Sustainable site development? Check. Water savings? Check. Energy efficiency and materials selection? Check and check. How about indoor environmental quality? Also check. With attention paid to these criteria established by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) guidelines, plus an extra push by Harker students, Nichols Hall earned its gold LEED certification in July 2009.
Originally designed for silver certification, the building was put over the top by the initiative of students in Jeff Sutton’s AP Environmental Science classes. Eight groups of students designed displays for each of the eight LEED categories, and the two additional LEED points for displays and the education of visitors put the building in the gold category.
Not only is Harker the first school in Santa Clara County to earn gold LEED certification, but the building was named a runner-up at the 2009 Structures Awards held by the Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal, making it one of only two finalists in the Green Project of the Year – Private category.
“[Sustainability on campus] instills a sense of stewardship in the students who are going to inherit this planet,” said Mike Bassoni, facility manager, when asked about Harker’s green commitment. “We’re hoping to instill a sense of preservation in our students, so we practice what we preach and teach these kids firsthand what it means to be sustainable, and hopefully that will carry … throughout their lives ….”
Nichols Hall is only the latest in a long history of greening efforts at Harker. In the late 1980s, Howard and Diana Nichols (former president and head of school, respectively) had an electric car built, which Diana Nichols’ environmental science classes studied and rode in. “We were told that we wouldn’t get enough charge from the sun to use it for mileage….They were wrong. We drove it to school every day for about three or four years,” said Nichols.
She said they got about 12 miles a day on sunshine, the car went 65- 70 mph, was silent and required no maintenance except battery water. Nichols, who directed Harker’s efforts at the City of San Jose’s Earth Day Celebration in the early 1990s, displayed the car at several functions and was eager to disseminate the idea of solar energy for cars.
Diana Nichols’ green efforts also led to the initiation of the Our Trees Project, the goal of which “was to have students from different parts of the world work on the same problems,” said Nichols. Nichols wrote the program with then-technology director Sharon Meyers and brought in five public schools and the Tamagawa Gakuen school in Japan, Harker’s sister school to this day.
In time the project involved just Harker and Tamagawa until 2002, when the Neerja Modi School in Jaipur, India, joined in. “We wanted to model a new kind of education using the Internet to connect people in different locations and socioeconomic brackets …. We wanted to … increase our students’ understanding of environmental problems and empower them to face those problems,” Nichols said of the initiative. Today the Our Trees Project is going strong, taught as part of the Gr. 6 environmental science and computer science curricula.
Bassoni was well aware of Harker’s green history when Nichols Hall was begun. “Harker has had a strong support of environmental awareness and green thinking, so from day one … it was always our intent to design a building that supported our philosophy and had the potential to be LEED-certified,” he said.
Current students have joined the movement as well, and the school has accomplished phenomenal feats with its young activists leading the way. Inspired by a visit from photographer/environmentalist Rick Smolan, middle school students formed Blue Planet Group to raise money for clean drinking water awareness.
Population Studies and computer science classes have woven the cause into their curricula. The students’ efforts reached the ears of the nonprofit organization charity: water, whose founder, Scott Harrison, came to Harker to thank the students personally. In November of this year the upper school raised $10,000 for charity: water to build two wells in African villages with no clean water source.
Olivia Zhu, Gr. 11, was one of four students selected by UNICEF USA to participate in the first-ever Children’s Climate Forum, held together with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen, Denmark, in early December. Zhu’s application emphasized incentivizing investment in sustainable energies such as solar, wind and geothermal power, and modernizing electricity grids worldwide. “It’s important to get as much information about climate change policy out there as possible, as it has a major impact now and will have an even bigger one on future generations,” said Zhu.
Priya Bhikha, Gr. 12, and a team of upper school students are preparing a segment for Harker’s 2010 fashion show, with clothes made out of recycled materials. Bhikha has put out a call to all three campuses to help supply her with plastic bags, soda can tabs, paper clips, coffee filters, CDs, drinking straws and more to make her recycled fashions.
Shreya Indukuri and Daniela Lapidous, both Gr.10, took it upon themselves to apply for a grant to improve Harker’s energy efficiency. The girls, with the help of Valence Energy, successfully earned a $5,500 environmental grant, allowing Valance to install smart meters, devices for monitoring energy use, at the lower school campus. They also hope to apply some of the grant money towards an organic garden and window-insulating film at the upper school, and plans are underway to install smart meters at that campus, as well.
This fall the pair attended the Governors’ Global Climate Summit in Los Angeles as two of 25 climate youth leaders; they presented their findings to the assembly and enjoyed an audience with Gov. Schwarzenegger. UNICEF picked up on the girls’ story from there, and sent a camera crew from New York in October to interview them for a documentary on youth activism.
“If we don’t do anything about [global warming] now, we’ll really regret it in the future and history will label us as the generation who sat back and watched the world go up in flames. People will either be part of the problem or part of the solution, and it will take an extremely grueling period of effort by a lot of people to come up with even a fraction of a solution, but every contribution counts. We know the work is hard, and it does seem rather intimidating, but we’re just taking it one baby step at a time,” said Lapidous.
A gold, green building? Students ready to effect change? A strong history of environmental awareness that will continue long into the future? Check.
This article was originally published in the December 2009 issue of Harker Quarterly