What if they announced a new shopping mall and we all cheered because it would mean cleaner air, healthier water and more wildlife habitat?
That vision of green building from eco-planner William McDonough still eludes us; but a new 10,000-square-foot structure by the Lynnhaven River in Virginia Beach moves us significantly closer.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s new Brock Environmental Education Center is on track to join just a few buildings worldwide that meet the Living Building Challenge, a rigorous set of standards making current, LEED goals for green construction seem like child’s play.
To meet the challenge, the center, which opened last spring, must operate for a year to prove it can live beside the Lynnhaven, yet give the river none of its wastes or stormwater, and demand neither outside energy nor water, plus demonstrate it fulfills a long list of other virtues.
“We are showing a ‘net zero’ building is achievable,” said Janet Harrison, a green architect from Annapolis who worked on the Brock Center.
The building captures rainfall for all of its washing and drinking and even hosing down boats that take students out. Solid and liquid wastes are composted and processed to fertilize native plantings that landscape the grounds and soak up stormwater.
A striking feature of Brock — named after CBF donors Macon and Joan Brock — is that it uses relatively little wind and solar for energy, a function of thoughtful design that maximizes natural ventilation and light to produce a building that needs only a fifth of the energy of conventional buildings.
A breezeway and assortment of fans propel summer winds throughout the shaded building, and special windows open sideways to catch cool air, or at the top, to vent hot air. Insulation two to three times better than most buildings completes the energy package.
The center underscores how we underemphasize ways to need less energy and overemphasize technologies aimed, albeit greenly, at producing more.
The greatest challenges, Harrison said, were none of the above, but meeting the materials requirements of the Living Building Challenge, which is run by the International Living Futures Institute in Seattle.
No PVC in pipes or insulation in the wiring, for example. Most plumbers and electricians would slit their throats. But making PVC puts toxics into the environment and is linked to cancers. It is one of a list of banned materials on the Living Building Challenge’s “red list.” A more expensive substitute plastic was found, made from recycled yogurt cups and milk jugs.
Materials must also come from local sources, unless they are absolutely impossible to find, to minimize pollution from transportation.
Even harder, Harrison said, “was finding out what was in everything,” to make sure it wasn’t on the red list. ”What are your doorknobs made of, where does it come from, can you certify that? So many people are selling things they have no idea what they contain. We spent thousands of hours on that.”
Chlorine is red-listed, but Virginia Beach wanted Brock’s rainwater to be chlorinated, despite the center’s use of ultraviolet sterilization and filtration. The city finally agreed to enter a yearlong trial to prove chlorine can be eliminated.
There was no escaping the city’s fire code, however. While it doesn’t need city water for any other use, the center had to hook up its fire sprinkler system.
Reuse and recycling are the order of the day at Brock: hard maple flooring from a local school gym that was being torn down; door and window trim from discarded school bleachers; and exterior siding from cypress logs that fell off barges in the Mississippi a century ago that were dredged up.
The living building standards extend to areas like “equity“ and ”beauty“ and “biophilia.” These translate practically into an aesthetic design that fits into a surrounding area, making the entire, 10-acre property publicly accessible for walking and fishing, as well as a free meeting space for local organizations.
And you can’t drive there. You walk the last 100 yards down a landscaped path designed to let rainwater soak into the soils.
The costs for building Brock, the CBF said, ran about 50 percent more than a conventional building and about 21 percent more than meeting LEED standards.
Those costs will likely drop as green building progresses. A very green home I built a decade ago is evidence. So much of what cost us extra time and money and effort is now off the shelf, required everywhere, or already made obsolete by greener and cheaper options like LED lighting.
The Brock Center points optimistically toward the future. But the CBF’s greenest-ever education center may still be its very first — the tiny log cabin they began operating from near Annapolis around 45 years ago. No heat or electricity or water or conveniences save for a composting toilet. They still use it.