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Brisbane Catholic Education is setting high ecological standards with new schools set to open

Ecological outlook: Dr Margaret Lee and principal Peter Edwards inspect building progress at San Damiano College in Yarrabilba, one of two new Brisbane Catholic schools to open in 2021. The school will be a showpiece of “ecological conversion” and a response to Laudato Si’.

CATHOLIC schools in Brisbane are forging ahead with a sustainable futures project producing big energy savings and inspired by Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’.

“We’ve been able to respond to Pope Francis’ invitation to take swift and globalised action,” Brisbane Catholic Education’s Dr Margaret Lee said.

A highly-regarded former principal of Brisbane’s San Sisto College, Dr Lee is now BCE’s senior education officer of future school planning, and deeply committed to the task of “ecological conversion” in schools through a project called Living Laudato Si’ – Energy Reduction and Management.

“The secular world uses the word sustainability, we tend to talk about ecological conversion, living in kinship with creation and being in sublime communion with creation,” she said.

“This project reflects our Catholic identity, it is about building a sustainable future and creating a culture of love for all of creation.”

In the last two years, BCE has completed energy audits at each of its 142 schools, including the collection of energy consumption data.

Dr Lee has made training available to all principals in the theology underpinning the project.

“With all the data collected, a team visited all the schools to discuss potential action that could be taken to increase efficiencies,” Dr Lee said.

“And at the forefront has been what students can learn from doing this.”

Expert advice is given on the best case-by-case combinations of solar and ground sourced heat exchange, assisted heating, cooling and ventilating, eco-power and water storage, LED-lighting, insulation and natural shade, and waste management.

At each school site, natural characteristics are taken into account; the angle of the sun for potential moveable solar arrays, breezes, presence of “heat islands”, and tree canopies that can lower the need for air conditioning.

Dr Lee said nearly every school is on a centralised energy contract that means “we are buying power cheaper by working as one”. “This frees up resources to support transition to a more sustainable future such as investment in energy efficient LED lighting, more efficient air conditioning and solar PV,” she said.

“It’s quite remarkable… It does save money, it does save the planet, but there is a bigger issue at stake – it helps young people and staff appreciate that this is our way of accepting Pope Francis’ invitation to seek an ecological conversion in order to live more integrally with each other and in kinship with all God’s creation.”

BCE is setting high ecological standards in the design and planning of its schools, and is now being recognized for it.

St Joseph’s College, a Prep to Year 12 school that opened in Coomera in 2019, recently received a Queensland award for Education Architecture and a Commendation for Sustainable Architecture.

All of the school’s learning spaces are naturally ventilated and designed to take advantage of breezes.

Rainwater is collected with a bio-retention basin and a billabong pond which acts as filtration so all stormwater is handled on the site.

Around 2.5 hectares of bushland has been retained as a regenerated koala habitat and wilderness education area that will eventually form part of the school’s curriculum.

For BCE’s newest school projects, planned to open in 2021, Dr Lee briefed architects to come up with building and environmental designs consistent with the desire to “live Laudato Si”.

“San Damiano College in Yarrabilba – has many elements from which students can learn about integral ecology,” she said.

The college will reflect its Franciscan charism by being surrounded by clever planting of gardens reminiscent of the town in Assisi, Italy, home to the original San Damiano Chapel.

“Water, a resource to be protected, runs through the site to the ‘lake’ at the entry, providing a visible reminder of God’s creation,” Dr Lee said.

“The school will be enveloped by trees, and planting through the site will provide both a shade canopy and a mechanism to naturally cool learning spaces.

“The architecture and its footprint on this site provide a sense of beauty – and it is expected that as the college is completed through its stages, its connection to St Francis and his hometown of Assisi will become even more apparent.”

Dr Lee said Sophia College, in Plainland, also due to open in 2021 on a large rural block, responded to Laudato Si’ in a different way.

“It has space for an eco-science precinct which will take shape through the life of the college,” she said.

“Through learning and working in this precinct, students will be able to draw very practical connections to their learning.

“In time, it will be possible for students to measure and manage solar energy; test water samples and undertake scientific experiments over time at their own dams; and engage in numerous other curriculum-focussed activities they may involve crops, bees and so on.”

For the last two years, Dr Lee has represented BCE on the Archdiocese of Brisbane’s Laudato Si’ steering committee, under the leadership of Auxiliary Bishop Kenneth Howell, that aims to develop Living Laudato Si’ initiatives across the whole of the archdiocese.

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