How Hood River Students Help Run Their Super-Green School

An architectural lesson in earth science, where kids "eat their conservation vegetables before their solar cookies.”

By Hannah Wallace January 27, 2015 Published in the February 2015 issue of Portland Monthly

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When Hood River Middle School designed a new music and science building, the kids weighed in. Students told Portland’s Opsis Architecture they wanted a building that used renewable energy and flushed its toilets with rainwater. “If you’ve got a middle schooler asking you, ‘Why can’t you do it?’ you better figure it out,” recalls architect Alec Holser.  

Three years later, the school has paid exactly zero dollars in power bills for the building, the nation’s first public school building certified for “net-zero” energy usage. In fact, the building—with its rooftop solar array, rain-flush toilets, greenhouse powered by a “climate battery,” and geothermal heat pumps—is a high-tech, interactive green machine. 

“We wanted a giant functional laboratory,” says Michael Becker, the preternaturally energetic science teacher who spearheaded the project. The building does use electricity from the grid—but only for a few days each year. “Overall, we produce electricity,” explains Becker of the photovoltaic array mounted on the south-facing roof to take maximum advantage of sun exposure. “In June, July, August, and September, we’re a serious energy production center,” he adds, with excess power sold back to the grid. 

And as with its design, students play a key role in keeping this dynamo running. Kids check the building’s energy monitor daily. If it’s out of balance, they’ll use a handsaw instead of a table saw in shop class. As Becker tells his students, “You have to eat your conservation vegetables before your solar cookies.”   

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