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Green Buildings Reach for Gold Certification

2012-03-01, Feature, by Elizabeth Beard

In Ohio, Dayton's system of riverside bike trails converges at the Bike Hub, a multi-functional LEED Silver facility.The Right Stuff 

For three decades, the low-slung, 1950s-era Gragg Building housed the Houston Parks and Recreation Department. Its closed-in floor plan and dark corridors cluttered with computer cables belied its momentous place in history as the former home of NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center.  Which left a dilemma for the parks department—how to update this historic building where Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom once worked while still meeting today’s green building certification standards?

Like several other major cities, Houston now requires that major renovations or new construction projects over 10,000 square feet undertaken by city departments meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification requirements. The LEED program, administered by the U.S. Green Building Council, assigns up to 100 points to projects in five areas: sustainable sites; water efficiency, energy and atmosphere; materials and resources; and indoor environmental quality. Additional points are available for innovation in design or aspects that address regional conservation priorities. Out of a maximum of 110 possible points, a score of 40-49 points brings LEED certification, 50-59 equals the LEED Silver level, 60-79 means LEED Gold, and 80 points or above merits LEED Platinum.

Because reuse of materials can be a major source of LEED points, maintaining the Gragg building’s historical designation was not a big hurdle to reaching LEED Gold, according to Lisa Johnson, parks program manager for the Houston General Services Department. For example, old mahogany veneer paneling was reused and wooden grates formerly used over air vents became an architectural detail on one wall of the conference room. However, the profile of the windows had to match historically, and with that profile no longer being made, the old windows had to be kept intact, affecting the efficiency of the HVAC system.

Other areas where the Gragg Building earned points were through adding natural lighting to the corridors, using low VOC (volatile organic compounds) finishes and paint, being located close to public transportation, and having specially designated parking spaces for low-emission vehicles. Now that the Houston Parks and Recreation Department has its first LEED-certified project, Johnson is optimistic that certification for two green community centers currently under construction will go smoothly.

“There is a lot of back and forth and there’s a lot of documentation,” she recalls. “You’ve got to stay on top of it from the beginning. We learned a lot from the first one.”

The Tennis Center that Ruth Built 

Houston is not the only city to undertake the green renovation of a large historic park building. Halfway across the country, construction of the new Yankee Stadium caused some reshuffling of parks and park facilities in the Bronx.  Sixteen tennis courts now buried beneath the new Yankee Stadium needed to be replaced. However, their proposed home in a newly created 11-acre waterfront park included a hulking vacant brick building—the old Power House for the Bronx Terminal Market. Although the rest of the old wholesale facility was demolished, the Power House was preserved.

“The building is beautiful. It would have been just a huge mistake to get rid of it,” waxes Kevin Quinn, director of architecture for NYC Parks. “We did the analysis and we could get a LEED-certified building….It’s the right thing to do to preserve when you can.”

“This building was a great example of reusing a resource that’s already there,” agrees project architect and LEED coordinator Jim Nelson of Stantec – a provider of professional design and consulting services in planning, engineering, architecture, surveying, and project management. “You can’t build a greener new building than you can by restoring an old building.”

The 28,000-square foot building was completely gutted and certified under LEED “core and shell” guidelines. That means that points are based on creating space for tenants to fit out rather being completely finished. Park department offices, a tennis pro shop, and locker rooms occupy the first floor but the second floor has been leased to the Kids Power House Discovery Center, a children’s museum about nature and the environment. Although the Power House was NYC Parks’ first LEED building, the department now has more than $250 million of LEED projects under construction, according to Commissioner Adrian Benepe.

“If you’re going to talk the talk, you have to walk the walk,” Benepe says. “There’s been a real sea change in how we design parks….We have a whole intradepartmental sustainability working group where we look at all of our practices and try to make them more sustainable.”

As with the Gragg Building, the Power House project earned a bounty of LEED points for its reuse of materials and its urban setting with access to public transportation. The Power House also boasts a green roof made up of six inches of lightweight growing medium over top of a waterproof membrane and insulation. The green roof eases energy costs for cooling the building, provides habitat for birds and insects, and assists stormwater management by collecting and holding a certain amount of water.

“This is one of most visible green roofs you’ll ever see,” Benepe says, “because it’s below the level of the elevated highway that goes by it—the Major Deegan Expressway. Tens of thousands of drivers see it every day.”
“There’s very little cost premium these days for a lot of this,” Nelson says. “Installing a green roof is a little more expensive than installing a regular roof but the payback is real.”

Is LEED Necessary to Lead? 

Few green renovation projects are bigger than the one that Brendan Daley, director of green initiatives for Chicago Park District, is currently shepherding through the LEED process. The park district is seeking for Soldier Field to become the first LEED certified NFL stadium. Like Houston and New York, Chicago also mandates that public sector buildings meet LEED standards, and Daley can point to several LEED Gold park district buildings ranging from harbor buildings to beach comfort stations to field houses. For example, the Jesse Owens Park Field House includes a green roof, energy-efficient lighting, and a reflective roof and paving to reduce heat absorption.

“Once the public sector embraced LEED and figured it out, it was a no brainer,” Daley says.

Daley points that some of the advantages of using LEED certification are that the system is well-established, with checklists and other helpful resources, and that there are now many experienced building professionals familiar with the requirements.  The drawbacks mostly revolve around costs, especially the requirement to have a LEED-accredited professional on the project team, though Daley says architects will now often provide this service for an additional charge.

But what about projects on a slightly smaller scale than Soldier Field? In Atlanta, Project Manager Karyl Clayton says that the parks department initially considered LEED for its 2,626-square-foot reconstructed tennis center in Chastain Park.

“It was about the size of a nice home these days,” Clayton says. “That was the reason we went to EarthCraft—we couldn’t justify LEED certification for such a small building.”

EarthCraft is a green building certification program developed by the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association and Southface. Originally designed for green homes specifically adapted to the Southeast’s climate, EarthCraft now has a pilot program for light commercial buildings, with Chastain Park Tennis Center being the first commercial building to be certified.

“It was a much more economical way to go about making it a sustainable building,” Clayton says. “You don’t have the commissioning, modeling, or all of the paperwork and documentation….We could put that money back into the building.”

As with LEED, EarthCraft assigns points in various categories such as site planning, waste management, energy efficiency, water conservation, indoor air quality, and operations and management. Some areas where the tennis center received points were for reusing materials from the old tennis center, diverting more than 75 percent of the construction waste from the landfill, installing low-flow toilets, and performing well on air leakage tests. The center is also built into a berm, keeping it insulated on one side.

Portland, Oregon, also has opted to forgo LEED certification for some park buildings. Rodney Wojtanik, senior regional planner for Metro, explains that Metro did not seek LEED certification for some green building projects because of the scope and the scale. For the most part, the facilities were restrooms and picnic shelters. However, Metro's sustainability standards, adopted last October, require that even small facilities have to meet performance standards such as incorporation of ecoroofs, use of recycled-content material, and energy efficient design.

“They were pre-manufactured structures that we worked with the supplier to modify to include things like solar and living roofs,” Wojtanik says. “Small facilities such as those in parks often don't qualify for the LEED standard for new construction or Earth Advantage Commercial because the buildings do not meet minimum size or other qualifications. However, green building concepts are still very much an option for these projects.”

Jeremy Cohen with the U.S. Green Building Council contends that overestimating the cost of LEED certification is a common misperception. Especially in large cities, the green building market in general has gone through its learning curve and is now much more competitive in terms of expertise, products, and services. The same is true for LEED certification services.

“At 4 ½ cents per square foot on new construction, I would say that incremental cost is justified in having that public perception and brand recognition in having a LEED building,” Cohen says. “It’s important, especially for the public sector, to be really savvy about how they’re pricing and how they’re paying for these projects.….Ask consultants to identify and break out the costs—which costs are for which part? How much are you charging us just to fill out paperwork? Some things you should be able to expect them to do normally under a contract for a green building—make sure there aren’t additional costs lumped in just because it’s a LEED building.”

Cohen notes that USGBC offers a roadmap for green building projects for local governments at Sustainable design, technology, and products all bring their own long-term returns on investment in energy efficiency, according to Cohen. But the advantage of LEED certification is that it communicates the values of the institution, Cohen says.

Daley concurs, “Being part of the LEED system is recognizable and marketable. It’s good PR, and it’s PR that is becoming easier to get….There is value in being able to proclaim that commitment to sustainability.”

Greener Inside and Out 

Green building techniques don’t stop at the front door. In Westerville, Ohio, the 38-year-old Highlands Park Aquatics Center needed to be replaced. Because LEED certification can be difficult for an aquatics facility to obtain, the city is seeking certification for the administration and restroom facilities only, according to Parks and Recreation Development Administrator Michael Hooper.

But that doesn’t mean that green techniques were confined to those structures. Construction debris from demolition of the old aquatics center was reused as base material for the entire site while the stainless steel pool lining was recycled. Existing wetlands at the site were enhanced through use of rain gardens and bioswales, with a new parking lot built of porous concrete. Patrons enter via an atmospheric boardwalk over the rain garden while new bike paths now connect the facility to the community bikeway system. The facility recently received an EPA grant to further improve the wetland functions and establish a public education component.

“We didn’t want the average pool facility—we wanted to create a space where people feel like they went out of town on vacation,” Hooper says. “A lot of people don’t even notice it has a green roof until they’re on top of the slide tower.”

In Sarasota, Florida, a historic 5,000-square-foot community center, fondly known as “The Rec” in the African-American neighborhood of Newtown, has been replaced with a much larger and greener 44,000 square-foot LEED Silver building. The 13-acre campus of the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex features a gymnasium, aquatics center, amphitheater, fitness center, childcare, art room, and even a recording studio. What it does not include is invasive plants or plants unsuited to Florida’s climate.

“We have included such practices as the right plant, right location policy and the use of Florida-friendly landscaping materials, with 50 percent use of Florida native plants for all landscape plans,” says Todd Kucharski, general manager of City of Sarasota Public Works Department.

Paint the Town Green 

Some buildings happen to be green while others help to make green happen. In Ohio, Dayton’s system of riverside bike trails converges at the Bike Hub, a multi-functional LEED Silver facility on the Great Miami River that services bicycle commuters, recreational cyclists, park event-goers, and skaters at an adjoining ice rink. Frequent cyclists can join the facility’s Hub Club, offering access to showers, locker rooms, and an indoor bike garage.

“The green aspects of the project really began with the site,” says Lydia Sowles, park planner for Five Rivers MetroParks. “It’s a reuse of a formerly contaminated site–it was Sears Automotive Center before the City of Dayton purchased it….We had an environmental cleanup aspect to the project that was pretty extensive.”

With recycled crushed concrete fill, reflective pavement and shade trees on the surrounding plaza to reduce heat absorption, and a green roof, the Bike Hub also fills a long-term need for bike facility support identified on the regional bikeway plan. Federal transportation and state recreational trail grants helped fund the project.

“You see people riding bikes everywhere,” Sowles says. “There’s been a recent resurgence in developing some residential housing nearby….That’s been a long-term goal for RiverScape MetroPark all along—to encourage people to come downtown and help revitalize the city and make it a livable place to be.”

In San Diego County, California’s first LEED Platinum park building, the San Elijo Lagoon Nature Center, serves a dual role in teaching about nature while helping to conserve natural resources. Situated in a 975-acre ecological reserve, the nature center offers public environmental education while at the same providing a living lesson in energy and water conservation. For example, solar panels on the building have generated 65 percent of the building’s power since it opened in 2009, saving the equivalent to 16.4 tons of carbon dioxide, according to Amy Harbert, County of San Diego Department of Parks and Recreation.

Holding Hands 

Nature often needs a helping hand from parks but sometimes it lends a helping hand too. Spiranthes tuberosa is not much to look at, as orchids go. It produces spindly white flowers every two or three years and when it’s not flowering, you would never even know it was there, according to Tim Denny, director of parks and recreation in Haverford Township, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia. But the rare flower’s discovery in the old growth woods surrounding the shuttered Haverford State Hospital helped change the conversation in the township about what to do with the 209-acre property. The state offered to sell the site to the township for a bargain price of $3.5 million—if at least 120 acres were kept as open space. The township sold 40 acres of the site to a developer for $17 million to fund the construction of trails, playing fields, dog park, accessible playground, and a new 35,000-square foot recreation and environmental center. The project was also supported by several grants.

Haverford’s Community Recreation and Environmental Center, scheduled to open April 22 on Earth Day, includes a double gymnasium, walking track, health and wellness area, multiuse rooms, and activity rooms suitable for preschoolers, teens, and seniors. But it also features an environmental lab, screened-in outdoor nature classroom, and a back terrace with dramatic views of the woods. Under the parking lot, 40 geothermal wells, each only two inches wide but drilled almost 400 feet deep, provide 100 percent of the center’s heating and cooling needs. A computer dashboard in the lobby allows visitors to monitor the building’s energy use, while the building’s huge windows collect passive solar energy as well as catching the attention of passing motorists on busy Route 476.

“The active recreation community should hold hands with the environmental, passive recreation community,” Denny muses. “Between us, that’s a lot—it represents a broad range of our constituency. All that stuff is what people care about. That’s what makes your community special.”

Elizabeth Beard is Managing Editor of Parks & Recreation.

Sidebar: Green for Less Green 

Brendan Daley of the Chicago Park District shares a few inexpensive methods for making even existing buildings a little greener.
• Low VOC (volatile organic compounds) paint: At no additional cost compared to regular paint, low VOC paint means no fumes or odors so staff will be more comfortable and will be able to get back into newly painted areas quicker.
• Energy-efficient Lighting: Everything from changing an incandescent light bulb to a compact fluorescent or doing a full lighting retrofit will immediately save money on utility bills because the lights are on most of the time at most park facilities. Instruct staff to turn out lights in rooms that are not in use, or use daylight.
• Energy-efficient vending machines : Vending miser sensors can turn machines on and off automatically.
• Green cleaning products: These are often equal in cost to non-green alternatives, but not all cleaning products have a green alternative. Most surface cleaners have a Green Seal or equivalent product. Use Green Seal as a requirement in bid documents to ensure vendors provide green cleaning supplies. However, staff may need to be trained to handle some products that are concentrated cleaners requiring mixing.
• Renovations: When making any retrofits or renovations, consider the “green alternative”–even if there may be a slightly higher upfront cost, figure out long-term savings so the return on investment (ROI) can be calculated.

The billions of square feet of existing buildings are where the U.S Green Building Council hopes to see a real impact on resource conservation. According to Jeremy Cohen, LEED certifications for existing buildings have now surpassed those for new construction. LEED for Existing Buildings addresses whole-building cleaning and maintenance issues (including chemical use), recycling programs, exterior maintenance programs, and systems upgrades ( Larger government agencies with standardized construction, operations, and maintenance procedures across their portfolio of properties also may be able to take advantage of LEED volume certification (

Sidebar: Beyond LEED 

For those seeking an even deeper shade of green, there is the Living Building Challenge from the International Living Future Institute. To meet the challenge, structures must meet the standards for all seven areas or “petals”: site, water, energy, health, materials, equity, and beauty. A Living Building essentially must be “off the grid,” having net-zero energy and water use. Only three projects have earned full recognition while one project has achieved petal recognition, meaning it has met the requirements of at least three petals. While none of these are park buildings, two projects in design or under construction in related fields that may eventually meet Living Building status include the Alice Ferguson Foundation’s Hard Bargain Farm Environmental Center in Accokeek, Maryland, and the Center for Sustainable Landscapes at the Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh.

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