When a leaky, moldy, low-ceiling Plainfield, N.H., elementary school needed fixing, four volunteers pitched a piecemeal solution to the town.
In 2008, Marc Rosenbaum, Mike Higgins, Bill Knight, and Allan Ferguson requested $25,000 and one protocol classroom to trial a series of interior and exterior updates that would reinstall insulation, improve heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC), and save energy as a byproduct. This was phase one of what would become an 11-plus-year project that fixed the Plainfield School. But it started small.
“We weren’t asking for a lot of money,” Rosenbaum told a group gathered at the West Tisbury library for Rosenbaum’s talk, “‘Fixing the Plainfield School,” hosted by the Island Climate Action Network (ICAN) Monday evening. “We put it on a warrant, and [voters] said sure.”
Rosenbaum is a building performance engineer with 30-plus years of consultation experience. Once a longtime resident of Plainfield, Rosenbaum lives in West Tisbury and works for South Mountain Co. He’s led a number of Island projects (including the Chilmark School) that target energy efficiency — although he’ll be the first to tell you that’s not the way to pitch a project like this to a town.
“We didn’t say, ‘This is an energy-saving project,’” Rosenbaum said. “We said, ‘We’re fixing the building.’”
Plainfield School was designed and built in the early 1970s, right before the oil embargo. Its exterior was clad with steel, and the interior with T-111 plywood. Engineers chose oil-fire heating. “Steel is a bad insulator,” Rosebaum said. “But when oil is 20 cents per gallon …”
Over the years, the plywood walls decayed, and insulation and ventilation failed, creating an environment prone to mold, improper air quality, and unreliable temperature control. And the price of oil went way up.
“How do we deal with deficiencies that we couldn’t deny?” Rosenbaum posed. “What could we afford as a town?”
Rosenbaum, Higgins, Knight, and Ferguson, known as the ‘informal’ Facilities Committee, picked a classroom in the corner of the school to utilize the most wall space and isolate themselves from other classrooms. They started with insulation, by deep-energy retrofitting (DER) wall sections and enclosures, digging down about a foot below the concrete floor grade and out 40 feet, and then filling in the trenches with foam. “That’s how we insulated the foundation,” Rosenbaum said. The team added 6.5 inches of foam to the walls, extension bucks to the windows, kept the frames, and installed new fiberglass quad-pane windows.
“A typical code window has an insulating value of R3,” Rosenbaum said. “We ended up with about R15.” The R value represents resistance to heat flow. The higher the number, the better, according to Rosenhaum.
The committee installed a single-zone cold-climate mini split heat pump and energy recovery ventilator (ERV), which transfers heat and moisture, bringing fresh air in and exhaust air out. The team also made a commitment to monitor both energy used and indoor environment conditions as a way to determine whether it would make sense to extend the strategy to the rest of the school.
Throughout the first phase, teachers brought students to the protocol classroom to label ducts, measure data, and interact with the project as an education tool. When all was said and done, data proved that the airtight protocol classroom saved money and energy, and was the most comfortable room in the building.
Phase II and beyond
The facilities committee went back to the school board and asked for $275,000 to extend the project to two wings in the school. “Why don’t we just do the whole school?” the school board asked. But the facilities committee turned that down, noting it would require bids from architects and engineers, and turn the Plainfield School into a construction zone with hundreds of people running around. “Little by little,” Rosenbaum said. “Then we can see what’s really getting done.”
The little-by-little approach also made room for error. One project was repitching and insulating the flat roofs. “We felt we hadn’t worked out how to do a flat roof really well,” Rosenhaum said. “This way, we learned how to do it right before we did 15,000 square feet.”
The town voted strongly in favor of the project. “It was a no-brainer,” Rosenbaum said, referencing the success of the Phase I data. “There was hardly any discussion.”
The entire school, except the gym, is now superinsulated and retrofitted with heat pumps. The oil boilers and underground oil tanks were removed, and the gym is heated by modular propane boilers. The committee eventually added solar panels, and Rosenbaum hopes to install more.
The Plainfield School project was phased, scalable, and utilized local labor. It cut heat costs by more than two-thirds, cut energy costs, and even received funding from National Grid.
“They like to see savings, and we showed them savings, so they ponied up some money,” Rosenbaum said.
There are no fossil fuels on site, no third-party controls, and the electricity-driven heat pumps are compatible with renewable energy. Each individual room has its own HVAC system, and electrical use has not increased with the switch to heat pumps.
The Environmental Protection Agency gave the Plainfield School an energy rating of 100, up from 33 when the project began. The project also had a dramatic effect on the diffusion of potential distributed energy resources (DERs) into the community, according to Rosenbaum.
“Comfort, durability, and health,” Rosenbaum said. “If you address these things, it’s going to save energy as a byproduct.”
Members of the audience asked if similar approaches to those that fixed the Plainfield School could fix the Tisbury School. The town recently rejected a $46 million project to build a new school at the Spring Street location.
Rosenbaum drew parallels between the two towns: Plainfield and Tisbury are about the same size, but Tisbury has considerably more money. Like the pre-reconstructed Plainfield School, the Tisbury School is old, lacks proper ventilation, and has extensive water leaks. The Tisbury School also has flaking paint, which has tested positive for lead, shutting down that part of the school until remediation work is completed. The Plainfield School is 35,000 square feet and one story, and the Tisbury school is 61,000 square feet and three stories. The Tisbury School exterior is brick.
“Could this be an option for us?” an audience member asked of the Plainfield project process.
“Yes. I think it’s our better route,” Rosenbaum answered. “[Plainfield] got a different sense of themselves after this. They’re really proud of this building. It’s become their biggest asset.”
But the power is in the approach, Rosenbaum said. “Phases allowed the community to experience the difference and see technology at work. I think that makes all of the difference.”