Zero Net Energy Path for San Francisco Unified School District

The James Lick Middle School, modernized by Hamilton + Aitken Architects. Originally built in 1930, the school is an example of how even older buildings can have a path to zero net energy.

The James Lick Middle School, modernized by Hamilton + Aitken Architects. Originally built in 1930, the school is an example of how even older buildings can have a path to zero net energy.

San Francisco Unified School District received a School Leadership Award in recognition of its efforts to utilize policies and plans that result in larger scale advancement of zero net energy (ZNE) buildings. ZNE buildings represent high performance buildings that combine energy efficiency and renewable resources to produce at least as much energy as they consume annually.

According to the award administrator, New Buildings Institute (NBI), six ZNE School Leadership Awards were given this year to showcase the individuals, design teams and school districts that are driving this new standard for school environments. Schools built and renovated to ZNE performance have substantially lower energy costs and save money on energy bills that can be spent on students and programs.

“The Board of Education is in full support of pursuing ambitious energy goals,” said Board Vice President Hydra Mendoza, co-author, along with Commissioner Matt Haney, of the SF Board of Education’s recent Carbon-Neutral Schools Resolution.

“We have developed a comprehensive sustainability plan that includes ZNE-ready construction, an emissions-free fleet, and a shift to renewable energy . This award is a great recognition of our district’s leadership in sustainability.”

SFUSD has completely transformed the process by which it designs, constructs, and modernizes its buildings in order to achieve a carbon neutral district by 2040. SFUSD is an active participant in the Department of Energy Zero Energy Schools Accelerator program and shares the details of its strategy with other districts in order to demonstrate that carbon neutral schools can be achieved at little or no additional cost.

Art Deco entrance lobby to James Lick Middle School, after modernization.

Art Deco entrance lobby to James Lick Middle School, after modernization.

The SFUSD Sustainability Office, one of the first in the country at a major public school district, coordinates efforts to reduce utility usage. Since the 2008 to 2010 average baseline, the district has reduced its energy usage by 22 percent, its natural gas usage by 28 percent, and its water usage by 29 percent. 

“Zero energy buildings are not only good for the bottom line, freeing up funds to use in the classroom, but they also provide natural light and a connection to the outdoors. This has been shown to improve both academic outcomes and student well-being,” said SFUSD’s Director of Sustainability, Nik Kaestner.

7x7x7 DesignEnergyWater

One source cited by SFUSD in helping define the path to Zero Net Energy for its schools is the 7x7x7 DesignEnergyWater report, prepared by the Division of the State Architect.  Hamilton + Aitken Architects was one of seven firms contributing to the report, and focused our work on steps to move older schools, like those in San Francisco, down the path to ZNE.  ZNE means that the total amount of energy used by a building on an annual basis is equal to or less than the renewable energy generated on site.

The purpose of the 7x7x7 program is to encourage school districts throughout California to develop long-range master plans to reduce energy and water consumption, while improving the quality of educational spaces.  More information the 7x7x7 DesignEnergyWater report.

To support California’s ambitious energy efficiency goals, a Proposition 39 ZNE Schools Retrofit Pilot Program is providing existing schools with ZNE financial resources that can help transform some of the state’s K-12 and community college buildings to ZNE. The ZNE Schools Leadership Awards are part of Proposition 39.. Judges for the inaugural ZNE School Leadership Awards represent state agencies, green school nonprofits, professional industry associations, and energy efficiency interests. Learn more at


7x7x7 Design Energy Water on YouTube

The final "call to action" presentation for the 7x7x7 Design Energy Water is is posted on YouTube - you can see our part of the presentation HERE, and watch Amy Fisher enjoy a glass of water as she discusses ways to move existing school buildings toward zero-net water usage.  Aaron Wintersmith of Capital Engineering joined us to describe how schools can save energy and transition their heating systems away from fossil fuel use.  And I discussed how we can provide the benefit of natural daylighting in classrooms while avoiding glare and solar heat gain.

It's all about establishing a net-zero transition plan – probably most school districts cannot afford to make every existing school net-zero energy and water all at once.  But we can plan to spend a little bit more on every school modernization to get us closer to the goal.  For example, installing separate water supply piping for toilet fixtures, so that later they can be connected to a non-potable water source – or installing dual drain systems, to create a gray water system that can be easily recycled for non-potable uses.  

There are many things we can do to reduce energy and water use, if we plan now.  Planning now to transition to net-zero will save enormous cost later – think of the cost to prevent high water intrusion into the lagoon in Venice, Italy ($6.1 billion) – what would a similar system across the Golden Gate cost?