Life & Business

Cutting Edge Education

Imagine a school that creates enough energy to sustain itself. What would that look like?

Imagine a school that creates enough energy to sustain itself. What would that look like? Well, if it’s Acton Academy at Serenbe, it’s a campus made up of brightly-colored buildings featuring Tesla solar-paneled roofs and geometric architecture. The surrounding land would include an organic vegetable garden and an open field leading into preserved woods with creeks and nature trails. Basically, it would be beautiful. Steve Nygren wouldn’t have it any other way.

Acton at Serenbe is a non-profit school, and as a physical place within Serenbe is subject to the community’s Design Review Board. Steve’s vision of what a school here would look like came to him when traveling through Scandinavia. He noticed that buildings have simpler forms, with a function in every detail. Phill Tabb, Serenbe’s land planner, then exposed him to Scandinavian architect Eric Rasmussen, whose buildings had fun with shapes and colors, and Steve was further inspired. 

“I challenged the Acton school architects to use shapes as a guide, tilting the roof on the Toddler Building so it looks like it’s coming right out of the earth and supporting it with columns that mimic trees,” he said. “I also wanted to have a brighter color palette. You don’t normally see it in American schools but in Scandinavia this isn’t uncommon. People drive down the road to the school and it brings joy.”

That’s just the exterior of Acton’s new Serenbe campus. John Mattis - who is Board Chair of the Acton Academy at Serenbe, a resident in the community, and parent to three Acton students - wanted students to not only learn the studio curriculum but also their impact on the environment, all while enjoying state-of-the-art facilities.

“The goal is to generate a minimum of 105% of our energy and be a closed-loop water system,” said John.“As the students enter the building, there will be display monitors on the wall that show a trend of power usage during the day and the water and solar generation, so the students learn to live within ranges of temperature or adjust their behavior based on what usage looks like.”

What led to these ideas? The Acton board was in the initial strategic planning phase of the campus when they realized how closely aligned they were to the Living Building Challenge, a sustainable building program by the International Living Futures Institute. Serenbe buildings are already EarthCraft certified and require geothermal HVAC along with other energy requirements, so the Acton at Serenbe board decided to also pursue this greater challenge, which they believe embodies their values and culture.

The campus is being built in three phases. The first phase, a Toddler Building for ages 6 weeks to 3 years, had its ribbon cutting and opened to students in January 2023. The Acton community, which includes Steve Nygren, celebrated.

“It was so great to walk into the toddler building and see the small windows, the low windows where my 3 year old grandchildren can stand and look out to the woods,” said Steve. “It feels their size, and that’s so empowering.” 

Future phases include an eight-classroom building serving students ages 3 to 8th grade, which has broken ground and will be ready for the Fall 2023 school semester, a high school building with Maker’s Studio, a gymnasium that opens to an outdoor amphitheater, and an organic farm. “We finished the 2021-2022 school year with 150 students and by Fall 2022 we had over 200 students enrolled. Within a few years, we will be close to 450 students,” said John.

“The more students, the more exposure on a long term basis that someone has to this type of environment, it’s going to impact how they make their decisions regardless of what career they go into in life,” said John Mattis. If we do this right, we can be the shining example of how you should build schools going forward.”

For more information about enrolling in Acton Academy at Serenbe, visit their website at

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