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Champion for Change


©2013 This excerpt taken from the article of the same name which appeared in High Performing Buildings Magazine, vol. 6, no. 1, Winter 2013.

By Jane Rath, AIA, and Travis Alderson, P.E.

About the Authors
Jane Rath, AIA, is a principal of SMP Architects in Philadelphia. She was the designer of Kensington and served as the LEED expert. Travis Alderson, P.E., LEED AP, is a principal of Alderson Engineering in Southampton, Pa. He was the mechanical engineer for Kensington and prepared the energy models.

Champion for Change

Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts

A former industrial site known for recreational drug dealing and as a dumping ground inhabited by vagrants and unwanted pets doesn’t seem to be an ideal place to locate a new high school. But when activist student group Youth United for Change championed the idea for smaller, greener high schools to reduce the dropout rate, the School District of Philadelphia divided its underperforming 2,000-student high school into four smaller schools. Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts helped revitalize the derelict site and the surrounding community while using less energy than any other school in the district.

Site Challenges

For the high school, the only available open site in the Kensington neighborhood was located along the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) Market-Frankford Elevated Railway “EL.” During rush hour, trains clatter past the site as often as every two minutes. The elevated track supports come down into the narrow site that runs lengthwise parallel to the EL, making siting the building even more difficult because of the proximity to the noise’s source. In addition, because of the crime in the community, the train stop wasn’t heavily used.

An acoustics consulting firm analyzed the noise source and determined the noise could be reduced through good design of fenestration and wall sections. The way the building was sited also helped. General purpose classrooms are located “at the back” of the site, as far as possible from the trains. Sites of noisier activities — the gym and cafeteria — were placed in noisier locations. Today, classrooms placed at the front of the building — art and dance — are actually fairly quiet. 

LEED for Schools required that the site remediation meet Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection residential regulations. A rail depot previously occupied the site, and “hot spots” were found everywhere. Contaminants, primarily lead, arsenic and polyaromatic hydrocarbons, were dug out and removed off site.

Water Challenges

Around the time that design work began on the school, the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) developed a plan to charge Philadelphians for storm water that they let flow into the city’s combined sanitary and storm sewers. For large commercial properties, the costs could be enormous. If the Kensington site had been 100% impervious, the annual cost for storm water would have been more than $30,000 per year. To obtain a building permit, the Philadelphia Water Department must review and approve a project’s storm water plan. To get an expedited review, a project must incorporate storm water mediation strategies. Due to an abbreviated project schedule, the building team included strategies to retain 100% of storm water on site to receive the expedited review. These tactics also reduced the school’s storm water bill to zero.

The storm water approach includes two types of green roof, covering 40% of the roof area. Pervious paving is used for significant portions of the parking lots, with retention below. An emergency vehicle access lane that runs along the east edge of the site is constructed of permeable reinforced turf. A large storm water retention tank is located under the playing field to the north.