When Arlington Public Schools (APS) in Virginia approached Charlottesville firm VMDO Architects to build a new elementary school for its expanding student population, the goal was a place “that integrated learning with sustainability,” recalls John C. Chadwick, the district’s assistant superintendent of facilities and operations.

VMDO’s design produced an innovative teaching environment, which not only integrates sustainability into the curriculum but also offers the school’s 650 pre-K through 5th-grade students lively, interactive learning and play spaces. The Discovery Elementary School, which opened in 2015, is the largest net-zero-energy school in the country. This year it was the recipient of the AIA Committee on the Environment’s Top Ten award, and designated a Green Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education.

The approximately 98,000-square-foot building features a tiered design that is set into a hillside to minimize its scale. Despite its considerable size, exterior building materials (brick, stone, and colored insulated panels and sun shades) appear to harmonize with the surrounding residential neighborhood, and the building’s energy-saving features (among them 1,710 roof-mounted solar panels, a geothermal well field, 100-percent LED lighting, solar orientation and high-thermal-mass exterior walls) all contribute to its low Energy Use Intensity (EUI).

Discovery was designed for an EUI of 23kBtu per square foot, per year—one-third of the energy use of a typical elementary school in the area—but it actually performs at 18, Chadwick says. And while other elementary schools in Arlington each spend about $110,000 a year in energy costs, this one spends about $12,000 annually.

Sunlight is an integral part of the learning experience. A roof canopy with a cedar soffit runs the length of the school’s southern (street) side, serving as its “front porch.” A rooftop solar lab enables students to conduct real-time experiments, the data from which can be tracked via the building’s dashboard, which is accessible to anyone with a wireless device. Meanwhile, a part of the roof that extends out over the main entrance with an oculus turns the entry plaza into a solar calendar. A video made by the school on September 22nd of last year shows the oculus tracing the autumnal equinox.

The result of such interactive architecture is that it encourages behavior on the part of students and teachers that fosters sustainability. (Another of the school’s videos offers a time-lapse look at the dashboard during the August 21st solar eclipse.)

The school’s interiors encourage flexibility and informality, with foldable partitions, retractable garage doors, and furnishings that include bean bags, height-adjustable tables and chairs, reading steps, and a two-story slide. The “Hedge,” which encloses and defines the kindergarten’s indoor common space, or “Backyard,” is punctuated with inset semicircular and round nooks for reading, discussion, and hanging out. But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the school’s design is the way that its ingenious organization and wayfinding reflect the expanding curriculum of each successive grade level.

Wyck Knox, a VMDO principal and the project architect, explains that astronaut John Glenn figured prominently in the concept. Glenn lived next door to the school’s site when he was the first American to orbit the earth in 1962; he became the oldest person to fly in space when he was on the crew of the space shuttle Discover in 1998. Chosen by the students, the school’s name is a partial tribute to the space pioneer and U.S. senator. But just as important, Knox adds, is that Glenn was an inspiration for the school’s “expanding world” concept: Students start out in the first-floor kindergarten rooms as Backyard Adventurers, with graphics that refer to trees and animals (nooks are named “Groundhog Burrow” or “Eagle Aerie”). Then, in the first and second grades (also located on the first floor), learners progress through the themes of forest and ocean to the atmosphere, solar system- and galaxy-themed areas for third, fourth, and fifth graders—the last are called Galaxy Voyagers—on the second floor. Knox refers to the concept as “zooming out,” a reference to Charles and Ray Eames’s film Powers of Ten. The result, Knox says, is that “sustainability and learning feed off each other in a really nice way.”

Chadwick is equally enthusiastic. “We’ve achieved more integration of teaching, learning, design and sustainability than I had ever imagined,” he says. “In the best hands, every student, teacher and parent understands how their actions contribute—you’re creating a culture change, and the kids, especially, understand.”