Earth-Friendly Education

Roof just after installation in August 2004.

The Zoological Society's eight-classroom school at the Milwaukee County Zoo is no ordinary education building. It's called the Karen Peck Katz Conservation Education Center. So it's a conservation education building, where all the workshops are concentrated on science-based curriculum and environmental awareness. So, it only makes sense that the very materials the building was constructed with fit within the same earth-friendly guidelines that the programs do.

The Right Light

A major part of the building's environmental success is its incorporation of Wisconsin's Focus on Energy program, a statewide efficiency and renewable energy initiative supported by the Public Benefits Fund. The program is a public-private partnership of several Wisconsin energy organizations working for a stable environment by offering energy information and services for both residents and businesses.

As a part of this project, the new building's classrooms are filled with natural light from several windows with direct western exposure. Classrooms also have special lighting features, such as strategic switching of daylight controls. Each room has both an occupancy sensor and an "auto off" switch that control light fixtures near the windows. When a room is not occupied, the sensor turns the lights and the "auto off" switch off. When the room is in use, the lights at the windows must then be manually turned on. The extra effort helps to ensure that these lights are used only when absolutely necessary.

Other energy efficiency tactics include the use of metal halide lamps, which incorporate what's known as "pulse-start technology." Simply speaking, this new technology offers a more reliable, and significantly longer, lamp life by revamping the ballast (the part that sends currents to the lamp and makes the light turn on). Another bonus is the lamp's enhanced ability to maintain consistent color temperature and performance, which results in vibrant displays and signs that won't appear washed out under bright lights.

The building also was designed with classrooms on only one side of each hallway (called a single-loaded corridor). This allows for direct natural light on each classroom's west side, and borrowed light from the day-lit corridor on the east side. This differs from typical schools with double-loaded corridors, or classrooms on both sides, resulting in dark, windowless hallways and a wider building. Our building's narrower structure allows more natural ventilation, thanks to lots of screened windows.

"You can open almost every window in the building," says Mike Borchardt of C.G. Schmidt, Inc., the Milwaukee contractor involved with the project. "In most commercial buildings, the windows are fixed; so heating and cooling systems are almost always necessary. On nice days, opening a few windows is a natural and energy-efficient way to ventilate."

Go Green

Not all the improvements are inside. Up on the roof, you will not find the usual barren black sea of tar or gravel. Instead, the space is covered with growing plants, an innovative method to reduce storm-water runoff to benefit the environment. The Zoo's horticulturists, Ann Hackbarth and Noah Huber, maintain the roof's plants, which are mostly sedums, low-growing succulents that don't require a lot of work. During heavy rainfall, these plants act as a gigantic sponge in the midst of a densely cemented area. By soaking up excess runoff, the foliage protects sewers from getting clogged, which can lead to untreated sewage discharging into the watershed.

Relatively cost-effective, these appropriately named "green roofs" are becoming a trend across the country, particularly in urban areas. In 2003, We Energies and the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District (MMSD) supplied the grants that allowed the Karen Peck Katz Conservation Education Center to construct one of about seven green roofs in Milwaukee at the time. The others include the MMSD headquarters near downtown Milwaukee, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Great Lakes Water Institute, and the new Urban Ecology Center next to Riverside High School on Milwaukee's East Side. Garden roofs covered with numerous potted plants, such as the one atop Deborah Kern's Garden Room garden shop in Shorewood, accomplish some of the same environmental benefits.

Green roofs are also in the business of cooling things off. It's no secret that shiny, metal surfaces heat up fast under the sun. The "heat island effect" is what scientists call the generally higher temperatures in urban areas with many reflective buildings. Replace a reflective surface with lush greenery and heat will be absorbed when water from the plants evaporates, and surrounding temperatures decline.

The Karen Peck Katz Conservation Education Center is an example of "green" construction. "There are more and more buildings in Milwaukee, and the country, that are adhering to this practice," says Borchardt. In bigger cities like Chicago, green roofs have become a requirement for larger buildings. In Europe, he says, green construction is a standard practice. "Initially," he admits, "the cost of building green is higher than traditional construction." Over time, however, the energy savings outweigh these costs while significantly reducing pollution.