Lexington architect Susan Hill just couldn't figure it out. Soon after Locust Trace AgriScience Farm opened this school year, lights in the main building started turning themselves on and off in the middle of the night.
That was not good. The Fayette County Public Schools' most innovative new facility is designed to generate as much energy as it consumes. Conservation is essential to this goal. To that end, sound-and-motion sensors operate lights so energy won't be wasted when nobody is in a room.
Hill and her team puzzled over the mystery until it finally, well, dawned on them.
"We had a rooster in the animal science lab who was getting up at all hours and causing lights to go on and off all over the place," she said. Lighting sensors were quickly adjusted to respond to motion only. Problem solved.
Architects usually don't have to think about cock-a-doodle-doo-proofing a building. But this kind of issue has been the challenge and the fun of the project for Hill, who has been intrigued by environmentally sustainable design since she studied under pioneering solar architect Richard Levine at the University of Kentucky.
Locust Trace is a different kind of public school, designed to prepare high school juniors and seniors for careers in the equine industry and agriculture, where a return to sustainability is the trend. School officials wanted their facility to set a good environmental example — and be less expensive to operate and maintain.
The $15.5 million campus is one of the most "green" developments in Kentucky. It also has become a laboratory for new building methods and materials that is attracting national attention from architects, builders and educators.
Locust Trace was built on 82 acres off Leestown Road that the federal government donated to the school system. From the very beginning, Hill and other planners studied the site's location and topography to make the best use of it.
The design team collaborated with dozens of people from the school system, community and various industries. That included everything from seeking the advice of Kentucky Horse Park experts about footing in the livestock arena to technical assistance on air-flow technology from Lexington-based Big Ass Fans.
Sunlight and prevailing winds were analyzed to orient the classroom building and large arena building to make the best use of sunlight and natural breezes. The buildings use 21 Big Ass Fans — large high-volume, slow-speed fans — to help regulate indoor air flow and temperatures.
The arena building, for instance, is heated and cooled with five large fans that pull air through louvers along a roof gallery that are opened and closed manually or with automatic sensors. Clerestory windows along the gallery provide most of the arena's light.
Both buildings make extensive use of solar energy. Sunlight is maximized by window design and "solar tubes" that funnel magnified sunshine through the ceiling. Roof-mounted photovoltaic panels convert sunlight into as much as 175 kilowatts of electricity.
Power not needed immediately is fed into the Kentucky Utilities grid to offset power drawn from it on cloudy days. Electricity is shut off at night, except for a few outlets needed to run things like fish tanks.
"We spent a lot of time with school officials to see what we could cut out, what we didn't need" to minimize energy use, Hill said.
She said the main building's roof has the nation's third-largest array of solar thermal cells, which heat water to supplement the building's geothermal heating system. Buildings are made of metal, limestone and insulated concrete. Floors are low- maintenance polished concrete and rubber.
A well provides pure limestone water for animals. Eventually, if state regulations allow, well water could be used for human consumption.
Permeable pavement, rain gardens and a green roof manage storm water runoff. Rain is collected in underground tanks for use with livestock and irrigation. An artificial wetland was built to naturally process the campus' wastewater. Shredded paper and plant matter are being composted for fertilizer.
"It's a different kind of curriculum, a different kind of student," Hill said. "But it allows us to try out lots of ideas that might be appropriate for a regular school once we learn more about them."
The architect said the best part of working on Locust Trace has been trying new techniques, materials and designs to reduce energy use — and operating costs.
"There was a great willingness on the part of school system officials to take a little risk to learn the lessons," she said. "That's really important."