Amidst the sounds of bulldozers and pounding hammers, the Whitefish School District’s Center for Sustainability and Entrepreneurship is coming alive.
The $2.65 million center began construction in August and is planned to be completed in April of next year.
Under Martel Construction, the sustainability center is taking shape in the lot adjacent to the high school on Pine Avenue and East Fourth Street. The main classroom building has been erected in the middle of the lot, with a cleared space for the attached greenhouse to the south. Spaces have also been cleared for the production gardens, the experimental forest and the edible orchard areas.
While the building and its educational functions have been described as “cutting edge,” the center itself doesn’t resemble anything as space-age as it might seem.
This is intentional, district Director of Curriculum Ryder Delaloye said.
“The story we want to tell with the center is that anyone can create a much more efficient, much more sustainable facility,” Delaloye said. “The shape, the design, the build of the center, it’s not intended to be some futuristic ‘Jetsons’ [TV show] interpretation of sustainability, rather it is intended to be aligned with Montana and the values that we have, and the aesthetic that we’ve cultivated in our community.”
Over the last two years, the sustainability center has evolved from plans for a simple greenhouse into a two-story, multi-million dollar outdoor learning center, with private funding of $2.35 million already secured through the Whitefish Community Foundation. About $2.1 million will cover capital expenses, like building and landscaping, while roughly $300,000 will go toward start up costs for educational programming.
Early designs featured a greenhouse attached to a small classroom. Since then, teachers and designers have increased the size, expanded it into a K-12 project, and incorporated outdoor learning areas. The building is also designed to be net-zero in its energy use, the first in the state of Montana, according to the school district.
The curricular focus of the center is to demonstrate sustainable practices in a variety of fields — agriculture, forestry, energy — and offer students opportunities to explore and find their interests among these sustainable practices, Delaloye explained.
In one case, Delaloye said he’d like to see the woodworking program at the high school get a small-scale wood mill to better understand forestry practices.
“Whitefish started out as a timber town, and the mills were what defined the local economy, so as we start to understand what it means to engage in sustainable forestry practices, we can start to learn to interface with that,” he said. “As students mill their wood, they get to understand the life cycle, so then when they connect up with the Bureau of Land Management or other state agencies, they can do plantings.”
“The idea is, as they interface with those career pathways, they’re going to find one that fits,” he added.
The center also utilizes food-producing gardens like the production garden, experimental forest and edible orchard to teach students how to grow and harvest food. These gardens will work in conjunction with the district’s school lunch program to use the food grown by students at the center.
The Lions Club School Garden, a precursor to the Center for Sustainability and Entrepreneurship, will have its garden beds relocated from the old softball field on the other side of the high school to the production garden area as well.
“Notice the Farmers Market, and the abundance of food that we can grow and imagine our capacity with greenhouses to extend the growing year and to have fresh and nutritious produce year-round,” Delaloye said. “That’s a critical piece for children developing, not only is it for their development but it will span into their life cycle as they become adults and they know that healthiness of body is tantamount to healthiness of mind.”
Along with the outdoor components, the center offers the 1,200 square-foot greenhouse and two 1,500 square-foot classrooms in the building.
An underground climate battery will heat the inside of the building, along with geothermal processes. The climate battery is a system of metal coils that store thermal energy gathered by the building’s solar panels.
While the primary use for the classrooms will be for K-12 students, Delaloye said he also envisions using the spaces for hosting sustainability conferences and adult education classes.
“Imagine a conference on permaculture or a weekend workshop on how to put a solar array on your home,” he said. “So someone can come in and receive a lecture on solar array systems for their roof, because they want to know how to do that. They can then go to the actual systems and learn about the energy or mechanical systems or the work that needs to be put in to accomplish those.”