Living in Liberty
A Tale of Beauty and Performance In An Unexpected Space
At first glance, the proposed Media Center addition for Liberty High School in Liberty, New York was similar to many others that Ashley McGraw Architects had completed. The school was built in 1963 and, like many educational facilities of that era, required updates to bring its students and community into 2010, and beyond.
Central to Ashley McGraw’s philosophy and expertise is to constantly strive for the “elegant solution”—a design that enriches its surroundings instead of merely limiting its impact. Seemingly, the degree of performance the architects could hope for from the Liberty addition was limited by the constraints inherent in adding a modern building to an older structure. And achieving “net zero”, where a building harvests as much energy as it uses – a formidable design benchmark – was not in the cards.
At the time of the project, Ashley McGraw had some high performance building successes to its name. Led by Ashley McGraw principal, Peter Larson, the firm works to create architecture that unites form and resource performance. One driving principle is that when design informs how technology is integrated and data-driven analysis guides the design direction, the result will be a powerful synthesis of performance and beauty.
Integrating Nature into Design
After examining the Liberty project as part of the Ashley McGraw design process, Larson and the Ashley McGraw team were confident that the aggressive use of passive design could bring them a long way toward creating a highly energy efficient building. So, from the first drawings, the use of sun, wind, shade and topography were integral to the design.
“Passive design principles drove the Liberty project right from the start,” said Larson. “Midway through, however, we got the feeling that we were creating something like nothing else we'd done. And we wanted proof. Some objective insight into what we were doing.”
Using an innovative new modeling technique that Ashley McGraw had been perfecting, and consulting with architects at Munly Brown Studio, the team got their results and then some. The data showed that, through passive design alone, the Liberty addition would use 50% less energy than an average building of the same size.
The team realized what they hadn't previously considered: while modeling used to validate design was helpful, if implemented at the beginning of the design process, modeling could free them to explore designs they would have never contemplated. Using modeling, or other technologies, to inform their designs would allow them to have confidence in new creative directions. Technology was not a hindrance, but a catalyst for creativity.
Achieving Net Zero
“We were exhilarated. We were within striking distance of a net zero building with passive design leading the way. If we could get there, we would achieve a huge breakthrough in our understanding of the elegant solutions we strive for and their real world feasibility,” said Larson.
With data in hand, Ashley McGraw made subtle adjustments in their design to achieve even more efficiency. For instance, a simple shift in orientation better leveraged the sun’s path across the sky, bringing even levels of north daylight into the building to reduce artificial lighting usage, and keeping low east and west sun out of the building to reduce cooling energy use in the summer.
Net zero, the team's previously unthinkable goal for Liberty, was achieved with existing renewable energy technology. By adding photovoltaics to the addition's roof—a simple solution only possible because of an intelligent, innovative passive design strategy—the team accounted for the remaining 50% of energy use.
Data that Liberates Design
“Initially, we had dismissed certain design options because we couldn’t substantiate a reason for a particular direction. With clear-cut data on performance, however, we knew we could liberate the design to take new paths. Finding a rhythm in how technology and design can inform each other is an exciting way to contribute to progress in net zero and the built environment,” said Ed McGraw, Partner, Ashley McGraw.
By putting their designs to the test, the architects were confident in their admittedly unconventional design and its ability to achieve net zero energy consumption. But, of course, the school board still needed to agree to the direction.
“There are times when you have to follow your instincts, back it up with data and stand up for your best work, even if it seems risky. We were unsure how the school board would react but that concern was unfounded. They embraced our recommendation without hesitation and were enthusiastic about being a part of something so groundbreaking,” said Larson.
Amazingly, the architects witnessed their efforts starting to work even before the building was finished. During a site visit in the stifling heat of August they saw the construction crew taking breaks inside the cool but still unfinished, open-air structure.
First Net Zero School Addition in New York
“We are proud to say that we have the first net zero school addition in New York. The building is amazing. Even more importantly, the learning environment that is fostered every day because of the building’s design has an invaluable impact on our students,” said Liberty Central School District Board President David L. Burke.
In the end, the Liberty project was instrumental in the realization that freeing up the design process is integral to producing the highest performance results. Design shaped the direction and the data from those choices brought clarity to how the building could maximize its performance.
“Because we and our client were willing to push accepted limitations, Liberty’s media center is an ultra-high performance building that creates new possibilities for the people and the environment it serves,” said McGraw. “With this success, we are able to show more clients and partners the benefits of letting design and technology inform each other for maximum results.”
Photos by John Griebsch Photography