Teaching by Example

Originally published in 

When the Charlottesville Waldorf School bought 13 undeveloped acres outside Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2002, the idea was simply to build a permanent home for the school’s 130 students, replacing the rented space closer to the center of town that the school had outgrown.

The school’s campaign to build the greenest school in America evolved almost by accident as it dawned on administrators that building green meshed nicely with the school’s educational philosophy—and its modest annual budget.

Specifically, CWS is angling to construct the first elementary-school building in the country to earn a platinum certification from the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council. The council promotes environmentally responsible construction methods through its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, awarding points for materials with recycled content, energy-efficient heating and cooling systems, and other staples of sustainable building.

Established in 1982, the Charlottesville Waldorf School is one of about 150 schools in the U.S. following a curriculum developed by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner that stresses creativity and freethinking. (The Waldorf name comes from the cigarette company that bankrolled the first Waldorf school in Germany in 1919.) “The Steiner-Waldorf philosophy has always been one of surrounding the childhood experience in the natural world,” says Marianne Lund, the building-campaign chairperson and the mother of three CWS students. “So we came to a point where we realized that if we’re going to match the building process with our school philosophy, there really is no alternative but to build green.”

Designed by Ted Jones Architect of Charlottesville, the 19,000-square-foot building will be constructed largely with plywood panels insulated with locally produced straw bale—an inexpensive, renewable alternative to foam insulation. Windows will be oriented to take advantage of natural light and breezes, while the straw-bale panels and a heat-absorbing rammed-earth wall running the length of the building will help keep classrooms naturally warm in the winter. A green roof will cover much of the school, insulating the building while absorbing storm-water runoff. The building “will pay for itself very well over time with reduced energy costs,” says the school’s administrator, Nancy Regan.

By the end of 2005, the school had raised about $2 million of the $6.7 million that administrators say it will cost to build the new school, which is scheduled to open in the fall of 2007. The administrators and architects say they aim to prove to other schools that building green need not be an expensive proposition.

“Our goal is beyond just creating a school for ourselves,” Regan says. “If we can do it by showing that you don’t have to be a big, wealthy institution to create a green building, that’s a great inspiration for people. We’re a really small institution. If we can do this, pretty much anybody can.”

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