Press Release

Discovery Elementary School Becomes First School to Receive LEED Zero Energy Certification

July 19, 2019–A 2017 AIA Committee on the Environment “Top Ten” recipient, Discovery Elementary School is the first school and third project ever to receive the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) LEED Zero Energy certification. Designed by VMDO Architects, Discovery is also the first recipient of the USGBC National Capital Region’s (NCR) Net Zero Award and is the only building in the NCR to date to demonstrate a net-positive energy balance. Internationally, Discovery is one of the largest buildings of any kind anywhere in the world to receive Zero Energy (ZE) certification by the International Living Future Institute and New Buildings Institute.

Arlington Public Schools Sets the Bar–Discovery is Arlington Public Schools’ (APS) first elementary school designed in the 21st century. Throughout a series of intensive community planning meetings, careful attention was focused on designing and building a school that supports how and where students learn. Every nook and cranny of the school is arranged to create a seamless integration between design, sustainability, and learning. The school’s ZE design results in $117,000 of annual utility cost savings in comparison to a typical APS elementary school of the same size–enough to cover the salaries of two teachers. The project was completed under budget, allowing the school district to apply $2,900,000 to other projects. Further, the building is operating more efficiently than designed, at an actual energy use intensity (EUI) of 15.8 KBTU/sf/year. Since 2017, Discovery has produced more energy than it’s used–sending a surplus of 100,000 kWh annually back to the grid, which is enough to power 7.5 average Virginia homes for an entire year.

“There is no reason that we can’t use public school construction anywhere in this country to advance zero energy and learning outcomes. Cost certainly is not the reason.”

–Wyck Knox, Principal, VMDO Architects

Accelerating ZE through Sustainable Design Partnerships–In fall 2016, the Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Initiative launched its Zero Energy Schools Accelerator in conjunction with a tour of Discovery, led by VMDO’s Wyck Knox. In 2019, the USGBC NCR used a similar tour of Discovery to bring attention to its LEED Zero certification. Both initiatives seek to make ZE schools more mainstream by demonstrating how investing in renewable energy translates into cost savings and enhanced learning environments. As reported by the New Buildings Institute’s 2019 Watchlist, ZE schools have experienced a remarkable 850% growth since 2010. Successful ZE schools like Discovery are creating pathways for participation for schools and school districts across the country.

“What is most important about Discovery is that it allows teachers to think about how students learn. Curriculum is just something the state gives to us and you can teach that anywhere, but with this space, we can get creative, experiment, and shepherd meaningful experiences.”

–Erin Russo, Principal, Discovery Elementary School

School as a Teaching Tool–Like its name suggests, Discovery provides hands-on learning opportunities that encourage students to take ownership of their sustainable school and contribute to its carbon-neutral culture. Discovery achieved LEED Gold certification in 2018 for new construction. Notably, it earned full points within the Innovation credit category and includes the School as a Teaching Tool credit, which is intended to help project teams integrate sustainability features of the school into the educational mission. To foster a culture of stewardship and accountability, sustainable features such as the photovoltaic array are made visible and accessible through learning opportunities like a rooftop solar lab. Data from the adjustable solar lab is fed into the school’s building energy dashboard, allowing students to conduct experiments with real-time data. Engaging students in the learning opportunities inherent in zero energy schools offers a way for their vision for a greener future to become a reality.

“Innovative projects like Discovery Elementary School are critical to transforming our buildings, spaces, and places so that they can continue to sustain future generations. Giving students the opportunity to see and experience their school building as a living laboratory encourages greater understanding and stewardship for their planet and community. By setting high goals for energy performance and involving students in the effort, Discovery demonstrates a new threshold of academic and industry leadership.”

–Mahesh Ramanujam, President and CEO, USGBC

For more information about VMDO Architects and Discovery Elementary School, please visit For media inquiries, please contact Mary Beth Lineberry, Director of Marketing, at [email protected].