Blog : Altus helps make Portsmouth High School a little greener

By Jim Cavan | Mar 26, 2013 | in

If there was a criticism of the typical high school class, it might be that the learning experience is too often confined to the classroom.

But a recent initiative at Portsmouth High School (PHS) is aiming to change that.

Two years ago, a pair of members of the PHS science department – Dee Barrett and Kim McGlinchey – reached out to Peter Britz, the city’s chief Environmental Planner, about the possibilities for installing a rain garden.

Together, the three secured a grant from the Piscataqua Regional Estuary Partnership (PREP), a subsidiary of the University of New Hampshire. Britz was then able to procure matching funds from the city, which was used for excavation and grading of the garden.

Funding marshaled, the team reached out to Altus Engineering, a Portsmouth civil engineering with a robust background in municipal projects. While Altus’s range of undertakings is broadly impressive – and includes over 40 schools throughout the region – the company has always adhered to a constant pillar: making the project as eco-friendly as possible.

“Lessening environmental impacts has always been a chief tenant of ours,” said Eric Weinrieb, President of Altus. “With the PHS project, part of its purpose was to be an environmental teaching tool.”

Located adjacent to the football field, Portsmouth High School’s proposed rain garden –formally completed in the summer of 2011 – fits that ethos to a T. Boasting a host of plants native to the granite state, and shaped with the help of Terra Firma Landscaping, another Portsmouth-based company, the garden was and remains a beacon to local collaboration.

What exactly are rain gardens? In a nutshell, they’re planted depressions that help filter harmful elements and contaminants out of water runoff from man-made surfaces, curbing the number of pollutants reaching aquifers, rivers, and other water sources.

Not only are they cheaper than other, more complex storm-management systems; they can also lend desirable aesthetics to the landscape.
“What’s really neat about this project is that we can isolate an area, do treatment on it, then test the inflow and outflow regularly,” Weinrieb said. “That makes it a great science project for years to come.”

Weinrieb said that the project presented a great opportunity for the firm to continue its efforts in helping the city minimize its infrastructure’s environmental footprint.

“It was a great, collaborative effort, and everyone – including the Department of Public Works (DPW)– did their part,” exclaimed Weinrieb. “When everyone is all in like that, it makes the project that much more rewarding.”

Weinrieb reserved special praise for the High School’s Eco Club, a student-based organization founded in 2007 with the goal of finding ways to render the school more sustainable.

“The Eco Club was tremendous – just a lot of fun to work with,” he said.

Indeed, the organization has been garnering significant media attention of late: a few months ago, the group launched fundraising campaign to help spur the purchase and installation of an extensive solar photovoltaic (PV) system on the school grounds.

Helping marshal the Eco Club’s efforts was Dee Barrett, a long-standing science teacher and one of the school’s chief green proponents. Barrett says the rain garden offers not only myriad environmental aesthetic benefits, but practical ones as well.

“We’ve been taking water samples, looking for things like nitrogen, PH issues, dissolved oxygen, temperature – those kind of things,” Barrett noted. “It fits right into our ecology curriculum.”

Two years after first breaking ground, the PHS rain garden is still very much a work in progress. But as the school’s green orientation continues to evolve, Barrett sees the project as a uniquely practical avenue for encouraging green career paths amongst her students.

“It’s great to be able to go outside, use your hands, and use equipment that real scientists are using in the field,” Barrett said. “And we think the results that we get and share are going to be useful, both for the town and for the students looking to pursue these fields in the future.”