Cincinnati Public School designs attract national spotlight

April 22 is Earth Day, and this year Cincinnati’s green-minded architects have a lot to celebrate.

Earth Day Network (EDN) in Washington DC is using “the Cincinnati model” for its sustainable design education programs in 40 schools in cities across the country. Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) students were among the first in the nation to enjoy the benefits of “green” architectural design, and Earth Day educators are encouraging other schools to pursue similar green-building practices.

In the design and construction industry—where craft traditions are often passed from generation to generation—change can be slow and difficult.  But Cincinnati green-school advocates found a way to jumpstart the process, propelling CPS and the region into the national spotlight as a pioneer builder of healthy, green schools.  Sean Miller, EDN’s director of education, says,
“Cincinnati is ahead of the curve” in new design and in related curriculum development.

Encouraged by the Alliance for Leadership and Interconnection (ALLY, a local grassroots organization focused on healthy school environments) and EDN, the CPS board decided in 2006 that henceforth all new construction and renovations would follow high-performance, sustainable-design practices.  When the Ohio School Facilities Commission determined that all new and renovated schools receiving its support would be green, funds became available to help pay for sustainable features.  As Ginny Frazier, an educator who is now executive director of ALLY, says the “time was right” for a green initiative at CPS.

CPS was in the midst of implementing a comprehensive $1-billion Facilities Master Plan under its facilities director, Michael Burson. A number of the new school buildings were completed or underway.  But CPS had the courage to order changes to green architectural design. Moving boldly ahead with its sustainable initiative, CPS engaged Cincinnati’s GBBN Architects to help Burson coordinate a revised facilities  plan.  GBBN made Ronald Kull its project manager. Kull is the former University of Cincinnati campus architect who oversaw the recent and dramatic transformation of the UC Clifton campus.

GBBN’s Robert L. Knight was  appointed CPS Sustainable Design Coordinator.  A former president of Cincinnati AIA and current director of the Architectural Foundation, Knight predicts that “the unique program adopted by CPS will make a difference for generations to come.”

By August 2006, CPS had a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver building—the first education facility in Ohio certified Silver. Students in the Hughes Center Zoo Academy were attending classes in the light- and plant-filled Schott Education Center at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden.

Schott Center, designed by Cincinnati-based Glaserworks, is the first—and thus far the only— LEED Silver certified building in Cincinnati.  But its solitary status will change soon thanks to CPS’s ambitious program. Another CPS candidate for LEED Silver is nearing completion in the city suburb of Pleasant Ridge and nearly a dozen more LEED-candidate schools are in design.

The Pleasant Ridge Montessori School and Community Learning Center, which will open in August, is the first of the new green breed.  It is the work of SHP Leading Design and DH Architects. Jeffrey Sackenheim, a member of SHP’s education studio, said that what began as a traditional design changed in “response to the community’s interest in sustainability—number one on their agenda was a green school that would have a positive impact on students and staff.”  The building contains expansive windows that admit natural light, under-floor air- delivery systems, and solar roof panels.

In their designs for CPS facilities, architects are following the district’s “ten initiatives” and national guidelines established by the U.S. Green Building Council and advocated by the local and national American Institute of Architects.   

The public will have a chance to view the next segment of the CPS Facilities Master Plan in an exhibition Thursday, April 24, 6-8 p.m., at GBBN Architects, 332 East 8th St.

Cincinnati architects are putting the final touches on sustainable designs in the exhibit.  They are for the Academy of Multilingual Immersion Studies (AMIS) by GBBN Architects; North Avondale Montessori by Cole+Russell, Fanning/Howey, Moody Nolan; Pleasant Ridge Montessori by SHP Leading Design and DH Architects; Sands Montessori by SHP Leading Design; Robert A. Taft Information Technology High School by Voorhis Slone Welsh & Crossland; Hartwell Elementary and College Hill Elementary by Moody Nolan; Dater Montessori and Clark High School by Glaserworks; and Western Hills/Dater High School by SFA Architects.

Knight says that green design features, such as solar panels and geothermal heating systems, can increase construction costs, but the payback is in lower operating expenses.  CPS is pursuing any new program that has an initial cost that is paid back within five years.  Almost everything CPS is doing is co-funded by the state, which pays 22% of the initial costs.  Knight maintains that “some sustainable things do not cost more, they are just better design. And sometimes design decisions are not just about the dollar, but about creating a healthier environment.”

Cole+Russell Architects’ Tom Lindsey, who has designed a number of local school buildings, is leading the design team for North Avondale Montessori.  He is an enthusiastic advocate of sustainable design.  “It is a good thing in itself,” Lindsay says.  And good becomes even better because “CPS is using the buildings as tools for teaching environmental responsibility.”  At North Avondale, a vegetative flat roof is located off the science classroom. Students will be able to observe and tend the plants.

Architectural critics see a green aesthetic developing, with an emphasis on  natural materials, more and larger operable windows, more daylight, and dissolution of barriers between inside and outside.  More daylight is known to improve student test scores.  And healthy schools are believed to reduce absenteeism because they mitigate common problems among children such as asthma attacks.

Knight expects all new buildings will be LEED Silver Certified.  Design teams meet regularly and count LEED credits as designs evolve.  One or two difficult renovations may not accrue enough points to reach Silver status. (Buildings are not LEED certified until completed.)

Architects today have the advantage of contemporary technology in computers and programs, which have made sustainable design easier and more precise.  Computer-modeling and cost-estimating approaches allow the design and construction industries to predict and optimize the results of green solutions.  In Cincinnati, progressive architects are transforming the way design and construction is being done in this supposedly tradition-bound city.  Lindsay is not surprised that the green movement caught on here and has advanced so quickly in the past five years. “The architectural community here is exceptionally forward-minded,” he said.  “Our fine architecture schools—University of Cincinnati and Miami University—contribute to the progressive atmosphere.”

Knight predicts that in years to come “architecture will continue to evolve in much more sustainable design,” and that Cincinnati can be proud that the buildings constructed here, in this decade, were “on the leading edge of the movement."

The exhibition and reception are open to the public for a $10 contribution.  There will be refreshments, live music, and opportunities for conversation with the architects.  The event is hosted by ALLY (Alliance for Leadership and Interconnection) and the Architectural Foundation of Cincinnati.

Reserve by April 22 with ALLY or (513) 541-4607.

Sue Ann Painter is the Executive Director of lthe Architectural Foundation of Cincinnati and the author of Architecture in Cincinnati: An Illustrated History of Designing and Building an American City which can be found at

Photography by Scott Beseler

All photos on location at The Pleasant Ridge Montessori School and Community Learning Center

Rendering courtesy of SHP

Jeffrey Sackenheim of SHP

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