When the LEED Platinum–rated Heifer International headquarters in Little Rock, Ark., was completed in 2006 on the largest brownfield in the state (a former railroad switching yard), the nonprofit client’s initial plan was to wait five years before designing and building an accompanying education center next door. “But the exposure was so much more than we expected,” recalls Reese Rowland of Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects, the firm behind both projects and the master plan tying them together. “They started getting 50 to 60 people a day just showing up wanting to see the office building, both for the architecture and for who Heifer is. Within a year of the building opening they came back and said, ‘We’ve got to get going on this education center.’ ”
Since its founding in 1944, Heifer has provided livestock, a sustainable source of food and income, to families in need, and the organization is serving over 65 million people in 125 countries. An independent 2005 study by Western Michigan University found that Heifer’s approach helps achieve lasting results. Along the way, the company’s staff has grown to over 450 people.
The 94,000-square-foot headquarters, which was included on the AIA Committee on the Environment’s Top Ten Projects list in 2007 and profiled by eco-structure in May 2008, brought employees scattered across five locations together for the first time. The Murphy Keller Education Center, completed in 2009, was phase two of a four-part master plan. The buildings sit amidst 20 acres of constructed wetlands, bioswales, and permeable-paved parking designed to keep any wastewater from leaving the site. A global village and a global solutions center are still to come.
Like the headquarters, the education center is configured as a circular plan, symbolizing Heifer founder Dan West’s notion that throughout the world important decisions are made where people sit in circles, facing each other as equals. A curving concrete wall separates educational functions from an accompanying 1,800-square-foot café and 1,990-square-foot gift shop, while also symbolizing the barrier between industrialized and developing nations. But it also forms a spillway for rainwater collected on the roof, diverting it into the wetlands.
Achieving another Platinum rating seemed uncertain because the new project would share electricity, water, heating and cooling, and other resources with the headquarters building. Those initiatives were counted toward the LEED certification of the headquarters. Then a donor approached Heifer about funding an application to the Green Globes rating system instead. “It was a perfect fit,” says Heifer International facilities manager Erik Swindell. “One of my budget items for this year is to Green Globes–certify the headquarters too.” The headquarters’ LEED application took some 18 months to complete, Swindell says, but he found the Green Globes process more streamlined and cost-effective. The education center was rated with three of four Globes.
Interestingly, the structure breaks a sustainability rule of thumb, facing west and direct sunlight in the afternoon. “Orientation is still important, but architecture is how you can embrace the positive,” Rowland explains. “We’ve got this 10-foot skylight that really bridges that circular path through the building, but we pulled up the wall about 10 feet taller than the roof, so it becomes a light reflector. It’s bouncing indirect light into the exhibits. And then we’ve got this deep porch and sunshades. As the sun starts to creep into those education areas, it’s late in the day.” A ?oating roof canopy made of tongue-and-groove heavy timber pine deck on glulam beams shelters the 972-square-foot outdoor classroom and Exhibits Hall, where five glass garage doors help blur the boundaries of indoor and outdoor space.
Both the original headquarters and the education center have been separately commissioned, which in particular has helped improve the headquarters’ performance. “It was a shut-down-the-system-at-night, and start-it-up-in-the-morning kind of thing,” Rowland says, explaining the headquarters’ initially disappointing energy performance. (The building was only about 40 percent more efficient than code, versus about 55 percent today.) “It’s important for design professionals to be able to design systems and educate the client on how to use those systems.” Both facilities are now running according to plans, especially now that some unintended functions taken on by the headquarters (education and tours, for example) have been handed over to the education center.
The architect also commends Heifer for how far they’ve come in their approach as a client. “In the beginning it was all about first-cost versus end-cost,” Rowland explains, “but now they see the value in the health of their employees and associates. The biggest joy I’ve gotten is I go out there and I see these employees who are so happy.”
Brian Libby writes about architecture from Portland, Ore.