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Mountain View Voice

Architect leads the way in sustainable schools.

Presentation shows ways Mountain View school can ‘go green’ for cheap.

by Kevin Forestieri

In an effort to get away from dark, dreary classrooms and stuffy gymnasiums, the Los Altos School District modernized its facilities and outfitted them with energy-efficient features and innovative ways to use daylight. Now schools in Mountain View have the opportunity to follow suit, and got tips from the same architect who worked with the Los Altos district on how to make it happen. Lisa Gelfand works as a principal at Gelfand Partners, a San Franciso-based architectural firm. In an Oct. 30 presentation to the Mountain View Whisman district’s Board Facilities Committee, Gelfand said one of the key ways to reduce energy usage and improve the classroom environment is to use daylight, but that it has to be used right in order to work.

“Direct light from the sun (produces) a ton of glare and heat,” Gelfand said. “People tend to pull blinds and it becomes something of a problem.”

She said that many architects use big sections of glass in their structures, which looks nice but doesn’t necessarily handle the direction of daylight. Instead, her firm makes sure that light coming into buildings has to “bounce” off something first, whether it be a bookcase or a wall, before reaching the people inside.

“It creates diffuse, soft light that’s comfortable. It doesn’t bring in glare, it doesn’t bring in heat,” Gelfand said. “It gives you this radiant space.”

The result is not only a more comfortable learning environment, but a lower electrical bill as well. On average, schools that are considered Collaborative for High Performance Schools — a building rating system similar to LEED — tend to spend half as much on energy costs compared with non-CHPS schools. That could amount to big savings for the district, which spends somewhere between $800,000 and $900,000 per year on electrical costs, according to committee member Patrick Neschleba.

Gelfand said kids in day-lit classrooms also perform better, and that people in general tend to work more effectively in buildings with daylight rather than fluorescent bulbs. She said people are “oriented” to like daylight, and her goal was to get rid of any dark space in the classroom.

District board members and administrators wouldn’t have to look far to see examples of Gelfand’s designs in action. She and her firm worked on a number of schools in the Los Altos district, including the gym at Blach Intermediate School. That building has windows on all four sides that are angled based on the direction they’re facing: The south side has windows that face down and takes in light that bounces up and into the gym; window panels on the east and west sides are vertical and face north to avoid the glare.

The result is that sunlight gets in from all sides without the glare that normally comes with it, which Gelfand said is important for a gym. She said it’s common for the upper level of gyms to have large open windows with direct sunlight at the worst possible angle for people playing basketball, forcing them to have to look directly into blinding light as they shoot for the basket.

Greg Coladonato, the committee’s vice president, said the presentation was an interesting look into school designs that are more attractive and energy efficient, and that provide a more effective learning environment. And while schools could stand to save thousands every year on energy-cost reductions, Coladonato said, the improvements wouldn’t cost much.

“These are features that cost no or little more than the regular cost, but work much better,” Coladonato said.

He said the use of daylight through reflective surfaces would significantly cut down on lighting bills and have an added benefit on student performance.

Superintendent Craig Goldman of the Mountain View Whisman School District noted that Gelfand and her architectural firm’s approach to school modernization and construction is “very similar” to what the school district and its current architects are already doing in terms of reducing utility costs and using natural light.

But discussion on how to go above and beyond in terms of sustainability is limited at Mountain View Whisman school board meetings. During the Oct. 23 board meeting discussion on the new “innovation centers” at Crittenden and Graham middle schools, discussion on energy efficiency was limited to what was mandatory by the state and compliant with the state energy code.

Discussion on sustainability kicked off when community members on the Board Facilities Committee specifically requested “outside” sources of expertise on what sustainability options are available. Neschleba said during a Sept. 23 committee meeting that there is a potential to focus on reducing the district’s electrical spending and get the biggest bang for the buck with outside lighting.

If things go according to plan, Sharon Danks, CEO of Green Schoolyards America, will speak to the facilities committee. She is likely to talk about ways in which the school district could move from the traditional asphalt and turf school yard towards “green” school yards.

The doubleheader of environmental speakers shows an interest in green, environmentally sustainable and energy-efficient buildings, but it remains to be seen if that enthusiasm will be shared by district administrators and the school board.

Board member Ellen Wheeler said she enjoyed the presentation by Gelfand and her emphasis on sustainability in her school building designs. Going forward, Wheeler said, she would like to expand the existing gardens at the elementary schools into more “robust” gardens as Measure G projects continue to change the face of Mountain View schools.

“I think sustainability and gardens go hand in hand,” Wheeler said.

Vicki Moore is the executive director of Living Classroom and spearheaded the effort to plant edible and native gardens at all district elementary schools. She was at the facilities committee meeting and spoke on the importance of school gardens, according to Wheeler.

Moore said the Measure G construction could displace the existing gardens at the schools, and that they could use the opportunity to expand the gardens and include more space for native plants. She said the existing native gardens are too small to create a “real habitat area” and give the campus a “natural” area.

“The Bubb and Huff school gardens are the smallest, although Monta Loma, Landels and Stevenson native gardens are also quite small,” she said.

Possible upgrades could include outdoor seating within the gardens that could accommodate an entire class, an outdoor kitchen area, compost areas and greenhouses. Moore admits that if the district decides to build greenhouses or additional compost areas, it would need to find volunteers outside of Living Classroom to maintain it.

Saving solar for another day

Many school districts are not ready to adopt solar power in their schools because of the high cost, but as prices drop more and more schools are finding it prudent to install solar panels on classrooms. Gelfand said the emphasis right now is to be “ready” for solar, and that means constructing buildings that could easily accommodate solar power at a later time.

Solar ready, in this case, means open space on the roofs and wiring for the solar panels that, if prices continue to decline, will be on the rooftops in the coming years. Gelfand said schools could reach “zero net” energy usage if the buildings are efficient enough and renewable energy is enabled.

To Wheeler, this reaffirmed what Goldman and the middle school Measure G architects were saying to the board all along — that they want to be ready when solar prices drop enough to be cost-effective. The Los Altos School District has also not installed solar panels at its schools, but does have solar power installation on the list of possible projects for Measure N spending.

Unlike the two elementary school districts, the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District has poured millions of dollars into solar power, including a solar canopy project that put solar panels above the parking lots at both Mountain View and Los Altos high schools. The district saved an estimated $764,000 in energy costs as of October of last year, according to a district press release.

Gelfand said solar power is an important way to incorporate renewable energy for schools, but will not have quite the striking impact of energy-efficient heating and ventilation, and of “daylighting” the buildings.

“That’s going to have an immediate effect on the kids,” Gelfand said. “There’s a real difference in how kids feel in a beautiful classroom (as opposed to) a really, dark dismal one.”

Email Kevin Forestieri at

Mountain View Voice