VMDO Architects

VMDO Architects

Charlottesville, VA | Washington, DC


Discovery Elementary School

Discovery Elementary School is one of the largest verified Zero Energy buildings in the world and the first LEED Zero Energy school. While built to address student enrollment growth, the project was designed to meet a larger goal—to prove what can be achieved with a new public school facility. The school offers a positive example of a solution to the global crisis of climate change—and along the way emboldens students with the expectation that they are creative participants in those solutions. 

The school’s zero energy design delivers more than $117,000 per year in annual utility cost savings—enough to cover the salaries of two teachers. The project, including the solar array, was completed under budget, returning $2,900,000 to the district to fund other projects. 

The school’s design takes advantage of topography to create distinct, tiered academic zones and separate exterior play spaces for early childhood, primary, and elementary grade levels, resulting in a building massing that is sensitive to the scale of the surrounding residential neighborhood. Public spaces are defined by a cedar canopy that runs the length of the school and serves as the school’s “front porch.” This porch shades large expanses of glass that provide both a strong visual connection to the outdoors and covered outdoor dining and play spaces. At the main entry, the roof extends out as a canopy with an oculus, transforming the entry plaza into a dynamic solar calendar. 

The building provides opportunities to engage students in the learning process. As students progress, their world expands—with the first floor themed around earth eco-systems and the second floor themed around the skies above. Integrated in the identity system are design features and graphics which create age-appropriate educational opportunities. From a custom-designed cloud-based building dashboard that tracks energy data in real-time, to a rooftop photovoltaic and solar thermal learning lab, to several dozen factoids that feature facts and illustrations—the design prompts students to question, reflect, and become active participants in their school as a teaching tool. 

Discovery’s integration of design, sustainability, and learning creates a unique environment that promotes student engagement and environmental stewardship while advancing the municipality’s carbon and energy goals. As a community centerpiece, Discovery demonstrates how creative design strategies can translate into real value for schools, communities, and the environment while inspiring the next generation of alternative energy natives.

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Status: Built
Location: Arlington, VA, US
Firm Role: Architect of Record
Additional Credits: Photography by Alan Karchmer