Preparations are underway for the grand opening next week of the $2.65 million Center for Sustainability and Entrepreneurship at Whitefish High School.
The two-story classroom building and greenhouse on the high school campus was constructed with renewable energy systems such as geothermal and solar, and building features such as triple-pane windows, with the goal to become a “net-zero energy building.” A net-zero or “zero-energy” building means that the energy consumed over the duration of a year is about equal to the renewable energy produced at the facility.
Determining if the facility has achieved net-zero energy consumption may take a few years, according to Tom Coburn, a mechanical engineer with Morrison-Maierle. While energy may be monitored daily, the data is evaluated annually.
“You consume more energy than you produce in the winter, and hopefully in the summer you produce more energy than you consume,” Coburn said.
Arriving at net zero is an ambitious goal dependent on people’s habits as much as the renewable energy systems.
“The way you become net zero is the operation of the building. The people need to be cognizant of energy usage — which is the whole point of the Center for Sustainability and Entrepreneurship — to teach students to be cognizant of these things,” Coburn said.
Sustainability has been a district-wide focus, from the classroom to building maintenance and food services. In May 2017 the school district made the cut as a Green Ribbon School through the U.S. Department of Education.
Eventually, the center will encompass gardens, an experimental forest, a native grass meadow, an orchard and a wet meadow detention pond. The center will be the site of hands-on curriculum in agriculture, energy, forestry, natural resources, entrepreneurship and sustainable practices for grades K-12. The intention is to also open it up to the community for adult education classes or lectures.
The center started out as a grassroots effort in 2014, when Freeflow Club members and students in other environmental clubs at Whitefish High School began fundraising efforts to purchase a new greenhouse for the high school to replace the one demolished during the school’s reconstruction. By 2015, the students’ $50,000 goal was surpassed when $70,000 was raised with the support of community philanthropist Rich Atkinson — but the donations and grants continued to pour in. The project evolved from purchasing a 30-by-50-foot Matterhorn-style greenhouse to an approximately 6,200-square-foot facility.
Even before opening its doors, the center was selected for a Mountain West region Leadership Award from the U.S. Green Building Council in March.
The public is invited to attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony at noon on April 21 at the center located on 1143 Fourth St. People are also invited to register online to participate in two free workshops on native plants and composting. “Grow Local with Native Plants” will be held from 10 a.m. to noon and “The Dirt on Compost” from 1:30-3:30 p.m.
The grand opening and workshops are planned in conjunction with the fourth annual Flathead Earth Day Celebration from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Whitefish High School.
The festival will include more than 40 booths featuring nonprofits, conservation groups, government agencies and businesses where visitors can participate in activities, make crafts, or view demonstrations related to the theme “Grow it, Fix it, Save it, Live it.” There will be live music and Wild Wings Recovery will put on a bird show at 11:30 a.m.
Visitors are encouraged to bike, walk or carpool to the event. A bike rodeo will be held for children to practice safe bicycle skills. People may also stop by a bicycle maintenance station for a tune-up and safety check.
Event organizers are anticipating to also celebrate the launch of the Whitefish Climate Action Plan pending its approval at a city council public hearing on Monday. The Whitefish Climate Action Plan is a partnership between the city of Whitefish, Whitefish School District and the nonprofit Climate Smart Glacier Country to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and prepare for climate change.
For more information and to register for the workshops visit http://www.flatheadcitizens.org/flathead-earth-day.