Common Ground High School
New Haven, CT
This environmental charter school in New Haven, Connecticut combines urban agriculture and sustainable land-management practice in an innovative curriculum that serves New Haven area teenagers during the day and younger children and adults through extensive after-school programs in the afternoons and evenings. The project brief challenged us to weave the new building and its exterior spaces into the fabric of farm buildings, agricultural fields, upland forests, and wetland habitat that lie at the city’s edge and serve as the school’s working landscape and outdoor classroom. A primary objective was a pedagogical one; that the building itself would be an environmental exemplar that integrated new ecological concepts and building technologies in a clearly legible and potentially instructive way.
In addition to its on-site energy production and storm water treatment, natural illumination, and passive ventilation, the new building at Common Ground exploits the structural capacities and ecological benefits of wood fiber. It is one of the first buildings in the United States to use cross-laminated timber (CLT) as its primary structure. Black spruce CLT panels act as the tension surface (and final ceiling finish) in a system of prefabricated stressed skin assemblies that span the upper classrooms and circulation spaces. Vertical CLT panels form bearing and shear walls throughout the building while glue-laminated rafters and heavy timber trusses span its large ground floor multi-purpose space. A treated glue laminated bridge deck on laminated timber piers provides access from the upper campus. Dense cellulose batts super-insulate its air-tight enclosure. One notable benefit of this aggregation of construction biomass is that the carbon sequestered in the building’s structural system offsets the annual emissions of 107 cars, making the building carbon neutral in its first decade of operation. This integrated use of renewable material and low-impact construction technique enhances the health and ecological function of the immediate site. It also protects more distant productive landscapes, optimizing their biological and hydrological processes so that they may continue to provide valuable environmental services such as clean air and water (and a steady supply of renewable building material) to our cities and more specifically, to important emerging institutions like Common Ground High School and its forward-thinking students, teachers, and administrators.