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District’s newest school is a winner in green design

Dual-immersion bilingual school gets LEED certification

Photos by Dianne Carroll Burdick

Grand Rapids – The newest building in Grand Rapids Public Schools has received national recognition for its energy-efficient, sustainable and cost-saving design. 

Southwest Middle High School – Academia Bilingue qualified for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Schools Silver certification based on the building’s sustainable and efficient “exterior envelope” (roof, walls, doors, windows and insulation), its urban location and proximity to public transportation, its stormwater quality control, provisions for bike parking and more.

Art Teacher Matt LaFleur teaches online from the art room

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a program of the U.S. Green Building Council, which says the certification “provides a framework for healthy, highly efficient, and cost-saving green buildings. LEED certification is a globally recognized symbol of sustainability achievement and leadership.”

For Southwest Middle High Principal Carlos de la Barrera, the LEED certification is a great thing but what matters most is what the new building means for his students and teachers.

“It is a state-of-the-art facility,” he said simply, “a welcoming space designed to serve our students, staff and community.”

One of the first things people notice in the new building is the abundance of natural light, he added: “For a city with scarce sunny days during the school year, the sheer number of windows and the east/west orientation of the classrooms makes us all happier and more ready to learn every day.”

In fact, though the building was ready in August for the start of the 2020-21 school year, it didn’t get used by students right away as GRPS did not open for in-person instruction until January.

‘Their Brand-New, Second Home’

But that didn’t stop de la Barrera and a number of teachers from using the new space when the district’s first dual-immersion Spanish-English secondary school opened last fall.

“I had access to work from my new office since August, which gave me the opportunity to enjoy the new facility and also the time to better prepare the building for the arrival of the in-person students,” he noted. “And teachers were also given access to the building and the option to teach synchronously from their new classrooms prior to January. Even though they had the option of teaching from home, most chose to drive to the building every day.”

And when students finally did arrive, de la Barrera said the reactions were priceless.

“They were very excited to see the new building turned into a reality after years of hearing about the project and looking at colorful renderings,” he said. “As they were entering the building for the first time, I could see in their faces that they were coming to the realization that from that moment on, this school was their brand-new, second home.”

Long Nguyen, director of design, construction and renovation for GRPS, said the district has made environmental stewardship an important part of its culture for many years now with the 2007 renovation of Harrison Park Elementary and Middle school earning the district’s first silver certification.

Since then, Cesar E. Chavez Elementary School, Burton Elementary, Sibley Elementary and Gerald R. Ford Middle School have been certified, and Museum High School, Ottawa Hills High School and Buchanan Elementary School are in the process. 

The east lobby is filled with natural light and an eye-catching design

53 LEED Credits Get Project to Silver

Nguyen noted that GRPS initiated the LEED-certification process early in the Southwest Middle High project and then identified LEED goals that guided the design going forward. In the end, Southwest earned 53 LEED credits, well past the 40 needed for certification at any level and also topping the 50 credits needed for Silver.  

The $20 million project was headed up by Rockford Construction. Architects were c2ae and TMP Architecture. 

The 75,000-square-foot facility is built into the side of a hill sloping towards the freeway east of Grandville Avenue SW, between Graham and Rumsey streets. Funded by the $175 million bond approved by voters in 2015, the school anchors the 5.5-acre Roosevelt Plaza, a multi-use development that includes affordable housing, health-care services, after-school and community activities and college-level programs. 

The school houses two dozen classrooms on the third and fourth floors; art, music and science rooms and administrative offices on the second; and a gym and locker rooms, dining area and kitchen on the first floor. The gym and kitchen will be available for community use.

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Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan covers Grand Rapids and Kelloggsville and also is a general assignment reporter and the point person for the SNN Facebook and Twitter feeds. He hails from Exeter, Ontario, but has called Grand Rapids home since 1985. He is the son of a longtime public school teacher who taught both English and machine shop! Phil took both classes at South Huron District High School, but English stuck, and at Calvin College, where he met his wife, Sue, he majored in English and minored in journalism. His background includes both freelance writing and public relations work, including teaching an advertising and PR course at the college level. In the summer of 2019, he began his own freelance writing and communications business. In his spare time, Phil plays pick-up hockey and pickleball and tries to keep tabs on his two adult children.  Read Phil's full bio

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