Cardinal Wuerl High School a thoroughly modern — and green — cathedral of learning


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Clerestory windows, salvaged barnwood paneling, polished concrete floors -- this is a school?

The new Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School won't educate its first student until the fall, but it's already teaching lessons in sustainability, smart design and energy efficiency.

"Way back in the beginning, we interviewed students and parents. They wanted a lot of natural light, earthy products," said Mike Arnold, chief facilities officer for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.

Some of the Cranberry complex's earthiest elements are also the oldest: sunlight, stone and wood. Large expanses of glass allow daylight to illuminate nearly every area. Classrooms in the learning wing have operable, large windows along one wall, sidelights and transoms around the doors, and strips of glass near the ceilings to capture even more light streaming through clerestory windows in the hallways.

Very thin slate tiles line the walls in the lobby and other hallways and act as an accent for an uncommon wall covering: tongue-and-groove planks of red and white oak reclaimed from old barn beams. The Woods Co. in Chambersburg removed the nails, sanitized, dried in kilns and remilled antique wood from eight barns in Maryland and Pennsylvania, including ones in Jeannette, Westmoreland County; Avella, Washington County; and Champion, Somerset County. Contractors installed 6,000 square feet of the 4-inch-wide, ¾-inch thick strips in the school's lobby, stairwells and cafeteria.

"It's like putting a floor down," said Bill Charles, project manager for Mascaro, the general contractor.

"But easier on the knees," added Mark Conway of Northeast Interior Systems.

Mr. Conway said his company had never installed reclaimed wood in a school before. Then again, this 185,000-square-foot complex is not like any other school in the area.

"You don't feel like you're in a school," said Karen Durning of the Woods Co.

Its broad, airy staircases and hallways, dramatic lighting fixtures and brick and aluminum exterior suggest a corporate headquarters or modern hotel. Even the classrooms, gymnasium and auditorium make visitors feel as if they're on a college campus rather than in a high school. Only the small round chapel betrays the school's religious nature, but its central location on the 75-acre campus calls attention to its role. Many classroom windows face toward the chapel, which won't be finished until this summer.

"It's always in front of students," Mr. Arnold said. "Hopefully, it's inspirational."

Many of the chapel's design elements link to Mary, the mother of Christ and patron of the Marianist order that founded North Catholic in the North Side's Troy Hill neighborhood in 1939. Five alcoves represent the five decades of the rosary and will contain images of Mary as she has appeared throughout history. The curve of the pews and an exterior cornice suggest the petals and shape of a rose, the symbol of Mary, said Rudy Marnich, director of sustainable design for Astorino, the complex's architect.

The chapel can hold 250 people, the projected size of each class in the $72 million school, which was built to accommodate 1,000 students. About 200 students attend North Catholic High School in Troy Hill. The Pittsburgh Diocese announced in 2012 that it would build the new high school in Cranberry to serve the growing number of students from the North Hills and Butler County.

The old high school will live on in other ways. Statues and stained-glass windows will be incorporated into the chapel, and trophies, photos and artifacts will be displayed in cases and a hall of fame and a heritage room in the library, near more of the barnwood paneling.

It's a custom more common in churches than schools, preserving artifacts to recognize the efforts of long-departed members who built and supported the church. In this cathedral of learning, it seems appropriate that these spiritual images find a place alongside the remains of the farms where some worshippers spent the other part of their lives, working the Earth.

What makes the school green

The new Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School in Cranberry is seeking silver certification through the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) program. Here are some of its sustainable and/or energy-efficient elements:

• About 35 percent of the 75-acre campus was left as open space.

• The amount of stormwater runoff from the site is less than before construction. Water is held in detention ponds and used for irrigation when needed.

• Roofs are covered with white thermoplastic polyolefin to reflect heat from sunlight and reduced air-conditioning needs.

• Uses 43 percent less water than a conventionally built school.

• No potable water will be used for irrigation. Water will be drawn from a retention pond on site.

• Additional reduction in water use from high-efficiency equipment including pre-rinse spray valves, ice machines, dishwashers and clothes washers.

• Energy modeling indicates expected 14 percent savings over a comparable building.

• More than 90 percent of construction waste was recycled or salvaged

• More than 25 percent of construction materials have recycled content.

• About 35 percent of materials were sourced within 500 miles.

• About 70 percent of wood sourced from certified forests

• CO2 monitors in densely occupied spaces will sound alarms if air quality drops.

• Materials were protected from absorbing dirt and contaminants during construction.

• All adhesives, paints, composite wood, primary wall and ceiling systems materials meet LEED low-VOC requirements.

• Activity sensors turn off lights when not in use. Energy-saving thermostats and controls.

— Source: Rudy Marnich, Astorino


Kevin Kirkland: kkirkland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1978.

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