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May 15, 2012

Archbold Station: The Ecology of LEED Platinum

 

Another building achieves LEED Platinum, big deal.

It’s encouraging that what was once a rare accomplishment in high-performance building design is now becoming commonplace, maybe even to the point that it’s hardly news. But a small organization hitting LEED Platinum in a rural and ecologically threatened area on a tight budget in a hot, humid climate is not so easy. And going even beyond LEED in these tough circumstances is certainly laudable.

On a preserve in south-central Florida, two new buildings, the Archbold Biological Station’s Learning Center and Lodge, recently achieved LEED Platinum–largely by significantly reducing energy consumption and without generating power on-site using photovoltaic panels. (RMI consulted on the designs.)

Archbold’s new buildings draw inspiration from two places—existing buildings on the site designed by the Roebling Wire Company/John A. Roebling’s Sons Company, the same engineering firm that designed the Brooklyn Bridge; and the unique and diverse ecology of the site—says Archbold Executive Director Hillary Swain.

For the past 16 years, Swain has worked in one of five now-historic buildings that were built 1929-1930 for durability and embraced passive design features that have helped keep the staff comfortable in often-extreme conditions. “The buildings are extremely beautiful examples of sustainability. We were inspired by those buildings. There’s nothing that will live up to their standard of construction,” she says.

The Archbold staff and board of trustees wanted the new buildings to be just as enduring and easy to maintain. And because they are ecologists, they wanted to save water and energy. Archbold’s purpose is biological and ecological research and education around conservation of the Florida scrub ecosystem. “Our mission is ecology. We are really pre-adapted for sustainability,” Swain explains.

The Florida scrub region gets 52 inches of rain a year, with two-thirds of that in summer. Winter droughts follow months of excess rain. Water conservation features of the new buildings include a rainwater harvesting system with a cistern that holds 5,500 gallons, providing more than 80 percent of the water needed annually to flush toilets for both buildings. “All of this is mimicking the economy of nature,” says Swain.

Calling on her training as a biologist, when she talks about design decisions for the new buildings, she explains how the design imitates light-harvesting plants and shade-loving animals: “Animals position themselves in places that are cool and shady when it’s hot.”

Providing shade on the outside of the buildings was important to reduce cooling loads. Two-thirds of the square footage is air-conditioned while the rest is passive with screened and shaded open corridors.

Since the buildings opened in December, Swain says, “It has been a great pleasure to notice how people enjoy the outdoor space. They prefer to use it. It’s like a family home where you are always on the deck.” The interpretive signage will be outdoors as well. “Students and visitors see science, technology, engineering, art, and math. We also want the public to understand technology as well as nature,” she says.

Beyond LEED

Interpretive signage not only helps Archbold’s teaching mission, but also brought LEED points to the project. While Swain feels the rigor of going through LEED Platinum certification is a good organizational framework, she points to a few areas where the design team made sustainability choices that are not emphasized by LEED, though perhaps they should be.

The landscape design for Archbold incorporated a beautiful, biodiverse native prairie surrounding the buildings that Swain says will maintain itself, enhance the building’s educational mission and provide substantial water savings. While this contributed to credits for sustainable site development and water efficiency, LEED does not account for the positive carbon impacts of native site restoration. Nor does LEED have a calculation for the negative carbon impacts associated with disturbing the land in the first place, which for Archbold happened when the land was cleared in 1931. Even so, Archbold made a deliberate effort to keep the footprint small and within the previously cleared land.

“LEED doesn’t necessarily take an incredibly long view,” Swain says. “Inspired by our historical buildings, we were looking for 100-year buildings. There is no LEED reward for selecting durable materials.” Some in green building even take the reverse approach—disassemble and recycle, rather than assemble for longevity. “We made a lot of durable decisions, “ she says. Finally, she notes, “It’s really hard to do in rural areas. Many LEED credits prioritize urban areas, and can be nearly impossible to achieve in rural areas.

“We’d like to be a model for rural areas, precious areas, with threatened and endangered species. We are really hopeful that we can be a role model for environmentally sensitive places with restricted budgets, ” Swain concludes.

Contrary to what most people had told them, however, Archbold staff found that LEED Platinum did not cost that much more. “We saved a lot of money because of the intensive planning process. Our engineers managed to achieve all LEED energy points without using photovoltaic panels.”

Platinum on a Budget

Archbold achieved LEED Platinum and a high-quality, durable building with construction costs of $214 per square foot. This compares with about $150 per square foot for typical new commercial construction in Florida, according to Swain, but costs can be more for institutional construction. Design and construction of the buildings cost $4.17 million, with funding largely from private gifts. Archbold is still actively seeking donations to recover expenses.

“In the long term (15-20 years), we will recover the costs. For anyone with a longer view, it pays,” says Swain.

Archbold received a grant [from the Kresge Foundation] to cover some initial costs to achieve LEED Platinum, which allowed it to do extra planning and modeling, and hire Rocky Mountain Institute. Archbold board member Sebastian de Atucha, a green builder and treasurer of Archbold's Board of Trustees, brought in RMI. (Jeff Mudgett of Parker Mudgett Smith served as architect and TLC Engineering did the engineering.)

"When Archbold was ready to move forward with this building project, I knew that we wanted to build a very high-performance building and that we had to get RMI involved as they were the leaders in green building," says de Atucha.

"RMI provided invaluable support to Archbold throughout the process,” he continues, “and, in particular, at the beginning as we were trying to capture the chaos of ideas, goals and ambitions that were flying around during the initial design phase and that would set the direction for the whole project."

“Our involvement was trying to focus on creating an integrated design process as a way of achieving Platinum,” says Erik Bonnett, who handled the Archbold project at RMI.

Bonnet managed the full gamut of RMI services on Archbold: energy modeling, daylighting, carbon calculation—using RMI’s carbon calculator Green Footstep, life-cycle cost analysis, and two design charrettes.

“Any design process is driven by the desires of the owner. When you have an owner like this who considers it an important part of the mission, that’s what allowed this building to achieve LEED Platinum and be really high-performing. They were willing to come back meeting after meeting to make the important decisions,” he says.

Bonnett, who is now getting his Master’s of Architecture at the University of Oregon, is in a certificate program for teaching building science, a direction he says came in part from his work on Archbold.

“The personal part of the story,” he says, “is that LEED Platinum buildings are transformative for the people who work on them.”

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