Choate’s Kids Wear Sweaters, Go Green, Eat Happy Chickens

Students at Choate Rosemary Hall preparatory school consider the value of food scraps and the environmental impact of hair dryers.

These are among the curricular wrinkles encountered by young scholars living and studying in a zero-energy building, the new Kohler Environmental Center.

Made of dark wood and stone, the building was designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects and stands in a meadow on 266 bucolic acres east of the school’s main campus in Wallingford, Connecticut.

In the high-ceilinged common room, dominated by a stone-faced fireplace, the gray day’s light showered from high clerestories and tall windows -- keeping electric illumination off. In warm weather, the high/low window configuration aids natural ventilation.

Next to a big common table is a bright, open kitchen where chef Janusz Mysiorski prepares humanely raised chickens and season-sensitive salads. The students weigh and compost food scraps.

The center reflects a growing realization that energy efficiency offers a much cheaper and simpler way of coping with climate change than tainted nuclear and costly renewables.

New buildings that draw zero net energy from the electrical grid show how far the approach has come. In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama, who has stressed renewables and increased oil and gas production, at last endorsed efficiency.

Lifestyle Changes

Choate students have been recruited in part to test assumptions about what lifestyle changes people are willing to make to save energy.

The Kohler Environmental Center was built and endowed with a $20 million gift from Herbert V. Kohler Jr., the chairman and chief executive officer of Kohler Co., which makes plumbing fixtures. A Choate alumnus, the executive has also served as chairman of the school’s board of trustees.

Students use an online dashboard to monitor the power generated daily by a 294-kilowatt solar array. They can compare the power demand of two labs, classrooms, a greenhouse and dormitory rooms.

The extent of the photovoltaic array was determined only after more than a dozen energy-saving tactics were designed, allowing for a smaller and less costly solar facility.

The building is heated and cooled by four methods, for example. The design eliminates more than half the energy demand of a conventional structure.

Maple Trees

I toured the project with Stern partner Graham S. Wyatt. In a hallway that wraps a U-shaped courtyard, the concrete floor retains warmth when heated by the sun. The handsome wood paneling was recycled from sugar-maple trees and retained marks where taps had once been placed.

The students were tapped in determining whether to invest in one or two clothes dryers. Would they use drying racks to eliminate the second dryer? Would they give up hair dryers? Would they wear sweaters in winter to permit an energy-saving thermostat setting of 67 degrees?

“We don’t tell students that certain behaviors are unacceptable,” said Joseph Scanio, one of the center’s two live-in teachers. “We discuss things. We make it easy to be intentional about the choices you make.”

Energy Waste

The questions the Choate students consider may sound trivial and paternalistic, but they are crucial to the environmental debate. Some experts estimate that energy waste is as much as 40 percent of consumption.

Turning out the lights as you leave a room begins to take on game-changing dimensions.

Students at the costly private school are hardly a cross-section of the U.S., but their generation’s awareness of energy choices and environmental consequences could profoundly affect the country’s energy needs.

“No one is living a life of deprivation here,” Scanio said. “The investment in the building design minimizes sacrifice.”

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)