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COMFORT ZONE | Smart Designs for Pleasure and Planet

The World's Coolest Student Center

By Benita Hussain

Energy efficiency doesn't require a big brick box: Branson School's Student Commons is open, airy, and LEED Platinum certified. Ninety percent of the building can be ventilated or cooled by opening windows, and 80 percent of the building relies on natural "daylighting" for illumination.

"The space captures the ethos of the school," counselor Susan Clark says. "To find balance inside and out."

"A lot of early LEED buildings looked like Mr. Potato Heads of design elements," architect Mary Griffin says. So when the trustees of Northern California's Branson School approached her firm, Turnbull Griffin Haesloop, to design a common space that was LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum certified, she had a clear goal: Don't make it look LEED Platinum.

"We wanted to create a high-impact building that was beautiful and engaging and happened to be sustainable," Griffin says of the new Student Commons at Branson, a private high school of 320 students on 17 bucolic acres in Ross, north of San Francisco.

"Some elements, like graywater use, were desirable for LEED certification but so costly that they were actually unsustainable," Branson School finance director Andrew Pauley says.

The result is transparent and airy, with walls of steel-framed windows and overhead doors that connect the indoors and outdoors, making the space seem larger than its 7,550 square feet. The structure incorporates a living roof and a rainwater-recapture system. The windowed walls and 10-foot-diameter industrial fans (made by a company called, appropriately enough, Big Ass Fans) bring new style to a campus of century-old stucco and stonework. Radiant heating systems, photovoltaic panels, pervious paving to minimize runoff, and fly-ash concrete, containing recycled residue from coal-fired power plants, are other green amenities.

The Student Commons contains Branson's cafeteria, lounge, and college-counseling offices and, according to junior Olivia de Raadt-St. James, has become the "heart of the school." She says, "Branson can be academically stressful, but when I'm here, I don't feel constricted."
Sophomore Anna Harleen agrees: "Here, I can talk to my English teacher about literature and about how ideas evolve. I love that there's a space to get help from my teachers while learning an interesting side of them." Harleen is a member of the school's Environmental Action Committee, which tends the adjacent garden, sometimes supplying the cafeteria with lettuce and garlic.

The college counselors who work in the building appreciate its natural ventilation. But more pragmatically, "I can just grab a kid when I need to," counselor Susan Clark says, laughing. "I know they'll always come through here at some point."

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