadis, which worked with the Lake Oswego district on the River Grove project.

“We’re starting to see these initiatives around green energy gain traction in Oregon and Washington,” she said, “and I think we’ll see that continue to expand in the years to come.”

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