Designing a Living Laboratory

With a design concept driven by its end users, the new addition to Omaha North High School is a model for teaching students -- and the public -- about the benefits of sustainability.



In the world of education, changing the status quo is akin to reforming our national healthcare system—bureaucratic red tape abounds and politics often preempt the best interests of the public. There are exceptions to the norm, of course, and one such example can be found in a quiet suburb of Omaha, Neb.

Omaha North High School is a magnet school serving students in grades nine through 12, and specializing in the fields of science, engineering and technology. Faced with an expanding enrollment, the school, which was originally built in 1922, was in desperate need of new learning areas, and the administration decided to build a new addition that would accommodate students, while providing a sustainable and productive learning environment. The four-story, 32,092-square-foot addition to Omaha North primarily consists of science classrooms and labs, but also serves the school's media technology and engineering programs.

According to April S. Rice, LEED AP BD+C, of RDG Planning & Design, the lead design firm of record, the Omaha North addition is the first school in Nebraska to be certified under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Schools rating system, for which it achieved Silver certification. It is also the first LEED for Schools project for RDG, as well as for the general contractor, Vrana Construction.

Adding to these "firsts" was the challenge of working with "an old school district that has design guidelines from the '80s. Carpet tile was not something they [specified]," notes Rice. By doing some educating of their own, the team members changed the district's product selection process not only for this project but future ones as well.

"It was a really pleasant experience," recalls Rice, "and [the client has] seen that making these changes is not as strenuous as they thought in the beginning. They're much more educated on LEED and sustainability than when they first started." The fact that the contractor reached out to Vertegy to act as LEED consultant and assist them with the LEED documentation for the construction-related credits also helped make the process much smoother for all parties involved.

Integral to the design of the new addition was not just your typical construction team, but the end users as well: the students. Rice explains that through a mentorship program led by lead designer Jeff Dolezal, RDG worked with students to come up with the design for their new addition. "Some of the students are still there and some of them have graduated that were first involved in those program exercises," says Rice. "So the design concept really came from the students … and an urge to have something to be really proud of in the neighborhood."

Rice adds that it was not uncommon for groups of students to come visit the site during construction to learn about the building's sustainable features, which include:

  • The installation of 81 percent of wood harvested from FSC-certified sources

  • A two-story greenhouse, which opens onto a green roof that is completely covered by SRI-compliant material and can be used as a secondary teaching space

  • Water-efficient landscaping where rainwater provides 100 percent of the irrigation needs

  • Low-flow sinks and dual-flush toilets that help further reduce the school's potable water use by 43 percent

  • The use of low-emitting paints, coatings, adhesives, sealants, flooring materials and composite woods to reduce VOC emissions and improve indoor air quality

  • Development and implementation of an indoor air quality program to reduce the amount of air contaminants released during the construction phase

Nearly 19 percent of the building materials were manufactured within 500 miles of the jobsite and 32 percent of the building materials contained recycled content. The design team was also able to divert 87 percent of the construction waste from the landfill, recycling scrap metal, concrete asphalt, wood drywall, cardboard packaging and landscaping waste. Because of its sustainable design, Omaha North High School is now enjoying a 20 percent reduction in energy use.

The school has created a space-sharing agreement with local non-profits to allow use of the wrestling room, conference room, student gallery and roof garden. Omaha Public Schools has also incorporated sustainability into its technical curriculum and the building will be used to illustrate the principles they are teaching.

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4410 North 36th Street
Omaha, NE 68111
(402) 557-3400


architecture + interior design

RDG Planning & Design
900 Farnam on the Mall, Ste 100
Omaha, NE 68102
(402) 392-0133

April S. Rice, LEED AP BD+C
Jeffrey Dolezal, AIA, LEED AP, partner architect

(314) 733-2666

Vrana Construction
(402) 733-5200

RDG Planning & Design and Tom Kessler