Thursday, February 23, 2006
Between the piles of lumber and the Porta Potty, the whine of the drill and the bump of the boom-box, this looks and sounds like a normal commercial construction site. It’s not.
Here, in the hills of Fort Ord, at the site of the old officers’ club, sits the freshly-poured foundation of what will become the county’s greenest building.
By August this place will house 130-plus Chartwell School students in classrooms that optimize natural light and use photovoltaic roofs to help radiantly heat floors—and produce enough electricity to eventually pull a net-zero amount of electricity off California’s power grid. It will be a true model of ecological wisdom and efficiency, and the first complete educational campus in the country green enough to earn a platinum ranking from the US Green Building Council.
Still, it doesn’t look the part. Doug Atkins, Chartwell’s executive director, who holds a degree in engineering and has helped build school campuses in Vermont and Pennsylvania, says it looks ordinary because of a critical understanding about green building, or as he prefers to call it, “high performance” building.
“It looks just like a normal job site because the biggest difference is in the planning,” he says. “It’s the stuff you wouldn’t casually observe—integrating systems in ways that haven’t been done before—that make it high performance.”
Many laypersons assume that the discrepancy between traditional buildings and green ones comes down to greenbacks. Not so, says project foreman Jim Rapose of Ausonio, Inc., the Castroville-based design-build firm selected by Chartwell to complete the two-phase $9 million project, which was designed by the cutting-edge architecture group EHDD. (Locally, EHDD’s highly-acclaimed projects include the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the MPC Library.)
“The most common [misconception] is that it costs more,” Rapose says. “It will most likely cost more now, but not in the long run. Materials are more expensive, but you save on materials in other ways, and by building differently.”
“Instead of looking at up-front costs,” Atkins says, “You analyze decisions based on a lifetime.”
Atkins cites a simple example of how this holistic thinking saves cash: windows. “Rather than trying to drive down costs of individual components,” he says, “we use the power of the systematic approach. Windows don’t operate alone.” These windows regulate heat loss and gain, which saves big on the cost of air conditioning and heating apparatus they have to buy, and on monthly utility costs.
Every detail—from the foundation to the roof—is examined through this filter. In addition, materials that are less destructive to the environment are selected.
Instead of pouring cement from an inherently destructive quarry for the foundation, it’s a “slag” mix made mostly from a recycled byproduct of steel manufacturing (which takes longer to firm up, but ultimately proves stronger than concrete).
Tall, east-west facing windows with views of the surrounding area will rise to the ceiling and let in maximum sun; wall sensors will detect when sunlight decreases, and ramp up the amount of artificial light, minimizing the use of electricity. Rainwater catches on the roof will route water to a 10,000-gallon cistern that will provide water for the school’s toilets. (For an expanded list of different strategies Chartwell and company are using to go really green, see “Constructive Materials,” this page.)
Each of these details, and dozens more, are closely reviewed by the US Green Building Council in accordance with their constantly evolving 69-point Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, rating system. Their evaluation involves six major categories:
• Sustainable sites: Is it accessible by bike, and is there access to public transportation? Is the site well selected to protect habitat and maximize resources?
• Water efficiency: Are there innovative wastewater technologies in place? Have landscaping water needs been reduced by 50 percent?
• Energy and atmosphere: Is there an on-site energy system (like solar panels)? Can the building function effectively at minimum energy?
• Materials and resources: Is the construction team using renewable materials from nearby providers? Is 50 percent of waste being diverted from disposal?
• Indoor environmental quality: Are low-emitting adhesives, paints and carpets being used? Is there daylight and views from a high percentage of spots in the building?
• Innovation and design process: Does the design team (the architect, owner and contractor) deserve the equivalent of bonus points for meeting the intents of LEED in new and creative ways?
Newly constructed buildings are “certified” LEED if they earn 26 points out of 69. They earn a “Silver” rating for at least 33, “Gold” for 39, and “Platinum” for satisfying 52 or more criteria. Rapose says that very little about building green requires any more work than normal—besides the paperwork to earn their LEED rating.
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Within view of the building site is the old single officer barracks. With broken-window eyes and stiff cement shoulders, it sits like an embittered elder frozen in its antiquated ways.
Atkins says the close-at-hand example of Fort Ord was helpful in evolving their big-picture building philosophy, a philosophy which already enjoyed a natural resonance with Chartwell, a progressive school where children with learning variations are treated holistically.
“Fort Ord was our local example of lessons learned,” he says, “that yielded superior construction practices.”
They’ve even earned a “design to deconstruct” grant from the Environmental Protection Agency for employing practices like using windows and doors that can be recycled, all in an effort to avoid creating acres of unusable buildings like those that dominate the former military base.
In no uncertain terms, Atkins says the old barracks building represents history. “Everybody not doing this in five or 10 years will be a dinosaur,” he says. “The writing is on the wall.”