Converting Legacy School Buildings to Net-Zero Energy with WELL and LEED Certification: How did One School in Kentucky Become the First Success Story?

Author: Ymkje Wideman-van der Laan

The conversion of old legacy school buildings into net-zero energy institutions while achieving the sought-after WELL and LEED certifications is a challenging but feasible possibility.

In the present age of environmental awareness, sustainable development, and efficient energy use, the focus has often been directed towards the construction of new, eco-friendly structures. However, the sustainable transformation of existing structures, especially those with historical significance, presents a unique challenge and prospect.

Net-Zero Energy Schools: The Vision

A net-zero energy building is defined as one that produces as much energy as it uses in one year, primarily through renewable energy sources. For legacy school buildings, this would mean complete overhauls, including:

1. Energy-efficient retrofits: Updating insulation, windows, and HVAC systems.

2. Integration of renewable energy systems: Installing solar panels, wind turbines, or geothermal systems.

3. Implementing smart energy management systems: Using sensors and analytics to optimize energy consumption patterns.

WELL and LEED: Symbols of Excellence

While the push for energy efficiency is crucial, ensuring a healthy environment for students and staff  is equally important. WELL Certification focuses on building features that impact human health and well-being. It examines air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, learning, and comfort.

On the other hand, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is a globally recognized symbol of excellence in green building. LEED certification considers a structure’s sustainability from various angles, including its water efficiency, energy use, materials selection, and indoor environmental quality.

Challenges and Solutions to Becoming a Zero Energy School

Successful conversion of a legacy or existing school building into a zero energy (ZE) facility is a more challenging undertaking compared to building a new ZE structure from scratch, due to the need to retrofit older technologies and materials and other concerns such as:

  • Historical Preservation: Many legacy school buildings have historical significance. Any renovations need to respect and maintain the original architecture. Solutions include using reversible retrofitting techniques or placing solar panels in less visible areas.

  • Aging Infrastructure: Old structures may have outdated wiring, plumbing, or materials that pose health risks. Thorough audits can identify these areas, allowing for targeted upgrades.

  • Limited Space: Legacy buildings might lack space for additional structures or systems. Creative solutions such as incorporating vertical gardens or using compact energy storage systems can be explored.

Economic Implications and Long-term Benefits of Becoming a ZE School

While the initial investment required for such an extensive renovation might be substantial, the long-term benefits are many:

1. Utility Savings: With reduced or zero net energy consumption, the operating costs decrease significantly over time.

2. Health and Performance: WELL-compliant spaces contribute to better health, cognition, and sleep. For a school, this could translate into better student performance and reduced absenteeism.

3. Increased Property Value: A LEED and WELL-certified property typically has a higher market value, reflecting its modern standards.

4. Community and Environmental Impact: Besides the direct stakeholders, the community benefits from reduced carbon emissions and the emphasis on sustainable living practices.

Concerns About Costs

In discussions with professionals involved in ZE school designs, it is evident that while ZE can significantly cut energy and operational costs across a building’s lifespan, many facilities managers, understandably, prioritize up-front costs.

Changing focus to consider the long-term benefits can be challenging, yet it’s essential as ZE innovations can both save energy and reduce initial costs. Instead of asking how much more ZE will cost, the question should be reframed to explore achieving ZE within an existing budget. This change in perspective can uncover opportunities missed by traditional approaches.

Successful ZE project teams have found ways to manage costs, with techniques like geothermal heating, improving the building envelope, and choosing the right purchasing process.

Establishing a clear budget and setting definitive Energy Use Intensity (EUI) targets from the start can remove uncertainties and associated risks from ZE school projects. Incorporating these strategies aligns ZE school costs with conventional ones and dismisses the notion that ZE designs are unproven and risky, which can inflate project bids.

Richardsville Elementary: A Successful Example

Despite the challenges involved in converting a legacy or existing school building into ZE, there have been successful examples.

Richardsville Elementary School in Bowling Green, Kentucky is one such example. Originally built in the 1950s, the school underwent multiple renovations and expansions over the decades. In 2007-2008, the decision was made to further renovate and expand the facility to achieve Zero Energy.

Key Features and Strategies of the ZE Conversion:

1. Solar Power: The school integrated a 282-kW solar panel array, which is responsible for a significant portion of the school’s electricity generation.

2. Geothermal System: The building uses a geothermal heat pump system for its heating and cooling needs. This is more energy-efficient compared to traditional HVAC systems.

3. Daylight Harvesting: By maximizing natural light through strategically placed windows and skylights, the school reduced its dependence on artificial lighting during the daytime.

4. LED Lighting: When artificial lighting is needed, energy-efficient LED lights are used throughout the building.

5. Building Envelope: The renovation improved insulation to minimize heat transfer and made the school more energy efficient. High-performance windows were also installed.

6. Educational Component: Richardsville uses its ZE features as educational tools. Energy usage and solar power generation are displayed, teaching students about energy and sustainability.

7. Kitchen Innovations: The school’s kitchen is all-electric, making use of induction cooktops which are more energy-efficient than gas or traditional electric stoves. This change also eliminated the need for a gas connection, further reducing energy use and costs.

Richardsville Elementary became the first ZE school in the United States. The renovation and its success became a shining example of how older, legacy buildings can be converted into modern, energy-efficient, and environmentally friendly structures. Not only does the school save on energy costs, but it also provides a healthier environment for its students and staff, all while serving as a beacon for sustainable practices in the community.Top of Form


Converting a legacy school building into a net-zero energy institution while achieving WELL and LEED certification is not just an environmental must, but an opportunity to make a statement. It showcases how we can respect our past while embracing a sustainable future, ensuring that our historical buildings remain relevant and demonstrate the best in both design and function for generations to come. As stewards of both our educational and architectural legacy, this transformation sends a strong message about our values, priorities, and vision for the future.

This article is based, in part, on the following articles:

  1. US Department of Energy. (2021) Affordable Zero Energy K–12 Schools: The Cost Barrier Illusion
  1. International WELL Building Institute. (2018). The WELL Building Standard. Retrieved from
  2. A Guide to Zero Energy and Zero Energy Ready K–12 Schools
  1. Zero Energy Schools – Completed – Better Buildings Initiative
  1. How to Achieve a Net Zero K-12 Campus
  1. Richardsville Elementary School
  1. S. Green Building Council. (2020). LEED Rating System. Retrieved from


Ymkje Wideman-van der Laan is an author and certified autism resource specialist with a background in teaching. Originally from the Netherlands, her work has taken her around the world, where she helped set up classrooms and children’s libraries in under-resourced areas in Asia and the Middle East. In 2006, she moved to the United States to care for her infant grandson, Logan, who was later diagnosed with autism. This personal experience deepened her commitment to autism advocacy and education. Currently, Ymkje lives in California with her 17-year-old grandson and uses her expertise to lead autism training workshops. She works with early childhood educators, teachers, parents, and caregivers, offering practical guidance on supporting individuals with autism.