BEVERLY — As a small private school, the Waring School encourages students to think independently and contemplate big questions.

The school is living up to that philosophy with its first major building project in 20 years.

On Monday, Waring School held a groundbreaking ceremony for a $5 million building that embodies the latest concepts in energy efficiency. The new building will be a "passive house," which the school described as a European model of energy sustainability that eliminates as much as 90% of a building's energy expenditure.

The building will have thicker walls and windows and will be designed so efficiently that even the students themselves will supply heat just by moving around inside.

"The students are all worth 100 watts of energy each," said Matthew O'Malia, one of the architects who is designing the building.

Fellow architect Timothy Lock jokingly referred to the students as "kiddie watts."

Waring School is located in the woods on 32 acres off Standley Street in Beverly. It was founded in 1972 and has 160 students in grades 6 to 12. Tuition is $36,600 for the high school and $26,000 for the middle school. More than half the students receive financial aid.

The school raised $6 million from 375 donors, its largest fundraising effort ever, to pay for the new building and other costs.

The passive house will feature large windows facing the school's quad. The inside will include "meandering hallways that twist through the woods, bridging lower and upper campus, with built-in reading nooks along the way," according to the school.

The building will be used for the school's daily "all-school meeting," and will include three classrooms, student lockers, and administrative offices. It will replace an existing building that will be demolished.

OP/L, the Maine-based firm that is designing the building, has designed about 70 buildings that meet "passive house'" standards since its first one in 2008. With a tight envelope and continuous insulation, the buildings require very little energy to heat or cool. Lock said it's the equivalent of being able to heat your house with a hair dryer.

During the groundbreaking ceremony, Head of School Timothy Bakland called it a "historic day for Waring." He said Waring is hoping to become the first independent school in Massachusetts to certify a passive house building.

The building is scheduled to open in January 2021.

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2535 or pleighton@salemnews.com.

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