Denver's Emerson School Building Reopens After Green Restoration

Posted on: May 30th, 2012 by Jim Lindberg

The flag of the National Trust is flying high over the historic Emerson School in Denver, Colorado! National Trust President Stephanie Meeks and Chief Preservation Officer David Brown returned to their 5th grade “flag patrol” days to hoist the National Trust's banner as part of last week’s grand opening festivities, which also included a ribbon-cutting ceremony and an open house attended by more than 250 guests.


National Trust President Stephanie Meeks and Chief Preservation Officer David Brown preparing to raise the flags.

These events marked the completion of a $3.2 million “green rehabilitation” of the Emerson School. Donated to the National Trust in 2010, this 1885 schoolhouse is now home to the Trust’s Denver Field Office, as well as seven other nonprofit organizations, including Historic Denver, Colorado Preservation, and Downtown Colorado.

When we launched the Emerson School project last August, part of our plan was to demonstrate replicable approaches for making older buildings more energy efficient and sustainable. With the project now complete, we can point to four basic, adaptable strategies used at the Emerson School that we believe can apply to similar building retrofit projects.

Tighten the exterior envelope. As part of the Emerson School project, we added an extra layer of attic insulation and restored more than 100 original windows to improve their function and eliminate leaks. (We may add storm windows or window film later, depending on performance and comfort.)

Restore historic green features. Many older buildings have green features that have been lost or forgotten. For example, we removed dropped ceilings, uncovered transom windows and eliminated 1980’s office partitions so that large historic windows could once again bring daylight deep into the Emerson School, as intended. We also re-connected two central ventilation chimneys that were part of architect Robert Roeschlaub’s original design.

Add new technologies selectively. Solar panels are a symbol of sustainable design, but we added an invisible technology that we think will have an even greater impact on energy use: a geothermal field buried under a former playground and parking lot. This system uses the constant 55-60 degree temperature of the earth to eliminate the need for a chiller and reduce natural gas use by 80 percent. (We’ll add solar panels later.)

Strengthen connections to the surrounding neighborhood. Historic buildings are more than isolated structures. They are often located within highly sustainable older neighborhoods of walkable streets, mixed uses and transit alternatives that blogger Lloyd Alter calls “heritage urbanism.” We strengthened connections to the surrounding Capitol Hill neighborhood by removing a parking lot, adding shade trees and plantings, improving lighting, and locating a new bike-share station in front of the building.

Our energy models suggest that these and other measures will reduce energy use at Emerson School by nearly 50 percent. That is our short-term goal. Our ultimate destination is to make the Emerson School a “NetZero” building (consuming no more resources than we can produce on site) by 2030. It is an ambitious goal, but we are launched and on our way. Our flag is flying high.

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Adaptive Reuse, Civic, General, Green