Case Studies

Setty & Associates International

First African-American high school gets highest LEED ranking

Originally the nation’s first public high school for African-Americans, Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., had fallen into such disrepair that in 2011, the district opted not to renovate but to raze and rebuild.

“A dark, dingy and nearly windowless high-rise,” the Washington Post deemed it. Its principal likened it to a prison.

Its replacement was anything but dreary when Mayor Vincent Gray, himself a 1959 graduate, proudly cut the ribbon in 2013.

Setty & Associates International

The new $122 million, nearly 280,000-square-foot facility for 1,100 students, built on what was the campus football field, sparkles with amenities that include an eight-lane pool, a modern gym, a theater with a restored Steinway piano, a new gridiron and bleachers, the names of many distinguished grads impaneled and an image of Paul Laurence Dunbar, the late-19th-century African-American writer for whom the school is named.

While that’s all impressive, the most remarkable parts of the school may be less visible: the engineering marvels that make Dunbar High the nation’s greenest high school, according to the U.S. Green Building Council.

The most energy-efficient building systems include geothermal technology that uses the earth for heating and cooling, utilize an advanced photo-voltaic array on the roof, recycle rain and pool water and significantly reduce expenses by moving energy around via water vs. air. What makes the aforementioned even more impressive, says Raj B. Setty, the 46-year-old president and principal of the chief engineering contractor, Setty & Associates International of Washington, D.C., is that the work was done in a congested urban site.

Passing grades and more

Not only did Setty want to rebuild with the greenest and most sustainable technology, the firm also sought to immerse the students in a facility that would inspire some to pursue the STEM professions of science, technology, engineering and math. Dunbar High could be a shining example of creative, cutting-edge technology that the students themselves might someday take to an even higher level.

Among those technological feats is the District’s largest urban geothermal (ground source) system, with 362 vertical wells drilled as deep as 460 feet—just about 100 feet shy of the Washington Monument’s height—to tap the massive energy battery of the earth itself.

Such a system uses the earth’s relatively constant temperature (59.4 F)—a 10-degree difference from the water loop temperature—to provide heating and air conditioning.

By sending 45 F water into the earth in the winter and returning it at 55 F, the systems inside the building take advantage of this heat gain and transfer it into warm air via a classroom heat pump schema. In the summer, the system works in reverse, sending hot water (85 F) into the earth to get cooled to 75 F.

While geothermal systems have been in existence for decades, there are few large applications in a dense urban environment where land is at a premium.

Further renewable energy comes from one of the district’s largest rooftop solar panel array, 460 kilowatts strong, garnering Dunbar the highest LEED score ever for a U.S. high school. This array was also approved by the D.C. council in a first-of-its-kind public private partnership. Enhanced lighting controls with occupancy sensors and timers cut electric bills. Radiant heating is used, and two 20,000-gallon cisterns collect rainwater and pool water for reuse, conserving 1.4 million gallons annually. Water-efficient fixtures in the restrooms add to the savings.

“We hope to set a precedent; none of the other D.C. schools have been able to achieve this cost savings with the facilities operations that Dunbar has.”

Just as important as the LEED accolades was the affirmation of the design and energy model with real data. BuildSmart DC, which explores the district’s building portfolio, with a focus on sustainability and energy division, hailed Dunbar High, noting that, among other attributes, its annual energy cost of slightly below $400,000 could be twice that for a similar-sized facility that lacked the greenest technology. All the data is publicly available.

“We hope to set a precedent; none of the other D.C. schools have been able to achieve this cost savings with the facilities operations that Dunbar has. Not all the other schools include a pool, two gyms, a full service cafeteria and nearly a year-round occupancy like Dunbar,” says Setty. “There are no other Platinum high schools [highest LEED rating] and last year Dunbar had the lowest aggregate energy costs on a dollar basis.”

A lesson on the homefront

For Setty, who holds a mechanical engineering degree from the University of California at Davis, education and engineering is a natural mix. As a young man, he spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer, teaching math and physics in the southwest African country of Namibia. Upon returning home, he realized he didn’t have to travel to the developing world to see schools that needed an upgrade.

“Some of those inner-city schools in D.C. weren’t much better off than the buildings where I had taught in Africa,” Setty laments. “Not to get too political, but a lot of education money is spent on curriculum, books and teachers’ salaries—as they ought to be—but if you walked into some of those D.C. schools and saw those holes in the ceilings and experienced the freezing temperatures, you’d wonder how anyone could be expected to learn under those conditions. … If we do our job right, we can divert money from the energy bills back into teacher salaries.”

“Engineering can improve education,” says Setty, whose parents, Boggarm and Barthy Setty, founded the firm where his brother, Rohit, is a partner.

Established in 1984, Setty & Associates has additional offices in Virginia, Baltimore, Atlanta, New York City and India. Among its specialties at home: educational and health-care facilities. Its reputation for high-performance buildings figured in the Dunbar High project, which turned into something of a dual mission.

Setty believes the firm is doing its part to nurture and enable a love for learning, particularly in the STEM pursuits. While looking for causes and effects can be arbitrary, the Washington Post reported that during the first spring of the rebuilt Dunbar High, students registered some of the biggest gains on standardized tests at any of the district’s high schools.

Such news makes Setty proud to have played a small role, and he returns periodically to Dunbar High, meeting with students and hearing them extol the improved learning environment. And he stresses his passions of the importance of quality engineering and low-energy solutions.

“The architects deservedly get a lot of the credit, they are the face of the project, but MEP engineers handle all the dynamic parts to ensure it can run; we’re like the offensive linemen,” says Setty. “Our job is to make sure the quarterback has time to make the right throws and provide the stability to the team.”

Still, he’s quick with praise for other firms that aided in the Dunbar project, among them Limbach, the mechanical subcontractor, and Perkins Eastman, the architectural and planning company that boasts sustainability creds that complement those at Setty & Associates.

“Our corporate mantra is be part of the solution to global warming through your engineering,” he says. “All of our projects have great benchmarks. Our mission is to minimize energy usage and optimize our client’s high performance buildings.”

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