Vernonia’s Schools: A New Model of Sustainability

IMGP8662The center of any tight-knit rural community is its schools. This holds true in Vernonia, where the new K-12 school campus is quite unlike any other in Oregon or the nation.

A major flood damaged much of the town in 2007, and left the schools in dire need of repair. But residents banded together to turn this natural disaster into a powerful opportunity.

Residents rallied behind a vision for education in Vernonia that would tie to the area’s rich natural resource-based history and heritage and connect to a sustainable future. In 2009, district residents overwhelmingly passed a bond measure to provide the down payment toward rebuilding the entire K-12 school district in a safe, central spot on higher ground.

The community’s vision included designing an integrated building that would serve as a model for rural sustainability and also become a “living laboratory,” connecting students to the surrounding ecosystem. The new campus opened in August 2012 with a community event that brought leaders from across the state to Vernonia to help celebrate the momentous occasion.

LEED-2014-PLATINUMAfter three years of operation, the school district announced at a May 2015 event that the campus had received a remarkable recognition. Vernonia has become the first LEED® (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design™) Platinum certified integrated K-12 campus in the nation.

globesAt the same time, the district announced that the school had also received a dual certification from the Green Building Initiative’s Green Globes program, with three out of four globes. Green Globes is an emerging alternative to LEED that has recently been approved by the U.S. General Services Administration for federal ratings.

Points were earned for utilizing renewable energy resources, reusing and recycling building materials, improving the efficiency and performance of the building to reduce environmental impact, improving sustainable practices within the building, and many other efforts.

The new Vernonia K–12 Schools were designed and built to meet today’s classroom needs. There is the capacity to expand the school to serve up to 1,000 students—enough room to accommodate 30 years of population growth. The design includes integrated Kindergarten through 12th grade facilities, with a highly compact layout that minimizes cross-traffic among the youngest and oldest students and maximizes energy efficiency.

IMGP3254The building has been sited to provide for optimal solar orientation and natural ventilation, allowing for significant day lighting and reduced energy use. The site has been engineered with constructed wetlands and bioswales which treat, store and send all storm water for release into the nearby Nehalem River.

Some of the sustainability features in the building include radiant in-floor heating and cooling; heating from local biomass fuel; local materials and labor; and wetland education features. Building energy use is monitored as part of a new curriculum focused on natural resources. Overall, annual energy efficiencies will result in long-term operational savings for the school district.

The learning environment is critical to the success of students. And inside and outside of the school’s walls, Vernonia is forging innovative partnerships with higher education institutions and local businesses to conduct research and develop sustainable programs and learning opportunities for students.

As the home of the Oregon Solutions program, Portland State University has been an integral part of the Vernonia story. Oregon Solutions helped the district throughout the siting and new school development process, coordinated a PSU intern-led community vision effort and has helped develop the concept and programs involved with the Vernonia Rural Sustainability Center (VRSC).

PSU professors attended a collaborative campus tour, and used the work being done in Vernonia as part of their students’ research projects. Oregon Solutions continues to play a major role in the resource development efforts tied to the new K-12 school and supporting the recovery efforts in Vernonia.

Oregon State University faculty have been involved in the Oregon Solutions process since the beginning. They have performed professor tours and completed a baseline “Vernonia Vitality” study to determine the impacts and successes of how a rural town rises from the effects of two natural disasters. Vernonia collaborated with the OSU Extension Service, Knappa High School, Philomath High School and several others to develop the curriculum for its forestry program.

This program also has a connection with the local timber industry. Hancock Timber Management and Weyerhaeuser both have partnered with the forestry program, supporting the students with real work experiences as they learn about forestry and timber management.

Vernonia High School offers a natural resources curriculum, working with the Oregon Natural Resources Education Program through OSU to enhance the classroom experience by utilizing these resources, providing students with an opportunity to earn this new certification.

University of Oregon has also been an integral part of the Oregon Solutions process by collaborating on, and conducting, a basic feasibility study to determine the Vernonia Rural Sustainability Center scope and audience.

Another critical partner in helping the school district move forward after the flood has been Portland Community College. They have provided technical support with grant writing, community survey development and implementation of natural resources projects. Students in PCC’s Landscape Technology course engineered a landscape plan for a portion of the new campus that includes a bioswale. This was the first area to be landscaped by students, and it serves as a model for students who will undertake their own native plant landscaping projects in the future.

Vernonia has achieved its vision for sustainable schools quite unlike any other, with national certification recognizing its leadership. This timber town’s school and community center is creating a new model for other rural towns across Oregon and the Northwest.

The LEED® certification trademark owned by the U.S. Green Building Council and is used with permission.

The Life of a Vernonia Commuter


In the old days Vernonians worked in the woods or the mill, cutting down trees and turning them into lumber.

The mill shut down over fifty years ago, and although some locals still work in the woods, things have certainly changed for workers who chose to live in Vernonia. Many work outside of town, commuting each morning to Hillsboro, Beaverton, Portland or other parts of the region. Others telecommute, working from a home office.

The commute from Vernonia is not too bad, depending on the time of day you are traveling. In fact some people enjoy the quiet and scenic drive. It’s just thirty-five minutes to Hillsboro; the first fifteen minutes is through a beautiful forest. It’s a little further to Portland, with a little more traffic, but locals don’t seem to mind the trip.

Jason Riddell works in Research and Development at the Nike campus in Beaverton, making prototypes for new equipment and shoes. He drives forty-two miles each way, five days a week and says it takes him about fifty minutes. Riddell has been making the commute for eleven years and says it doesn’t bother him. “You just get in the car and go on autopilot,” says Riddell. “I drive twice the distance that people I work with who live in Vancouver, but it takes me less time.”

Occasionally Riddell can work from home. “I know someone that lives in Vernonia and works in Accounting—she never comes into the campus. I have a lot of meetings and face time with customers that are required.”

Riddell says living in small town Vernonia makes the commute worthwhile. “I just like the community,” says Riddell. “I live a block away from Vernonia Lake and the Banks-Vernonia Trail system is right there. It’s quiet and you know people.”

Donna Webb is a full time medical transcriptionist for Providence Health and Services who telecommutes four days a week, ten hours a day. Webb says there are other Vernonians working for Providence who also work from home.

For Webb, working from home is not a new concept. “Our department started sending people home to work about twenty-five years ago,” explains Webb. “At first I worked part-time from home and as technology grew I was able to work full time from home.”

Webb says to do her job she just needs an internet connection. She can email or instant message co-workers as needed. Department meetings are held on line. If she has computer problems the IT department can take over her screen and usually fix the issue.

Webb says telecommuting has both pros and cons. The obvious pros are that she doesn’t spend time in the car or money on wear and tear and fuel. If she had to drive into the office on Portland’s east side, she would spend three hours in the car every day.

She says not having to deal with people—customers or co-workers has its advantages, although she does miss some of the human interaction.

She says telecommuting cuts down on employee sick days. She also said that occasionally she feels isolated or “out of the loop” when she works from home.   She also noted that working from home requires great discipline. “People say they couldn’t work from home because they would be distracted and want to do housework or other chores. It’s not for everybody.”

A huge benefit for Webb is that she has more time to spend with family and more time to volunteer and be involved in the community. She says people who commute to work often don’t have the time or the energy to volunteer.

Even though she says she loves working from home, after twenty years Webb says she may be considering a change in the future. “I think I’m ready for more people contact again.”

Kathy Larsen is a data analyst at Daimler Trucks North America. Three days a week she drives an hour to her office on Swan Island in Portland; the other two days she works from the computer in her home office. “My job is very conducive to working from home,” says Larsen. She mostly works alone on ‘ticket driven’ projects and has a queue that gives her the tasks she needs to complete each day.

Larsen says her work doesn’t require a lot of interaction with her co-workers, but if she does need to talk with someone she can easily do so electronically through email or instant messaging.

Larsen has Frontier DSL service for her home computer to access her work server through a VPN (Virtual Private Network) and has two monitors and a Voice over IP phone system at her home work station. “Where I’m working from is invisible to my customers or my co-workers,” says Larsen. “They have no idea if I’m working from home or the office.”

Larsen seems to have the best of both worlds. She says she enjoys the days she goes into the office for the social interaction with her co-workers – going out to lunch, walks during breaks or after work drinks and shopping. When she works from home she saves two hours of commute time each day, plus the fuel expense. She can be at home during the day with her dog Harper and when she’s finished work at 3:30 she can head straight outside to her deck or work in the garden.

Although working from home allows her quite a bit of flexibility and independence in her day, (she can start a load of laundry, play with her dog, or run a local errand) Larsen says her work is monitored through the computer system. “They know when I’m on line and can see how much work I get done,” says Larsen. “Big brother is watching.”

Choosing Vernonia

VMPSpring2105LandonAvenueDesignTiffaniweb            Why would a family chose to move to Vernonia to live and work?

Tiffini Meyer and family have lots of reasons.

Meyer and her young family moved to the community from Beaverton in June of 2014 after Tiffini opened a retail store and workshop in downtown Vernonia. Meyer’s shop, Landon Avenue Design, features handmade, one-of-a -kind home decorations. “I take things that are useless and make them useful again,” explains Meyer.

“To rent space in Beaverton for what I’m doing – the cost per square foot is just outrageous,” explains Meyer. “You have to have serious cash to get up and running and I just didn’t have it.”

Meyer’s parents live at nearby Fishhawk Lake and saw the for-rent sign in the storefront window of the corner property where Meyer’s business is now located. “My husband and I came out and talked to the owner and it just kind of happened,” she explains.

To expound on Meyer’s business, she takes old wooden items she finds at garage sales and thrift stores – furniture, windows, doors, ladders and more – and re-purposes them. “I take things people normally wouldn’t or couldn’t use any longer and make them into something decorative or functional that they can put back in their home,” says Meyer.

In addition, Meyer is a Stampin’ Up demonstrator who creates invitations for weddings, baby and bridal showers, parties, and greeting, thank you and save-the-date cards. “Anything that involves paper,” she says. “That’s actually become a big part of my business now.”

She is also a vendor at a large Portland Christmas bazaar and is also exploring the idea of renting some of her furnishings and decorations for weddings and other events.

Her decorations, invitations and cards have become so popular she’s having trouble keeping up with demand and keeping items in stock. This is a good problem to have as a small business owner.

“I haven’t even been in business a year,” says a somewhat amazed Meyer. “I have lots of big ideas about where I’d like to go with this.”

Initially Meyer was creating her items in her garage at home and selling them on line. As her business grew she realized she needed a bigger workshop space, which is what initially brought her out to Vernonia.   After seeing the corner space with the big windows the idea of a retail store took shape.

VMPSpring2015LandonAvenueDesignFenceweb            Meyer, twenty-six, and husband Ray, were renting a house in Beaverton along with six-year-old daughter Madeline and two-year-old son Landon. Ray, a manager at Cash-n-Carry, wasn’t happy and wanted them to own their own home. He also preferred that he be the one commuting to work. “We started looking in North Plains and out and quickly realized we could get more property and more house for our money in Vernonia,” says Meyer.

Meyer says they saw an opportunity in Vernonia. “We thought if we’re going to have a business why not start it somewhere where the town is growing, so the business can grow with the town,” she explains.

They bought a home in Vernonia within walking distance of her shop and moved two weeks after Landon Avenue Design opened.

Meyer says she loves living and working in small town, quaint Vernonia. She said she was surprised when they made an early purchase at the local hardware store and were handed a hand written receipt. “I felt like I had fallen back through time,” says Meyer with a laugh.

She and her husband are both naturally social and have made friends and gotten to know people quickly. “Everybody knows everybody here,” says Meyer. “I like knowing who is walking down the street, who is coming in my store, who my customers are. I like knowing who is dependable. You don’t find that in Beaverton or other bigger towns.”VMPSpring2015LandonAvenueDsignWorkshopweb