Common Ground Construction in New Haven Focuses on Sustainability

The vision for the new sustainable addition at the Common Ground High School is that a century from now, there will be a ceremony honoring the builders and financial contributors in New Haven who had the foresight in 2015 to make it all possible. 

The 15,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art science lab, community center, performance and athletic space is supported with an initial $7.5 million state grant and an additional $2.1 million in private funds that the popular charter school raised from more than 300 community members, foundations and local businesses. 

The school and its supporters Wednesday celebrated this latest phase of construction, as the structure begins to rise from its foundation. 

The addition will allow the student body to expand from 180 to 225 students, as well as welcome 15,000 children and adults annually into programs at its environmental education center. 

The curriculum revolves around living sustainably in conjunction with nature and features such things as an organic garden that last year produced 6,600 pounds of vegetables that were shared with almost 3,000 low-income community members. 

Students were working in that lush garden Wednesday as the celebration over the evolving building continued, while 280 summer campers were on the grounds, including state Senate Pro Tem Martin M. Looney's grandson. 

Looney, Mayor Toni Harp and state Rep. Patricia Dillon, D-New Haven, helped shepherd through the necessary funding and are big fans of the school and its underlying educational philosophy. 

"This really is a city building. We consider it a resource for the entire community," said Melissa Spear, Common Ground's executive director. 

Harp said she loves coming to this "lovely peaceful place" and is grateful for the public-private partnership that helped reduce the burden on state taxpayers. 

She praised the innovative building practices at the school which are preparing students in the area to take care of New Haven and the larger world. 

Looney said he was impressed with the school's "nurturing atmosphere" and its "values of environmental stewardship." 

For Dillon, she said the original vision has been expanded with the students involved in community projects through a wide array of networking to address climate change, the restoration of natural habitats, protection of the West River watershed and provision of a sanctuary for migrating birds. 

"It is so much more than a school," Dillon said. "It's just wonderful." 

The emphasis at the ceremony Wednesday was on the design of the building and the unique building materials used in construction. 

Tedd Benson, who founded Bensonwood, said he was looking to get back to the craft of timber framing and using materials that do not give off volatile gases. He said the craftsmen were gone, but the clues as to how to do the framing are in the buildings that have survived. 

He said those craftsmen had a commitment to the future and "the principals of durability and sustainability," putting up structures capable of surviving centuries. 

Benson said the culmination of reviving those methods is the building at Common Ground, which future generations will praise for its construction when others were at "the precipice of environmental disaster." 

Benson said buildings constructed in the last several decades "may not outlast their mortgages. What is wrong with this picture?" 

The Common Ground addition is constructed using a "cross laminate timber system that is designed to minimize climate change impact, reduce waste and energy use, and use renewable resources," according to the school. 

Gray Organschi Architecture designed the new structure, while the construction contractor is Newfield. 

Alan Organschi said the goal was a building "that would teach about the complex and potentially convivial relationship between the built and the natural environment." 

It features solar panels that provide 70 percent of the electric power; a geothermal system that heats and cools the building and a wood framing and paneling system that reduces global warming impact by 40 percent. The architect and builders hope its sustainability features will position it to get LEED platinum designation. 

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design and is a green building certification program that recognizes best-in-class building strategies and practices. Platinum is the highest designation. 

By Mary O'Leary, New Haven Register