Would building taller schools result in less energy consumption, more community greenspace and all-around healthier kids?
In a recent post about Michael Ewen, New Westminster's veteran school board trustee, I wrote about how he purchased himself a computer using scarce tax dollars. The piece triggered a lot of reaction in my local community and there were over 20 comments posted online. Most of them were quite scathing of Ewen's performance and his penchant for using school district funds to purchase personal iMacs. While some New West residents may genuinely be upset regarding Ewen's purchase, I suspect their anger truly stems from the fact Ewen was school board chair when plans for a new secondary school fell apart a few years ago.
For those unfamiliar with the New Westminster secondary school fiasco, I can summarize it in this way. The city (pop. 50,000) has only one secondary school which is falling apart and needs to be replaced. The BC Ministry of Education committed (years ago) new funding to build the school once the district had come up with a concrete plan regarding what they needed. The New West School District (NWSD) then revealed a full "bells and whistles" design that was more costly than the province could afford. Their controversial plan included the development of a new low rise school alongside a couple of tall condominium towers on site. The condo towers were touted as a creative way to help pay for the "bells and whistles" low rise school. After years of work and countless millions to develop the plan, it was unceremoniously shelved by Ewen and Co. and the NWSD appears to be back at square one. For more details, I would highly recommend you read Janet Steffenhagen's blog over at the Vancouver Sun.
To add one more twist, the local First Nations population also claim part of the site is as an historic burial ground and demand nothing be built on that portion of the property. Concerns over First Nation's burial grounds only became public after the initial design was revealed.
It's not an overstatement to say the whole New Westminster secondary school fiasco has frustrated every parent in the community. Parents with kids currently at the high school are miffed their teens have missed out on the opportunity to attend a new school. Those with kids attending the middle school are upset the construction may not be complete before their kids graduate. What has frustrated me most during this whole debate is the lack of creativity and green principles applied to the overall initial design.
As you can see from the image above, the secondary school in New West actually sits on a large parcel of land. For a moment, just imagine this size of property suddenly becoming available to the Hong Kong school district. Do you think they would be planning for a squat three story low-rise school spread out over a large chunk of the available land? Not in your lifetime.
A likely scenario is they would build a taller school, set aside some permanent green space and develop the remaining land to pay for the school. Assuming the New West school project doesn't include a condo/commercial component, what would be wrong with designing a new 10 story high school that required less than 1/3 the land of the previous plan?
As it stands now, most of the schools constructed in our urban centres are founded on the notion that there is plenty of cheap land available for construction. That's why I've had a difficult time locating a single public school constructed in one Canada's major cities that goes above five stories. Most schools are between one to three stories in height with little thought put into how to make them greener. It is commonly understood that low rise buildings spread out over large areas are no where near as energy efficient as more compact taller buildings.
Besides the environmental impact of requiring less land to construct the school, there are many other ancillary benefits to taller schools. If stairwells are constructed on the outer edge of the building envelope, they can be filled with natural sunlight. A taller building would also guarantee that most students need walk up and down those stairs on a daily basis.
It is worth noting that a severe lack of exercise in our younger generations is leading to an obesity epidemic throughout North America. Our kids are simply not active enough while they continue to pump deep-fried food into themselves at every turn.
In the case of New Westminster secondary, I think there is a relatively simple solution that could result in win-win for local residents, the First Nation community and the environment.
Step 1: Determine which piece of property is not considered an historic First Nations burial ground. My understanding is that only a small corner piece of the property is actually affected. Commit to making this portion of the property permanent green space in order that it remains undisturbed.
Step 2: With the remaining property, agree that NWSD will use the least amount of land possible to build the secondary school while leaving as much green space for recreational and community use. It should be noted that New Westminster is seriously park and green space deficient for a city its size.
Step 3: Bring together some of the most creative architects, developers and educators to brainstorm what kind of taller design could be implemented on this site to meet the needs of the district, students, teachers and taxpayers.
Step 4: Design a new highrise high school (aim for ten storeys) on a small footprint and make it the most eco-friendly and fittest student population in BC.
Step 5: Seek community buy-in and commit to having it constructed within 24 months while the current recession winds down and the cost of building it remains lower.
Step 6: Ask the Province to hand over the money they committed for the school and work with the Ministry of Health to pilot a demonstration project on how taller schools can lead to better health outcomes for kids.
We seriously need to re-think the way we build our schools into the future. Other jurisdictions that lack cheap land and energy have been able to find creative ways of building their schools on the equivalent of a postage stamp. If that means building our schools a bit taller and use less energy while leaving more green space for the community, I'm all for it.