After spending their childhood playing online games, students at Choate Rosemary Hall will soon be able to live inside one. When the academic year begins next autumn, the tony Connecticut prep school will open the Kohler Environmental Center, a living-learning facility where teams of students will compete with one another to see who can live most energy efficiently. Think of it as a sort of SimCity meets Survivor: Wallingford.
The $20 million center is a gift from alumnus Herbert V. Kohler, CEO of Kohler Co. Designed by Graham Wyatt and Kevin Smith of Robert A.M. Stern Architects, the 31,325-square-foot structure targets LEED Platinum status and includes labs, a common area, adjacent greenhouses, and also 14 dorm rooms. Between 15 and 20 members of each year's junior class will spend a year living there, divided into teams. They'll conduct individual research, engage in group projects, and design and implement an environmental project.
The challenge is that while they're enjoying their new digs, they will constantly be managing their environment to try and be net zero—that is, they can't consume more energy than the building produces. The building's needs will be provided by a 325-kilowatt photovoltaic array, a roof-mounted solar water-heating system, a geothermal heat pump, a water-recycling system, and waste vegetable oil. Choate is considering installing stationary bikes so students themselves can generate power. "This will be learning at the interface between the actual and virtual worlds," Wyatt says.
Howard Ernst, the center's director, is a nationally recognized environmental-policy expert. He left the U.S. Naval Academy, in Annapolis, Maryland, for the Choate assignment because, he says, "There's simply nothing like it." There are some interdisciplinary environmental centers on college campuses, he says, but none with a residential component, and certainly none based on gaming.
To help the students and faculty manage energy usage, the facility will be equipped with a sophisticated energy-management system. That, in itself, is not unusual, but this one will not only be highly visible but responsive too. Students can monitor the building dashboard, get information on the center's energy online, or watch it fluctuate on their smartphones. If one team is surging ahead, the other could, conceivably, choose en masse not to shower (showers, Wyatt says, can consume 75% of a building's hot-water supply). Or they could lower the thermostats. Who knows how far a group of motivated teenagers will go to win? Will they figure out a way to sell excess energy to rival Deerfield Academy? Don't underestimate these kids.
Ernst says the center's live-in advisers will monitor the students and make sure the place doesn't turn into a sort of chilly Lord of the Flies. Besides, he says, extreme deprivation isn't the point. "We won't measure the success of the experiment on energy output alone," he says. "Satisfaction with the experience is equally important. If we have to shower every other week to meet our goals, that's not success."
In other words, to create a truly sustainable energy-efficient environment, it has to account for not just electricity consumption but a measure of happiness as well. And Choate plans to monitor that too. "We'll be asking, If the students are happy, are they using more or less energy?" Ernst says. "Is there a relationship between energy use and satisfaction, and what is the direction of that relationship? In that sense, the students will be both the independent and dependent variables in the experiment."
The real goal, however, is not just to make the Kohler Center a model environment but to apply the lessons learned to the campus at large, and then, potentially, to other schools. Choate is, after all, a member of the prestigious Eight Schools Association, an alliance of posh—and highly competitive—New England prep schools. "My hope is that the idea will spread," says Ernst. "That would be the ultimate sign of success."
Actually, a truer measure of success would be if the idea spread beyond the elite schools—not just to public schools, but to public buildings of all sorts. Wyatt says it could happen. "I can design a building that will be energy self-sufficient," he says, "but only if users make it so. This building provides daylong teachable moments: You live the game and have to work at it day-round." And that's a lesson that extends well beyond Wallingford.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.