A school in Sayreville is a prime example of how design can influence and improve the prospects for learning.

The Center for Lifelong Learning, part of the Middlesex County Regional Educational Services Commission (MRESC), was built in 2009. The facility is designed for the needs of autistic and multiply disabled children. Significantly, the building is also designed to be environmentally sustainable, and was the first New Jersey public school to achieve LEED Platinum certification from the United States Green Building Council (USGBC). It was also the first special needs school in the country to achieve that distinction.

The facility, which was designed by USA Architects in Somerville, cost about $28 million, and was funded through bonds from the Middlesex County Improvement Authority. The building is about 89,000 square feet.

Designed for Disability The school, which currently serves more than 200 children, ages 3 to 21, has 24 classrooms, a fitness center, a lap pool and zero-entry pool, a greenhouse, a sensory room and dedicated occupational, physical and speech therapy rooms.

The building is divided into four “communities,” or pods, each of which includes a main meeting room, art and music class areas, and six classrooms. Each classroom has its own bathroom and sink. The communities also have their own speech therapy rooms, which also function as observation rooms for parents.

Each pod is intended to be its own community with a covered walkway and entry. In the center of each pod is a large core space with a vaulted ceiling that can be used for physical therapy, as well as lunch, crafts or large group instruction.

The pods have their own identity with a distinct color theme; the pods are all linked by a corridor loop connecting all common spaces. In the center of the loop is a learning garden and greenhouse for the students.

Patrick Moran, MRESC’s business administrator, summed up what he thinks the building means to the students, staff, families and community members in a testimonial, noting, “The concept of creating learning communities by designing large recreational areas within pods has proven very effective and has fostered the development of a sense of community. Students of common ages eat, play, and make music and art together.

“We could have only imagined how the community design concept at the Center for Lifelong Learning would shape the relationship of both students and staff. Today we can see how it is doing what we had envisioned and creating a great experience for the children who attend our facility.”

The school’s playground, which is accessible to children with disabilities and open to community members, was funded, in part, by the Old Bridge-Sayreville Rotary Club, which provided $100,000.

The Center for Lifelong Learning also has an aquatic and fitness center, the David B. Crabiel Pool and Fitness Center, named for the late county freeholder. That facility includes an Olympic-sized pool, a children’s zero-entry pool with a “lazy river” and water features. The aquatic and fitness center is open to community members during non-school hours, a factor that helps to build strong ties with the local community.

Designed and Built to be “Green” Building a “green” school was especially important to the district, since the special needs student population tends to be more sensitive to toxins such as formaldehyde and other contaminants. “Designing to the highest environmental standards was vitally important to the health and well-being of the school’s autistic and multiply disabled and preschool disabled student population,” says Peter Campisano, a principal at USA Architects. “Many environmental factors impact the learning experiences for this highly sensory-sensitive student body. Anything less than LEED Platinum was not an option.”

The Center for Lifelong Learning’s final LEED rating reflected 58 documented and approved points, which corresponded to the Platinum Certification level under the LEED for Schools Rating System.

Environmental features at the school include geothermal heating and cooling, a rainwater harvesting system with ozone filtration for irrational and non-potable fixtures, control flow meters on appliances, white roofs to reduce heating and cooling costs, and drought-tolerant landscaping. There are linoleum floors and low-emitting materials, solar panels, waterless urinals and dual-flush toilets, and aerators on faucets and showers. The use of lighting controls minimizes energy use off-hours, and also serves to reduce night sky light pollution.

The solar thermal energy system uses solar power to heat pool water and all hot water needs of the building. The building is also designed to maximize the use of natural daylight.

Recycling was a prime concern throughout the construction process. The materials used in construction were, when possible, chosen for their high levels of recycled content. In addition, there was careful attention given to waste management during the building process. Nearly 98 percent of the construction waste was recycled.