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Sustainable Design: Prairie Trails Schools Achieves National Recognition with Better Project, Better Practice Award

FGMA’s net-zero energy renovation has received recognition by the U.S. Department of Energy as a national model of sustainable design

Solar panels and other energy-saving design elements offset electricity use - Prairie Trails School is a fully net-zero facility that uses no fossil fuels.

FGMA is pleased to announce that the net-zero energy renovation of the Prairie Trails School has been selected for a 2024 Better Project, Better Practice award. Part of the Better Buildings initiative by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the program highlights best practices that can facilitate a more energy-efficient built environment and drive leadership in energy innovation on a national level. The following details serve to create a project case study for Prairie Trails School as a national model for sustainable design.

The renovated former daycare facility located in Mt. Prospect, Illinois uses no fossil fuels and required 67% less energy than conventional buildings during its first year of operation – making it the first net-zero energy renovation in the nation certified to meet 2018 PHIUS+ Source Zero requirements. This certification is conferred by PHIUS (Passive House Institute U.S.), a nonprofit organization committed to making high-performance passive building the mainstream market standard.

“Partners in the Better Climate Challenge are industry leaders in energy efficiency and decarbonization,” said Carolyn Snyder, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Buildings and Industry at the U.S. Department of Energy. “As a winner of a Better Project award, River Trails School District 26 has demonstrated an innovative pathway to improve energy efficiency and reduce emissions that other organizations can learn from.”

Prairie Trails School serves early learning students and functions as a learning hub through interactive displays for the District’s older students. The renovation of the school incorporates state-of-the-art sustainable ideas, materials and technologies: these combine to create an eco-friendly building that supports the health and wellbeing of students. Sustainable learning environment components featured in the project include acoustics, ventilation and thermal comfort as well as healthy outdoor learning.

A spacious multi-purpose room functions as a gym, eating area, or gathering space for group activities while sound-absorbing acoustic panels minimize noise for adjacent rooms.

Designed to serve 300 PreK/Kindergarten students, Prairie Trails School includes eighteen classrooms and additional spaces for early intervention services and fine arts. A spacious multi-purpose room is used as a gym, eating area, or gathering space for group activities. Currently, River Trails School District 26 (RTSD) is applying similar carbon reduction and energy-saving strategies to two other schools in the district in the belief that energy-efficient schools will be status quo in the future.

"Empowering students to be stewards to their environment… is one of our pathways to life-ready students; what better way to demonstrate this than renovating a building to have net zero energy consumption." Frank Fiarito, Former RTSD Board Member


Prairie Trails School: A Model of Sustainable Design

FGMA has worked with RTSD since the 1970's. In 2019, the District commissioned the firm to design a comprehensive renovation of a 1960’s-era facility and create a dedicated school for its youngest learners. Prairie Trails School’s renovation was envisioned as a model of sustainable design and a learning environment that benefits the entire community, particularly as a net-zero energy building. As a renovation project, most of the original structure was retained. The design team created a plan that allowed the building’s old perimeter walls to be a part of a layered approach, consisting of an outer layer of fiber cement board, rainscreen support, a layer of rigid insulation, an air barrier, and a layer of gypsum sheathing board. The result is a structure that is significantly more energy efficient and protected against moisture while also offering more temperature control.

Classroom design for Prairie Trails School emphasizes flexible learning space and natural light for every student.


After the renovation and retrofit, the District tracks energy use and monitors key success metrics through ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager®. PTS building management has been trained in daily equipment inspections, condensation pump alarms, pump overflow alarms, air handler humidity monitor oversight and automated dehumidification cycle monitoring. Additionally, the PTS Buildings and Grounds Director is PHIUS certified, while both the Assistant Superintendent for Business Services and Buildings and the Grounds Director are leaders on the Illinois Association of School Business Officials (IASBO) sustainability professional development committee. In an effort to share the new high-performing technologies this model project has been toured by hundreds of architects, engineers, administrators and policymakers and will continue to provide a notable guide for net-zero education facilities.

Some of the professional organizations that have toured the building:

  • 2023 Illinois Association of School Business Officials (IASBO) learning academy

  • 2022 PhiusCON conference presentation and tour

  • 2021 Northeast AIA presentation and tour

  • 2023 A4LE presentation and facility tour

Prairie Trails School provides a sustainable learning environment both indoors and outdoors for young students.

 Sustainable Design: Net-Zero Components and Materials

  • Net zero energy usage

  • Zero Net Carbon (ZNC)

  • Actual EUI of 24.12 (over a 12-month period)

  • No natural gas service to the school

  • New mechanical system: The existing hot water boiler system was replaced with a new electric variable refrigerant flow (VRF) system with heat recovery. The VRF system is coupled with dedicated outside air units (DOAS) with energy recovery wheels for fresh air delivery.

  • The school’s multipurpose room is conditioned by a single zone variable air volume packaged rooftop unit with an energy recovery wheel and fresh air via demand control ventilation.

  • New temperature controls: load-specific electrical monitoring, including plug loads, lighting loads, HVAC loads, and energy generation from the PV panels. Integration (monitoring and display) of the net-zero technologies through the BAS system. (The BAS system monitors, not controls, the solar panels).

  • New solar panel system to produce 100% of the electricity needs

  • New rooftop photovoltaic system to generate on-site renewable energy with an annual production of 225 MWh.

  • Roof system - The existing built-up roof system was replaced. This increased the roof insulation performance value from R-30 to R-65 (average) using the additional thickness of polyisocyanurate foam board insulation. The system design includes additional parapet height to conceal additional insulation. The new roof system is a single-ply synthetic rubber roof.

  • Exterior wall system - The existing uninsulated exterior wall system was modified to receive new wall cladding. The foundation was modified to include new insulation below grade. The existing face brick was removed and a new thermally broken rail system with new insulation was applied. New exterior cladding was applied.

  • The remodeling included new LED lighting, with light harvesting, to reduce energy consumption.

  • New window system - The original single-pane aluminum window system was replaced with a new double thermally broken curtain wall framing system with triple-pane dual Low-E insulated glazing.

  • No additional staff were required to implement.

Saving on Costs, Saving the Environment

The District projects that the energy-efficient design for Prairie Trails School will yield a savings of $32,000 per year in gas and electricity costs. A dedicated page on the RTSD website tracks Prairie Trail’s energy system performance and power/energy consumption in real time. As data continues to be collected on the building systems, this dashboard will be used to expand on data used in the District’s middle school math and science classrooms, where the students learn to interpret the data, draw conclusions and even make recommendations for future building improvements. As of April 2024 (pictured below), the dashboard highlights the environmental benefits of the project as an estimated 850,282 pounds of carbon emissions saved, measured as the equivalent of 6,425 trees planted. Solar panels, high-performance building systems and permeable pavers outside the school all contribute to the environmentally friendly Prairie Trails School, which will continue to provide cost savings and education on sustainability for years to come.

A dedicated page on the RTSD website tracks Prairie Trail School’s energy system performance and power/energy consumption in real time

Sustainable interventions at Prairie Trails School also better manage water resources and protect the area from local flooding. The renovated building requires less water consumption and there has been a significant reduction in water usage since project completion. New low-flow toilets and the overhauled HVAC system lowered overall monthly water consumption to approximately five gallons per occupant. In comparison, 2009 metrics measured monthly water usage at 705 gallons per occupant.

Other improvements included replacing existing asphalt pavement with permeable pavers and the construction of a native vegetated detention basin. Switching from the asphalt parking lots to permeable pavement reduced the total impervious coverage on the site by over 0.5 acres resulting in total stormwater management capacity of 75,960 cubic feet (568,221 gallons). Of that volume, 35,010 cubic feet is available in the stone underneath the permeable pavers and in the soil and stone underneath the detention basin. This promotes infiltration to recharge the groundwater and remove this stormwater from nearby McDonald Creek and the Des Plaines River. The stone, soil, and roots of the native vegetation provide water quality benefits as well, reducing total suspended solids (TSS) and phosphorus from the discharge from the site. The remaining water capacity of the system is held in the above-ground detention basin. This basin attenuates the flow from the site to McDonald Creek, reducing peak discharges during large rain events to provide some relief to downstream flooding.

“Your work shines a spotlight on the way that modern, healthy, efficient school facilities, wellness practices and learning about the environment can increase student achievement and educational equity.” U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona

A Larger Community Impact

An important goal for the Prairie Trails School project was to have a positive impact on the larger community, including students in other schools in the District. Today’s children will be those who feel the largest consequences of climate change and need to learn and understand how innovative sustainability strategies can help develop environmentally sound life habits and spaces. Interactive and educational displays throughout Prairie Trails School highlight its sustainability features, like a display about the school’s new HVAC system in the photo featured below.

The school also serves as a learning hub for the district’s middle school students. The middle school offers an encore program to teach students about energy, the environment, and sustainability. During their coursework, each class takes a field trip to Prairie Trails Schools to meet with the Director of Buildings and Grounds and the design team to learn about the steps taken to construct and maintain a net-zero facility. In addition to Q&A sessions, they explore the building and interact with the visual displays. The students apply this knowledge when tasked to design their own energy-efficient homes at the end of the trimester. Students are encouraged to ask questions about careers in sustainability, architecture and construction from experts in the fields, such as the FGMA design team when they volunteer at the school.

Meanwhile, an intergovernmental agreement with the park district allows their use of Prairie Trails School in exchange for ground maintenance. This includes a before and after school care program held at the school and run by the park district. Maximizing the facility use prevents redundancy of facilities, reduces energy consumption, retains open spaces, improves student health through various activities and keeps students safe before and after school while their caregivers work.

Prairie Trails kindergarten students interact with the face of the original 1960’s boiler that was salvaged and refurbished into an educational display.

A Community-Boosting Impact, An Award-Winning Project

Prairie Trails School has been nationally recognized with multiple awards related to sustainability, engineering, landscape architecture, education, retrofitting and renovation. Not only will Prairie Trails School continue to educate young students in the conventional sense, but it also educates children, teachers, staff, families, local politicians, policymakers and the larger community about how the building itself is designed to meet net-zero objectives, positively influencing future generations.

See below for a full list of project awards:

  • 2024 - U.S. Department of Energy - Better Project Award

  • 2023 - U.S. Dept. of Education - Green Ribbon Schools Award

  • 2023 - AIA Northeast Illinois - Merit Award for Preservation/Renovation

  • 2023 - The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) Illinois - Excellence in Engineering Award (Engineer: IMEG)

  • 2022 - American Society of Landscape Architects (ILASLA) Illinois - Merit Award – Natural Playground Design (Landscape Architect: TERRA ENGINEERING, LTD.)

  • 2021 - U.S. Department of Energy - Building Envelope Campaign Award - Retro 50 Category (for achieving building envelope improvements of 50% over the existing building)

  • 2021 - TRANE Reducing the Energy Intensity of the World Award

Patterns and colors highlight student entries and focal points, while cubbies allow for space-saving organization.

Learn More

  • To learn more about this project, read the Illinois School Board Journal article co-contributed by FGMA’s PK-12 Practice Leader, Ron Richardson.

  • For more detail about the award win, visit the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Initiative award website.


FGMA's Commitment to Sustainable Design

FGMA’s commitment to sustainable design is long-standing as evidenced by the LEED and WELL Building Standard accredited professionals on staff and the internal Resilient Design Committee established to cross-pollinate these practices firmwide. The firm is an active participant in the American Institute of Architects’ 2030 Commitment, a national initiative committed to a transforming the practice of architecture and helping to ensure a sustainable future.

Read more information about sustainable initiatives at FGMA and design for resilient communities here.


FGMA’s PK-12 Portfolio

Schools and school districts today face challenges on every front. FGMA helps educators overcome these challenges by creating quality learning environments that support their educational mission, encourage collaboration between students, faculty, parents and the community and allow the schools to retain the highest quality faculty and staff.

Learn more about FGMA’s PK-12 portfolio here.


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