More than a decade after the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Philip Merrill Environmental Center in Annapolis, Md., became the first building in the nation to achieve a LEED Platinum rating from the U.S. Green Building Council, the charitable nonprofit organization is reaping the benefits of having a light-filled, energy-efficient headquarters that attracts government leaders and architects from around the world.
“When we advertise now for job openings—and this was true even before the downturn—the number of people who apply for our positions, and highly qualified ones, is much greater than when we were in our older facility,” says Mary Tod Winchester, the foundation’s vice president of administration and operations. “There are small things we would change or do differently. But overall this facility has turned out to be beyond our wildest dreams successful.”
Designed by SmithGroup’s Washington, D.C. office and completed in late 2000, the $7.9 million building won a 2001 AIA COTE Top Ten Green Project award and includes numerous innovative features that are now commonplace among green buildings. Three large cisterns near the roof capture rainwater for washing hands and dirty work gear. Geothermal wells heat and cool the building; Passive heating comes from the building’s massive array of windows, which are operable for cooling as well. Daylighting controls turn off lights when people leave a room or when sunlight makes them unnecessary. Cork floors and bamboo stairs minimize the felling of trees. Renewable energy sources including photovoltaic panels that double as sun shades provide approximately 10 percent of the building’s power.
Even so, the building is not without lessons that can be learned or details that may be done differently today. The lessons start with natural light and how office hierarchy was transformed to distribute that illumination. In the foundation’s old facilities, more employees had closed-door offices. “That was a big design decision point,” says Greg Mella, AIA, of SmithGroup. “Providing better access for everyone to daylight was predicated on an open office environment. It ranked well in occupant surveys, but acoustical privacy was one of the things that came up.” Winchester says that pre-move-in preparations, however, alleviated the concerns of most employees.
Fine-tuning the size of systems also has become more sophisticated in the decade since the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) headquarters was completed. The windows sometimes cause an abundance of heat gain in winter. The water pump is capable of pumping 50 gallons of water per minute, but, says Winchester, “We barely use 100 gallons per day.” In this way, the CBF headquarters is a testament to the more-precise modeling to which architects have access today. “We have software these days that leaves all the mystery out of that decision,” Mella adds. Luckily the windows are mostly operable, so temperatures can be modified with ease. Commissioning shows that mechanical heating and cooling isn’t needed for about a third of the year, rather than the 9 percent predicted, showing that operable window use is more widespread than predicted.
Then there are the Parallam beams. The roof truss system, columns, and beams, including some exterior sections exposed to the elements, were constructed with Weyerhaeuser’s parallel strand lumber (aka Parallam), which is considered green because it’s produced from portions of a wood log that would ordinarily be considered scrap. During the first year of observation, there were leaks in the building due to missing flashing, failed sealant joints, and water penetrating through the Parallams. Adding caulk and flashing, plus a sealer to select members of Parallams, stopped the leaking.
In 2009, widespread rot was discovered in the exterior Parallams. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, SmithGroup, and builder Clark Construction Group sued Weyerhaeuser for defective building materials supplied by a Weyerhaeuser division. The case is pending and expected to reach trial early next year. Yet both the CBF and its architect support the product as a whole.
“We made some decisions we would probably rethink,” Mella says, “But the [use of] Parallam wasn’t one of those issues. It has nothing to do with the sustainable attributes or the durability of green material. We’re replacing the beams with the same kind, but will ensure the wood preservative used meets our original specifications.”
“I think with some of the new materials and approaches it’s just the price you pay for trying new things,” says lawyer Chris Cheatham, who specializes in green-building law. “Since the project was completed in 2000, a lot more attention has been paid to the risks and liabilities associated with green buildings. That’s going to be an issue going forward. Who’s going to be responsible?”
Meanwhile, CBF is working on an office in Virginia Beach, Va. “It’s a smaller facility,” Winchester says, but we plan on doing the same thing: to push the envelope and build a facility that shows people [that] this is what you need to be thinking about.”
Brian Libby writes about architecture from Portland, Ore.