NEWPORT, R.I. — Look up at the ceiling in the cafeteria of the new MET school and you may think there’s something missing.
There are no ceiling tiles, just a metal frame with criss-crossing wires and pipes exposed above. It’s not an oversight. The ceiling was left open on purpose.
One day, perhaps, a student eating lunch will cast a glance upward.
“Maybe they’ll think, what is that blue wire for?” said Brandee Lapisky, the school principal. “That may spark an interest.”
And that moment may lead years later to a career as an electrician, a plumber or an architect.
“There’s an opportunity for learning just by looking up,” Lapisky said.
It’s those happenstance connections that the Providence-based MET — the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical High School — aims to foster at its new building in Newport. The building, set to open later this month, is full of potential learning opportunities, fulfilling a “school as a tool” philosophy that the MET system preaches.
One of the central components of that idea at the Paul W. Crowley East Bay MET Center is sustainability. So the new school embodies “green” building principles, maximizing energy efficiency and using renewable power to minimize its carbon footprint.
When a yet-to-be-scheduled second phase that will include solar panels is completed, it will become a net-zero energy building — meaning it will generate all the energy that it needs. Few other buildings in Rhode Island — and no other schools, public or private — meet that standard.
The MET runs alternative high schools funded by the state that focus on individualized learning and hands-on education. It set up a branch in Newport in 2006 to serve the East Bay and South County, starting out with 30 students in the Florence Gray Community Center on Girard Avenue.
When the school opened, the neighborhood around it was being transformed. Rundown buildings in the Tonomy Hill subsidized housing development were being razed and replaced with mixed-income homes that make up what’s now known as Newport Heights.
The MET had always planned to expand and put up its own building in the revitalized North End of the city, but the project was delayed because of funding issues, said Brian Mills, a spokesman for the school.
Finally, last April, construction started on the $8.4-million school on open space adjacent to the community center. The building was named in honor of Crowley, the late state representative who helped bring the MET school to Newport and secure the building site from the city.
From the beginning the school was conceived as a model for energy conservation. It will not only achieve the goal of using as little energy as possible but will also do so in a cost-effective way, said Marion Gold, commissioner of the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources, which is working on a long-term project to improve energy efficiency in state buildings.
Most schools in Rhode Island are in old buildings that use a lot of energy. Opportunities to build from the ground up are rare, but systems used in the new MET school could be duplicated in retrofitting other public schools to make them more efficient.
“We do have a project to take this further,” Gold said.
State Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist called the new school a showcase for the “green-school movement.”
“Buildings such as the new MET school not only save money and resources for the community, but they serve as living examples and laboratories that teach students about environmental education,” she said in a statement.
After entering the new building on the ground floor and walking into the stairwell that leads to the second and third floors, the MET school’s 180 students will be greeted with a sign.
“Please join us on a learning journey up these stairs,” it says.
As they ascend, they will learn more about the 16,800-square-foot building and its construction from additional signs here and there.
The school will use 20 percent less water than similar buildings and save 47 percent on energy costs. Twenty percent of hot water will come from a rooftop solar thermal system. Fifty percent of waste materials during construction were recycled.
Lighting comes from high-efficiency light-emitting diodes, or LEDs. Appliances and other mechanical units are Energy Star-rated. A geothermal system will help cool the building in the summer and heat it in the winter.
The school was oriented to let in as much natural light as possible, especially in classrooms that are on the south side of the building, said Cyndi Gerlach, project manager with RGB Architects, the Providence firm that helped design the school. It is also better insulated and more tightly-sealed than typical buildings, she said, trapping warm air in the winter and cool air in the summer.
Wide balconies line two sides of the school, creating shade on sunny days and offering outdoor workspaces to students and advisers — as teachers are known at the MET.
“I’m sure on nice days everyone will be out on the balconies working,” said Mills.
Several solar arrays will be mounted on the building and on canopies alongside it to eventually provide all its electricity. Funding for a rooftop array has been included in the state Department of Education’s budget proposal for the coming fiscal year.
If the budget is approved in the current legislative session, installation of the solar panels could start immediately, said Elliot Krieger, spokesman for the department.
The new building will open for classes on Tuesday, and an official ribbon-cutting is set for Jan. 25. The sleek and airy space couldn’t be more different from the dark, cramped rooms that currently house the MET’s Newport school.
RGB worked with construction company Gilbane and state education officials on the design of the building. Students and staff members at the school were also consulted.
“They were part of the vision,” said Lapisky. “We’re hoping for them to be stewards of the building.”
That goal leads back to the reason for the open ceiling in the cafeteria and another one in the so-called STEAM room, a hands-on workspace for projects that cross into science, technology, engineering, arts and math.
Students who are curious about the way the building works will be given the opportunity to learn more and make decisions about how the school operates.
To further that goal, computer displays will be mounted on walls showing real-time use of water, electricity and natural gas for heating. The information will also be accessible online.
“I think students can use that as a tool and plan how they can save more,” said Gerlach. “It can get them involved.”
Source: Providence Journal