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Nestled in remote Mineral County, Colorado, 9,000 feet above sea level and between two mountain ranges, the Creede School District has a challenging mission: How do you meet the needs of a population that can range from about 700 to 4,000, depending on the tourist season and the mining industry, in a climate where the temperature can drop 40 degrees in an hour?

The answer: Build a school that’s as versatile and resilient as the community it serves.

The Creede School District’s K-12 school replaced previous school buildings that required frequent repairs. The LEED Gold building lowered the district’s operating costs and enhanced the learning environment for students.

That’s the design approach that Fort Collins, Colorado–based architect and general contractor The Neenan Company took when it designed the district’s new 37,000-square-foot K-12 school, project architect David Kurtz and project manager Sergio Ortiz said in an email interview. The facility, which serves all of the district’s students at every grade level, was designed with a combination of classrooms that accommodates the customized teaching methods used for the student population.

“The design of the building incorporated the mining history of the town by integrating natural features and aesthetics within the building,” the Neenan team says. “Since the school’s population rises and falls based on the mining industry, the facility was designed to accommodate changing class sizes.”

The Creede School District’s K-12 school replaced previous school buildings that required frequent repairs. The LEED Gold building lowered the district’s operating costs and enhanced the learning environment for students.

Shared spaces in a central area, for example, separate junior high and high school classrooms to the east and elementary school classrooms to the west. The entrance is a multi-use gathering space with the cafeteria, gym, music room, art room and library in that central vicinity to maximize access to the shared amenities.

Modern HVAC in the mountains

Flexibility wasn’t the school’s only challenge. It also had to respond to the demands of its rugged, high-altitude climate, with severely cold temperatures, snow, and wind. And with increasingly tight annual budgets, energy efficiency and lower utility bills were a priority.

To meet these needs, Neenan designed a LEED Gold facility with extensive daylighting, a highly insulated building envelope, and a modern HVAC system powered by high-efficiency propane boilers and furnaces.

Aaron Ellis, head of field operations for design/build HVAC firm Rogers & Sons, sets the supply temperature on a propane-fueled Triangle Tube Prestige boiler.

The building’s primary heat is supplied by four 399,000-Btu Triangle Tube condensing boilers and nearly 7 miles of in-slab radiant heating divided into 47 zones. Four RenewAire energy recovery ventilators (ERVs) supply ventilation to 42 zones. Propane-fueled Modine duct furnaces further temper the makeup air in the winter and share the main ventilation trunk lines with the ERVs.

The Neenan team selected propane after reviewing several heating system options. There is no natural gas in the area, and because it is a very remote site, serviceability was an important consideration for the school. A number of buildings nearby use a similar, proven propane system. “Condensing boilers were a much more efficient way to heat the water, and in-slab heating was used to efficiently manage the building’s heating system,” the Neenan team says. And to supplement the ERVs, “Propane was more efficient than an electrical reheat system.”

While the heating system is sophisticated, Denver, Colorado–based design/build HVAC firm Rogers & Sons made it easy to control using a Taco iWorx control system that allows all components to work in tandem while providing web access. Each classroom and common area has a small iWorx thermostat linked to the main network.

“The individual zones will ‘vote’ upon calling for heat,” says Shawn Metzler, controls superintendent at Rogers & Sons. “Because these zones are small, we’ve set up the controls so that any single zone can’t fire the boilers. Only numerous thermostats calling simultaneously will cause one or more of the boilers to start running.” The four wall-hung boilers lead, lag, and rotate, while providing 25 percent redundancy — a necessary insurance measure for a facility with epic winters and a half-day drive from the nearest supply house.

A safe gathering space

The Creede community plans to enhance the building’s resilience, so that the school can serve as a town gathering space and an emergency center in the future. Power in the area is unreliable, so The Neenan Company provided a pad and connections for the school to procure a propane emergency backup generator. The generator would keep the heat, lighting, and power running in the shared-use areas: the common area, gym, library, administration area, and lecture room.

The school was designed to reflect the spirit of the surrounding community. Creede has many wood and log homebuilders, so the design team incorporated wood elements that were built by a local business. Shared amenities and gathering spaces in the central area of the school separate elementary school classrooms from the junior high and high school.

The school’s kitchen also runs primarily on propane, as does an off-site emergency generator for the sewage lift station, which is code-mandated to operate fully in the event of a power outage.

The Neenan Company looked into a solar water heating system or a biofuel furnace as options to fuel the school, but there wasn’t an easily accessible fuel source for a biofuel furnace, and the solar water heater was not a cost-effective option. Propane was easily available from a local source, easy to store, and worked with an HVAC system that could be easily maintained and serviced.

Building a school that’s ready to respond to whatever comes its way is a challenging mission, but challenges are nothing new to a mining town more than 50 miles from the nearest big-box store. With reliable building systems powered by readily accessible propane, Creede’s school is a tribute to the robust spirit of the surrounding community.

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Jeffrey Lee