Fast Company’s World Changing Ideas program honors products, concepts, companies, policies, and designs that are pursuing innovation for the good of society and the planet. 2020 honorees include VMDO and other companies “actively engaged and deeply committed to flattening the curve when it comes to the climate crisis, social injustice, or economic inequality” – issues which are being exacerbated by the global crisis we’re experiencing right now.
“There seems no better time to recognize organizations that are using their ingenuity, resources, and, in some cases, their scale to tackle society’s biggest problems,” says Stephanie Mehta, editor-in-chief of Fast Company.
A teaching tool for the climate action generation, Discovery Elementary School was selected from more than 3,000 entries as an honorable mention in both the Education and Spaces, Places, and Cities categories in Fast Company’s 2020 World Changing Ideas program.
One way to create change is to take something “known” and make it unique – and through this momentum, move people from a place of ambivalence to engagement. Greta Thurnberg, for instance, incited a movement by taking the concept of a strike and making it youth-led – awakening the consciences of adults around the world about the need to address climate change head-on.
In a similar vein, we took the opportunity to design a public school – with an engaged community of educators, students, leaders, and community members in Arlington, VA – and infused it with the potential to educate and inspire the next generation of environmental stewards. Through the support of its community, Discovery Elementary School has inspired a series of firsts at local, state, national, and international levels that has helped both normalize and ignite net-zero energy school design across the country.
- At the local level, the success of Discovery Elementary School convinced Arlington Public Schools to make net-zero energy a requirement for the procurement of all new construction.
- At the state level, the leaders of the aforementioned policy successfully lobbied the Virginia Assembly to pass legislation that allows net-positive schools to sell and keep the funds generated from this excess energy.
- At the national level, the U.S. Department of Energy launched the Net-Zero Accelerator at Discovery – a national partnership aimed at demonstrating how investing in renewable energy translates into cost savings and enhanced learning environments.
- Internationally, Discovery is the first verified net-zero energy building certified by the collaborative partnership of the International Living Future Institute and New Buildings Institute and is the first school to receive LEED Zero Energy certification from the USGBC.
All of these ‘firsts’ happened for a school designed using public funding and an intensive public engagement process that prioritizes financial stewardship and community buy-in. As such, Discovery Elementary School was never intended to be one-of-a-kind. Instead, the project was designed to meet a larger goal – to be an example of responsible climate action near the nation’s capital that inspires systems-wide thinking about the immediate need for net-zero energy buildings.
By investing in the generation who will be grappling with the effects of climate change, schools like Discovery can serve as teaching tools about alternative energy, environmental stewardship, and healthy and sustainable behaviors – while also achieving critical goals for carbon neutrality.
VMDO has brought this same approach to two more net-zero energy schools (Fleet Elementary and Reed Elementary) and a community center (Lubber Run Community Center) in Arlington, and a net-zero-ready school (Bluestone Elementary School) in Harrisonburg, Virginia. VMDO’s goal is to continue to scale up the implementation of net-zero energy buildings, renovations, and modernizations instead of building piecemeal, in order to achieve the most impact as quickly as possible.
In part because of the net-zero energy work completed on Discovery and other sustainable projects, Arlington County was the first locality in Virginia to commit to 100% clean, renewable electricity by 2035. In April 2020, Virginia became the first state in the South to commit to a 100% clean energy agenda.
While there are more pressing issues related to our economy, our global health, and our uncertain post-pandemic world before us, it is reassuring to think that students, even from their homes right now, are continuing to learn about ways they can protect our planet and contribute to a greener, cleaner future. Imagine what they’ll do when they are back in the world and at school.