Bray Architects Design Marks Largest Net Zero Verified Education Project in U.S.

Wisconsin’s Forest Edge Elementary School uses innovative design, onsite solar, and geothermal to create more energy than it consumes

With its 1,700 solar panels and 90 geothermal wells complementing an energy-maximizing design, Forest Edge Elementary School in Fitchburg, Wisconsin, has become the largest net zero verified education project in the United States. Designed by Bray Architects, the school serves as an example of what’s possible in making public architecture more sustainable – a meaningful topic for Sustainability Day, which falls on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021.

Rather than consuming resources in its mission to grow minds, the school generates energy through a roof covered with solar panels. After a year in operation, these clean and renewable sources have provided all the power the school needs.

“This school is a landmark both in how it produces energy and how it fuels education,” said Maria Welch, senior project specialist with Bray Architects. “The building becomes a bridge that connects students to the natural environment.”

According to New Buildings Institute data, as of Oct. 1, Forest Edge is:

  • The largest verified net zero education facility in the U.S.
  • The first net zero verified elementary school in the Midwest/Great Plains region
  • The first net zero school in Wisconsin
  • One of only 74 net zero verified public projects in the U.S.

More than an energy resource, the school’s design inside and out connects students to the natural environment and leverages the building’s unique features as a teaching tool. Each section of the school is themed to highlight natural energy sources: Life, Light, Thermal, and Wind. Viewing areas in the building offer views of the solar panels, vegetated roofs, and geothermal pumps. The library is designed as a “nest” that faces toward the forest adjacent to the school, immersing the students in nature even while indoors.

The rooftop solar panels alone produce 646 kW of energy and in one year offset CO2 emissions equivalent to 623,249 pounds of coal burned.

“Sometimes we work with communities that hear ‘sustainability’ and think it’s going to make their project more expensive,” Bray Principal and President Matt Wolfert said. “Forest Edge is a great example that shows that investment is within reach for a public entity – and it’s going to pay dividends for decades.

“We’re incredibly grateful for the decades-long partnership with the Oregon School District and partners like Findorff and HGA who helped shape the vision for a school that is innovative, sustainable, and truly reflects the community,” he added.