An inside look at three net-zero energy schools on the East Coast

According to the World Green Building Council, buildings are responsible for approximately 40 percent of global energy consumption and 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Educational facilities can play a significant role in mitigating climate change due to their size and the sheer number of them across the country.

While net-zero energy schools help reduce carbon emissions, they also provide a substantial number of benefits, particularly for students, teachers and faculty who visit and work in these facilities. From improved indoor air quality that leads to healthier learning environments to increasing community engagement and awareness around sustainable living, net-zero energy schools are paving the way for more sustainable educational environments.

Here are three net-zero energy schools our teams have recently built or are currently building along the East Coast.


Douglas MacArthur Elementary
Alexandria, Virginia

 Our team in metro Washington, D.C. recently completed construction on the first net-zero ready school in Alexandria, Virginia: Douglas MacArthur Elementary School.

The new 150,000 square-foot school accommodates spaces for classrooms, art and music rooms, and physical education. Outside the walls of the school, the site is home to new turf fields, pedestrian-safe drop-off zones and driveways, basketball courts and playground areas.

This new environmentally friendly facility serves students from pre-kindergarten to fifth grade.


As a net-zero ready school, the amount of energy produced onsite by renewable sources at Douglas MacArthur Elementary will match the energy used by the building and its occupants. Some of the notable net-zero design features of the project include:

  • Geothermal system: Located under an artificial turf field, the geothermal system features deep wells that are hundreds to thousands of feet deep that collect water from the ground to power its mechanical systems.
  • Photovoltaic panels: A movable array of panels on the roof adjusts to point to the azimuth of the sun to efficiently capture light for conversion to energy, reducing the building’s demand for electricity from the grid.
  • Passive systems: The building design includes many passive features such as maximizing natural daylight and ventilation from the outdoors, as well as low- and no-VOC paint, carpet and tile.
  • Rain capture: The roof is designed to collect rainwater to recycle for use in flushing toilets and other building systems.
  • Bathrooms: Instead of gang-style bathrooms that are typically found in schools, Douglas McArthur Elementary features individual bathrooms with low-flush toilets and low water use sinks.


An underground parking garage also maximizes the campus’s recreational possibilities, and increases its aesthetic appeal with expansive green space surrounding the new building that connects to the wooded areas behind the school.

The new facility is designed to provide its elementary school students with a variety of indoor and outdoor play and creativity spaces. Alexandria City Public Schools grounded its design decisions in extensive research that showed high-quality learning environments are major contributors to improved learning outcomes for children and the morale of the school community.


Belmont Middle and High School
Belmont, Massachusetts

Our Boston office recently completed the construction and renovation of the 451,000 square-foot Belmont Middle and High School in Belmont, Massachusetts.

The existing high school was replaced with a new facility that houses grades 7-12. The four-floor structure features new academic and science wings, media facilities, dining commons, and administrative and health suites. The existing gymnasium and swimming pool were also renovated. Furthermore, the project includes the development of new access roads, drop-off loops, sidewalks, utilities, playing fields and landscaping.


The building is completely fossil fuel-free, using electricity for all equipment from chillers to bunsen burners. Belmont Middle and High School incorporates numerous innovative and sustainable concepts including the use of geothermal wells/heat pumps for heating and cooling, radiant heating and cooling within the floors, and photovoltaic panels.

During preconstruction, our team worked with the client to review sustainability goals and advised them on the potential benefits of including a geothermal element. Our team drilled 280 geothermal wells and coordinated the proper spoils management, de-watering, run-off and puddling.


The new school, which is seeking LEED® Gold certification, was designed to be net-zero by relying entirely on renewable energy. This includes an array of solar panels situated on the roof that produce one third of the building’s energy. The remaining energy is purchased from third-party suppliers, resulting in an increase in state incentives that more than offsets the cost of the third-party renewable energy. For additional energy savings, outlets operate on a timing protocol to shut down at night.

“Skanska has a long history of delivering innovative and sustainable construction services that help our customers meet their environmental goals. The Belmont School project has incorporated multiple renewable sources in construction that minimize the building’s Energy Use Index and help it reach net-zero emissions. The fossil fuel free facility will meet LEED Gold standards and set the benchmark for sustainable school construction in Massachusetts,” says Jim Craft, project executive.


Neocity Academy Addition
Kissimmee, Florida  

Our Orlando team is currently constructing a 53,000 square-foot, three-story addition to the first net-zero high school campus in Florida. Located in Kissimmee, the addition includes 26 new classrooms that will feature a mix of collaborative learning spaces, laboratories, surface parking and miscellaneous site improvements to support up to 600 students. Like its predecessor, the new building will follow the high-performance building principles and include solar photovoltaic panels.


“In the case of NeoCity Academy, the high-performance building envelope system is one of the most critical elements of the Net Zero Energy Building design as it effectively controls heat, air and moisture while minimizing energy consumption. As with any building envelope system, the high-performance envelope designed for this project accounts for all the elements of the building’s outer shell—including walls, roofing, foundations, windows and doors. With that, material selection, installation sequencing and quality control are key from the early stages of preconstruction and throughout construction,” said Daniel Abou-Jaoude, vice president/account manager at Skanska.


Another critical aspect of this project is the design, coordination and installation of the mechanical systems that are highlighted by a dedicated outdoor air system (DOAS) that supplies the building with cooled and dehumidified outside air, an increased number of heat pump rooms, and more complex building controls.

Some of the notable net-zero design features of the project include:

  • A detailed building envelope: The high-performance detailing and construction of the building envelope reduces air leakage and effectively controls heat, air and moisture. This downsizes the mechanical system to reduce first costs, operational costs and maintenance costs.
  • Window placement and sizing: This helps reduce heat gain which has a great impact on the building itself.
  • Dedicated outdoor air system: The DOAS supplies the building with cooled, dehumidified outside air, which in turn contributes to improving the air quality of the building.

“As a company, we’ve set the goal to achieve carbon neutrality by 2045 in our own operations. There aren’t many contractors who can tout the impressive work we’ve completed toward our sustainability goals. I’m excited to be part of the foundation we’re creating for environmental stewardship, creating a greener, more sustainable space for our students and community to learn and develop,” said Daniel.