Returning to a project site long after the occupants have moved in remains the exception rather than the rule for architects. But SmithGroupJJR vice president Greg Mella, FAIA, continues to be a regular face at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s (CBF’s) Brock Environmental Center following the project's opening on April 1, 2015, and with good reason. The educational building, in Virginia Beach, Va., was pursuing certification as a Living Building by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), which requires projects to demonstrate that they are performing as intended for a minimum of 12 months of continuous occupancy.
Among the Living Building Challenge’s requirements is documentation that the project produces at least 105 percent of the energy it consumes through renewable energy sources on-site, supplies all potable water needs through captured precipitation or other natural, closed-loop water systems, and manages and treats all stormwater, graywater, and blackwater. With only a few built precedents in the world, ensuring that the building was operating to such a rigorous standard required Mella, the project manager and design architect, to monitor the building’s performance through daily email updates and to return for regular checkups and troubleshooting. “Staying closely involved during the Brock’s first year of operation has definitely increased my understanding of green buildings,” he said in SmithGroupJJR’s press release.
Last month, the ILFI confirmed that the Brock Center, as well as Lake|Flato’s Josey Pavilion, in Leo, Texas, and Next Phase Studios’ Old Oak Dojo, in the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, have joined the list of the now-11 certified Living Buildings in the world.
At 10,518 square feet, the Brock Center is the largest project of the three, hosting an 80-seat conference room, meeting rooms, display areas, and an open-air education pavilion. It is also the first commercial building in the continental U.S. that is approved to treat harvested rainwater, to federal standards, for human consumption and other potable uses. Rainwater collected from the building’s metal arched-butterfly and shed roofs is stored in underground tanks below the first floor. A water-filtration system, licensed by the State of Virginia’s Office of Drinking Water, cleans the collected water for drinking and hand washing. Graywater from the building’s sinks and showers is channeled through an infiltration garden of native plants and then to an underground aquifer. All toilets are waterless and composting.
In its first year, the center produced 83 percent more energy than it used. Sixty percent of the comes from the center's 168 rooftop solar panels, at an estimated cost of $0.20 per kilowatt-hour, with the balance supplied by two 70-foot-tall, 10-kilowatt wind turbines, at an estimated cost of $0.38 per kilowatt-hour (both rates distribute the systems’ first costs over a 25-year service life). The abundance of generated energy can also be attributed to the Brock Center’s low energy use intensity of 14.12 Btu per square foot per year, 80 percent less than a comparable building of conventional performance.
As a result, the Brock Center’s monthly electricity bill totals a whopping $17, the minimum fee needed to tie into the electrical grid. In this case, the tie-in allows the project to send excess energy to Dominion Virginia Power, the local utility. In November, the power company is expected to issue the Brock Center a refund check.
Achieving these penultimate milestones of a high-performance building yielded a number of lessons, many of which Mella, with CBF’s Brock Environmental Center manager, Chris Gorri, and CBF vice president of administration and operations, Mary Tod Winchester, presented in May at the Living Future UnConference, in Seattle. For example, the SmithGroupJJR’s energy model did not anticipate that the center’s fans in the VRF (variable-refrigerant-flow) heating and cooling units would continue to run after the desired indoor temperature was met—an equipment setting with no override. Occupants also began reporting a metallic taste in the drinking water, which the team discovered was due to the inherent softness of rainwater, which then began corroding the distribution system’s copper pipes. The team installed a calcium contactor to harden and stabilize the rainwater, improve its taste, and stop the corrosion.
The ongoing monitoring, tweaking, and troubleshooting at the Brock Center support the notion that buildings are not static objects of beauty and function. Rather, they are dynamic, manmade ecosystems that need to be tuned, similar to how their natural counterparts evolve and adapt. And who better to care for the buildings than the architects and engineers behind their creation?
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