One-Star Certified Pilot Project

Location: Washington, D.C.
Project Size: 1.5 acres
Project Type: Institutional / Educational
Site Context: Urban
Former Land Use: Greyfield
Terrestrial Biome: Temperate Broadleaf & Mixed Forests
Budget: $1,300,000
photo by Michael Lucy, Sustainable Life Designs

Project Overview

The Brent Elementary School campus has been transformed into a model learning environment for students, teachers, and parents. Located on Capitol Hill, major improvements between 2006 and 2012 on the 1.5 acre site were designed and built with the following goals:

  • Improved safety for students, teachers, parents, and neighbors
  • Creating new learning opportunities to meet curriculum standards through out-of-classroom experiences
  • Increased student health by creating better spaces for physical fitness, cleaning the air with new plantings, and providing shade from sun exposure with trees
  • Enhanced environmental performance through the restoration of native plant and animal habitats and effective storm water management

Specific achievements included the removal of 1,600 square feet of asphalt and the installation of a raingarden, 7,000 square feet of outdoor classrooms, new entrance walkways and seatwalls, new play equipment, 10,000 square feet of safety surfacing and the creation of an urban canyon trail. 

Regional Context

The grounds of Brent Elementary School are situated in the Capitol Hill neighborhood within the Southeast portion of the District of Columbia. This places it in a densely populated urban residential community that is also historic. The Koppen climate classification lists the area as a humid subtropical climate zone. Precipitation averages 40 inches per year and is well distributed throughout each season with February, on average, being the driest. The District experiences four distinct seasons with cool winters and hot/humid summers. Because of the school's proximity to the downtown area it also endures heat island effects - especially on summer nights. The school sits at a fairly low elevation, occupying space in a relatively low-lying area near the confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers. It is not in any hazardous flood zone but areas to the south and west can quickly approach elevations near sea level. Being nearest to the Anacostia River and in the Combined Sewer Area, excess runoff is a part of those water/sewer sheds within the larger Chesapeake Bay watershed. 

SITES Features + Practices

The design development of the Brent Schoolyard Greening effort was innovative in many ways. The most notable feature onsite is the raingarden, which beautifes the grounds, purifies the air, and captures significant amounts of stormwater runoff. The Urban Canyon, which also serves to provide native habitat and stormwater management, creates a pleasant connection between the front and back of the school. In addition, the outdoor classroom, amphitheater, and entrance areas provide spaces for school members and the larger community to gather and create better social connections. The new spaces invite people to explore and stay, and have become an important community resource for socializing and learning.

The project focused on the following SITES categories:
Pre-design assessment and planning
Site design focused on water, soil/vegetation, human health and well-being
Operations and maintenance
Monitoring and innovation

Special attention was given to the following three credits - 6.3 (Education), 2.3 (Stakeholders) and 6.5 (Access, Safety & Wayfinding).

Education: The new design expanded outdoor educational opportunities outside and improved the school population’s sense of their place in the larger community. Every site improvement was designed to provide new learning opportunities for students and teachers, including:
- An outdoor classroom with interactive musical equipment
- A gardening shed and vegetable gardens used by the science teacher
- New books for the library and educational modules that outline environmental education activities
- Significant teacher training on how to use the school grounds and the larger neighborhood as a teaching setting
- Multiple art activities designed to expand students’ understanding of their sense of place both within the schoolyard setting and the larger community (i.e., paintings and murals depicting these understandings were installed on the grounds)
- Interpretive displays, educational brochures, and maps explain the features of the schoolyard and demonstrate its importance in creating a healthy school environment
- Three green roof sheds demonstrate the differences between traditional and living roof systems where teachers and students compare the amount of stormwater runoff in collection buckets and learn from an indoor green roof module

Stakeholders: The project developed out of the community’s commitment to creating a better school experience for current and future students, and its leaders partnered with numerous stakeholders from within and outside of the school community - engaging the school administration, faculty, students and larger community in numerous planning and design activities throughout the process. One of the earliest efforts was to make painted cut out animals which provided color and interest to the exterior fencing and pointed towards improvements to come. The project team worked with the students, teachers, and administration to generate ideas for various parts of the school grounds, and students were involved with installing some of the designs they helped create.

Accessibility, Safety, Wayfinding: The site was designed to enable people to use the schoolyard in a variety of ways. At the beginning of the design process, safety was a major concern because of the school’s location in a densely populated, urban area. The degraded condition of the play equipment, lack of plants, and excessive amount of asphalt surfaces all contributed to a difficult learning and recreational environment. The design improvements addressed these safety and accessibility concerns by creating defined spaces with gates, clear entrances, and walkways, open sight lines and multiple ways to navigate the property. Wayfinding was improved with natural landmarks, decision nodes, clear pedestrian pathways and landmarks. The poured-in-place surfaces enhanced the design by using colorful patterns referencing water and included a bike trail. Interpretive displays show the site’s improvements and their environmental significance.

Materials: Locally sourced aggregates, soils and plants were used. Play equipment from Landscape Structures provide challenging and fun activities for the students from a good manufacturer.


This was a very collaborative effort led by the Brent Elementary School PTA Green Team and Sustainable Life Designs. Early conceptual work was provided pro bono by staff from Oehme van Sweeden with direction from the PTA. Further concepts, design development, permit and construction drawings by Sustainable Life Designs were created in partnership with the PTA GreenTeam, government agencies, and non-profit partners. Over thirty meetings were held with school administration, parents, and children to ensure our designs were as integrated as possible.

All improvements were designed to address the project goals of increased safety; human and environmental health; and learning opportunities. The project team worked with the District Public School System (DCPS) and Department of Transportation (DDOT) to exceed the regulatory requirements. The newly created raingarden is one of the first examples of intelligent rainwater management on DDOT land from an adjacent property in the District.

Maintenance + Stewardship

The Brent Elementary PTA is fully committed to the maintenance and continuous improvement of green infrastructure at the school. Additionally, the schoolyard is a source of pride for many, and an important part of their brand as a highly desirable elementary school. In addition to a maintenance plan, they have a large cadre of volunteers who help with workdays and volunteer events each year. They also contract the services of a professional landscape care company on a quarterly basis. Because several educators incorporate the outdoor areas into their curriculum, there is staff support to help maintain the habitats for native species, like monarch butterflies.

It is the school's vision and hope to continue to improve the function of outdoor spaces as a shared value of the Brent community. By holding events, continuing volunteer involvement, and using the school's space for learning, the PTA and the school's staff expect that the time, attention and resources needed for the long-term sustainability of the grounds will always be a priority.

Brent Elementary has inspired and collaborated with many nearby schools to build greater green infrastructure and awareness. Based on research and models, it is known that the raingarden will help keep trash and contaminated runoff out of the combined sewer system. In addition, property values for homes close to the school have risen significantly.

If maintenance and education components are followed as planned, the installed features will continue to perform well and can hopefully be improved over time. 

Site Challenges

The biggest challenge for the project was retrofitting the aging and less than desirable infrastructure on a District of Columbia public school property. To do this, a collaborative multi-disciplinary team was formed and worked over many years. Entities that normally do not collaborate were brought together by the school's efforts, and as many partners as possible were included. The project went above and beyond what had been the norm for a public school in the District and required the support of numerous volunteers, school and government staff, the design team, non-profit partners, and elected officials. The project also relied on significant in-kind support from parents and neighbors.

Project Goals + Successes

The project team set out to transform the schoolyard into a play and learning amenity that would also serve as a highly functioning urban ecosystem and be valued and appreciated by the community. There were thousands of stakeholder discussions about the desired future condition of the school. Because many community members did not consider stormwater management a high priority, project team members also set out to educate the community about the unique issues of DC’s combined sewer system. The biggest successes for the project include engagement of school leaders and teachers in making room for environmental education, as well as the physical changes of biorention swales, native plantings, demonstration green roofs, and more permeable surfaces.

The project team was also inspired by the intention of the SITES Rating System and encouraged by colleagues at USBG and the Forest Service to participate. One of the first projects at Brent was an LID effort that introduced the benefits of reducing storm water runoff. From this important anchor point, many other opportunities to remove asphalt and provide green infrastructure throughout the site were achieved. The motivation to improve every nook and cranny into an optimal functioning outdoor area continued, and the design team felt that the SITES program would help clarify the work that was already being done. The school and its partners also felt it was important to support the Pilot Program and help the larger community understand the importance of a healthy, sustainable landscape design. The interpretive signs created for the new school grounds are another success and serve as helpful educational tools for the school's community and neighbors.

Thousands of people in the community have been educated on the role individuals play in improving their local environment. More people in the Brent community now know what watershed they are in, why stormwater runoff can be detrimental, and how to mitigate it. They understand that shade can keep cooling costs low, and that our raingarden keeps trash, runoff and pollution out of our local waterways. The project successfully brought together DC government and non-profit and corporate entities that would normally not collaborate. Most importantly, the project has demonstrated that small changes in the community can help solve broader environmental issues.

The project has received several awards including:
- 2nd Annual Livable Walkable Community Award from Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells in 2010
- ASLA Stormwater Management Award & Landscape Architecture Foundation – Performance Series Award in 2013

Lessons Learned

Keeping records and data, as well as key contacts is critical. In addition, having a dedicated point person, and making sure decision makers (especially those that determine funding requests) understand the benefits and outcomes is incredibly important.

Project Team

Brent School Administration and PTA Green Team Leaders - Inspiration, Vision and Perseverance
Jacqueline Emanuel
Heidi Johnson
Tessa Muehlehner

Sustainable Life Designs - Landscape Design and Project Management
Michael Lucy, Lead Designer and Project Manager
Monica Anescu, Drafting and design
Rachel Kunreuther, Documentation and fence design
Bordern Edgerton, Documentation
Margie Noonan, Documentation
Eric Borchers, Documentation

Government of the District of Columbia
Eupert Braithwaite, Project Manager - D.C. Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization

District Department of the Environment - Grant support
Rebecca Stack

USDA and NRCS - Grant support
Leslie Burk
Robert Snieckus

NFWF - Grant support

Monument, Winmar & Sparks at Play - Construction

Certification Level:

Project Size:

Site Context:

Former Land Use: