When the Boise School District purchased 15 acres for a new elementary school in 1975, energy issues were on everyone’s mind. The Yom Kippur war had taken place two years earlier and Arab countries were embargoing oil to the United States in retaliation for our country’s assistance to Israel in that conflict. Oil prices quadrupled.
So the school district decided to build an energy efficient building. They needed voter approval, of course. Usually school bonds are set for a given amount of money, then the district designs to that amount and comes in at or under budget. Not this time. Voters knew exactly what they were voting on when they went to the polls to give the up or down on the Amity School Bond. The district had already called for designs and chosen the most expensive one, at $3.5 million. They sold the proposal to voters on the idea that this earth-sheltered school with solar panels providing hot water heat, would pay for itself in lower energy costs. They expected the extra construction costs to be paid back in 16 years, and the solar panels to pay for themselves in 11 years. The district was wrong. With ever-increasing energy costs, the payback time was about half that.
Most people thought of Amity School as that “underground” school. It wasn’t. The concrete outer walls were poured on site, above ground, and the inner walls were completed with concrete block. Then, they put pre-cast concrete beams across the whole thing to form a roof. Once all the concrete was in place, they pushed about two feet of dirt up onto the roof and angled it against the walls on all sides to provide added insulation. The plan was originally to let the kids spend recess on the roof, playing in the grass. Early drawings showed landscaping up there, but it never happened, perhaps because there was plenty of ground for recess around the school and perhaps because watering the roof would add extra cost and complication, potentially causing leaks. That is, more leaks than were destined to happen anyway.
Designers didn’t want the school to feel like a cave, so they designed it so that every classroom had a door to the outside and one good-sized window. Offices, the lunchroom, restrooms, the gym, and the library were in the center of the structure and without natural light, but every room was painted in light, bright colors to compensate.
When the school came on line in 1979, its innovative design made Time Magazine. That first year the energy costs of the school were 72-74 percent lower than other schools in the district of similar size.
Amity School could handle 788 kids from kindergarten to sixth grade in 26 classrooms. Thousands of Boise kids grew up as “Groundhogs” (the school mascot was Solar Sam).
But, everything has a lifespan, and Amity School has reached the end of its days. It will be torn down this summer. A new school is already nearly finished right next door. When the earth-sheltered building goes, the earth will stay. The new playground will be built on the site of the old school.
Why tear down an innovative building? Leaks, mostly. That sod and concrete roof never could keep water out. But the district has learned a lot from the school. Several other schools in Boise use earth sheltered walls (not roofs) and other innovative features first tried out at Amity.
By the way, the first Amity School was in what was then the Meridian School District. It was built in 1919 to serve students a few miles west of the current school. The original Amity School was named such (probably) because the word means friendship and goodwill. They built a road to the school, which became Amity Road. The original school was converted to a private residence in the early 1950s, but was recently torn down. The name still stuck for the road, though, which then got attached to the earth-sheltered school, built in 1978, and first occupied in 1979.