Dunbar Senior High School 8

Dunbar Senior High School:
A Case Study

Washington, DC

Blocks from the US Capitol, a sustainable new building inspires continued achievement within a historic school and reestablishes powerful connections to its community.

Celebrating the school’s rich history while creating a sustainable, high performance place to learn, Dunbar Senior High School has set a new standard for contemporary school design and reasserts the central place of schools as the center of our communities. Perkins Eastman’s competition-winning design created innovative academies to support new ideas in teaching and learning, invited active community use, and established new standards for sustainable urban school design. A beacon of sustainable design excellence and a cornerstone of its neighborhood, Dunbar High School sets an example for future learning environments.

Project Facts

  • Client:

  • District of Columbia Department of General Services
  • Size:

  • 280,000 sq. ft.
  • Sustainable Design:

  • LEED for Schools Platinum
    Geothermal System
    Photovoltaic Array
    Rainwater Harvesting and Recycling
    Low VOC Materials
  • Services:

  • Sustainability
  • Markets:

  • K-12 Education
  • Region:

  • United States
  • Studios:

  • Washington, DC


  • ULI Trends Award – Institutional Category (2017)
  • USGBC National Capital Region, Midsummer’s Night Green: Best School of the Year and People's Choice (2015)
  • USGBC MD, Annual Wintergreen Awards for Excellence in Green Building: Educational/School Facility (2014)
  • ABC Excellence in Construction Award, Educational Facilities (2014)
  • Grand Prize Award, Learning by Design, Excellence in Educational Facility Design (2014)
  • Project of Distinction, Council of Educational Facility Planners International NE Region (2014)
  • Vision Award, The Committee of 100 on the Federal City (2014)
  • Best Civic Building, Congress for New Urbanism Charter Award (2014)
  • Honorable Mention, School Planning & Management (2014)
  • Gold Citation, American School & University Educational Interiors Showcase (2014)
  • Best Projects: K12 Education, ENR Mid-Atlantic (2014)
  • Presidential Citation in Sustainable Design, AIA DC Chapter Design Awards (2014)
  • Institutional Built: Honorable Mention, 4 Re-Thinking the Future Sustainability Awards (2014)
  • Read More
    Dunbar Senior High School 4

    Dunbar’s design is equally inspired by innovative 21st-century learning environments and the cherished 1917 school that long served the community before its demolition in the 1970s. Like its predecessor, the new building has many great places to build a strong learning community. Designed to renew student spirt as a setting for yearbook photos, a welcoming entry plaza invites students and local residents inside. The heart of the school, The Armory—named after a portion of the 1917 building—serves as a daily locus of interaction among students and staff and accommodates major events like dances and community celebrations. These dynamic and engaging spaces are complemented by, and offer access to, four interdisciplinary academic neighborhoods.

    Dunbar Senior High School 1 Dunbar Senior High School 2 Dunbar Senior High School

    Encouraging administration and the community to embrace sustainability, the team designed a campus that conserves energy and water, creates a healthier, high-performance place to learn, and inspires a commitment to environmental stewardship among students and staff. Having achieved 91 credits, the school was the highest scoring LEED for Schools project in the world when it opened in 2013. Among its notable sustainable-design features is DC’s largest geothermal system, a 482-kW photovoltaic array, two 20,000-gallon cisterns for reusing rainwater, enhanced acoustics, low-VOC materials, and plentiful daylight and views. The photovoltaic system was provided through an innovative Power Purchase Agreement that paved the way for the installation of similar systems across the entire district.

    “A masterpiece of a green learning environment.”
    —U.S. Green Building Council

    Dunbar Senior High School 6

    Delving into a century of history, Perkins Eastman engaged alumni and studied historic yearbooks to find inspiration for the new design. The team also worked with the students and the school to identify and celebrate 100 notable alumni on engraved plaques, now distributed throughout the building. Another 100 blank plaques are meant to inspire students, indicating that they can one day add their names to the ranks of Dunbar’s distinguished graduates. The design enhances learning outcomes and success rates, as well. Extensive post-occupancy evaluations revealed that soon after entering the new building, Dunbar students posted the highest test-score gains of any high school in the city; enrollment rose; and graduation rates increased.

    Dunbar Senior High School 3

    “As one of the most historic high schools in the country, with hundreds of incredibly accomplished alumni, we wanted to create a building that both honors the school’s history and heritage, and inspires students to embrace their potential, to continue the tradition. Accordingly, the design celebrates their history, while decidedly looking to the future. This shared vision – equally embraced by the city, the designers, the builders, school administrators, and the community – resulted in a campus that enhances education, and serves as a national model of sustainable, high performance school design.”—Sean O’Donnell, FAIA, principal-in-charge