Off-the-shelf ecology

Careful product selection and green design principles inspire EPA regional headquarters

May 01, 2001 |

Most heartening to advocates of sustainable construction are those projects for which commercial viability is the top project criterion. When green design emerges organically in design development — rather than as part of corporate image-building or a built experiment testing an environmental group's mandate — it proves what defenders of sustainability have always maintained: That sound ecological decisions make good business sense.

Such was the case for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) new regional headquarters building in Kansas City, Kan. While intended for a tenant that understands green design, the design/build project was actually a market-rate, build-to-suit development for the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) with a per-square-foot rental ceiling.

Many of the project's sustainable features were proposed in response to a GSA "solicitation for offers," or SFO, by a design/build team led by developer Koll Real Estate Group (now Koll Corporate Development), Dallas, with Los Angeles-based A/E Langdon Wilson Architecture Planning Interiors. Others were approved change orders after the award was given.

"Clearly, we understood what the EPA's mission was and tried to design a facility that met those base-building needs," says Walter J. Mountford, executive vice president with Koll. After earning the initial award, he adds, "We said, 'Here are additional opportunities.'"

Green rider

The procurement approach used by GSA — called "source selection" — was not standard at the time, says Robert W. Bukady, a project construction manager in the Region 7 area of the EPA. "These are competitively bid projects, but price is not the main selection criterion," he explains. "The solicitation encouraged as much innovation as possible from the designers." The SFO did include an open-ended "green rider" that said the GSA and EPA would favor proposals that featured sustainable elements.

"The 'source selection,' or 'best-value' method of procurement means that the project has to meet the government's needs financially, technically and architecturally," adds Madelynn C. Garffie, contracting officer for the GSA's Region 6, who signed the lease with Koll and oversaw construction. "In my opinion, we did not pay one penny more to make it green or sustainable — it was bid as a plain office building."

For project planners, the SFO meant a challenge unlike the typical low-bid government lease project, says David von Oeyen, director of design with Langdon Wilson. "The GSA said, 'This is the maximum we want to pay; now give us the best-quality, professional class-A building you can,' rather than, 'Who can give me the cheapest building?'" he recalls. "That was unique. It was nice to have a sensitive and motivated client you could respond to."

As a result, the building team was able to incorporate such elements as an indirect lighting scheme, a large skylit atrium with trees and a fountain and numerous products with high percentages of recycled content (see the table at left). Most of the products employed, say participants, were "off-the-shelf" specifications.

Tough act to follow

Yet, in spite of its financial discipline and environmental prowess, this project is an unlikely model for others, especially those in the private sector. Unique circumstances and a peculiarly deep project team actually opened doors for an environmental intent that is hard to achieve in typical commercial settings.

For example, the site itself was a gift from Kansas City and an EPA brownfield site that once contained a derelict hotel, a gas station and an underground battery storage area, says agency spokesperson Bill Landis. "What visitors saw was not a pleasant view," he recalls. In 1995, the EPA was happy to abandon seven rundown offices scattered throughout the city for a new home base, and the economically and physically distressed city was eager to see a new building rise on the prominent riverbank site.

Thus, the office project's "geopolitical context" heavily influenced the design of what became a kind of symbolic gateway structure, says von Oeyen. "Our focus was how to design the best building for the city that was sensitive in terms of fitting in," he explains. "The red granite exterior relates formally to the brick color of the downtown, and the superscale relates well to its strong physical context of bridges, gorges and rivers. At the same time, we wanted to urbanize the [front] of the building."

The GSA and EPA found more than a welcome mat for real estate development. The municipal utility would later offer highly favorable electricity rates, for example, inducing the team to select an all-electric HVAC system. Local surplus gravel would be sourced for use in precast elements, and nearby coal-fired generation plants would provide 1,000 tons of fly ash for the foundation concrete mix.

"Also, our contractor used crushed concrete from the demolished hotel as a roadbed, saving them thousands of dollars on what would otherwise have been waste-hauled debris," says William G. Reger, building-management and recycling specialist with GSA.

Another unique aspect of the project is the building team itself, which in addition to Reger includes GSA energy consultants and EPA chemists and environmental specialists. In the private sector, such an army of consultants would be costly and hard to assemble. Last, the team was predisposed to many environmental tenets because of EPA's self-imposed rules on recycling, pollutant emission, hazardous storage and occupant safety.

Inspired results

Still, the results are hard to contest: an inspirational workplace with productivity-oriented features such as daylight, ergonomics and recycled or low-toxicity materials.

The project's only less-than-sustainable feature, perhaps, is its all-electric building systems, which rely on energy-squandering coal-fired power, says Douglas J. Benton, GSA mechanical engineer. "You can achieve 70 percent thermal efficiency when natural gas is burned on site. An all-electric system is 100 percent efficient, but the power plants are more like 40 percent efficient," he explains. "You have to compare site energy efficiency vs. source energy efficiency."

For other specified assemblies, energy-efficient or recycled content was championed by EPA specialists and Langdon Wilson's interior designer, Robert Puleo. The "green rider" was a starting point, says Marc Matthews, an environmental engineer with EPA. "We started looking at EPA's 'Comprehensive Procurement Guidelines,' which give ranges of recycled content that benefit consumers without jeopardizing the quality of materials," he says, adding that EPA worked with the GSA and Koll to "bump the percentages higher but still buy off-the-shelf."

Other more fortuitous green selections included the use of a small atrium fountain for acoustical control. "There was a concern about ambient noise, and we discussed some white-noise systems," says Mountford. "Ultimately, we determined that an equally cost-effective solution would be to add the fountain."

In the end, the EPA project left little doubt that government agencies should pursue sustainable design goals, says Garffie. "The GSA now has a policy in place, and we have to design green."

Building team

Developer: Koll Corporate Development

Architect: Langdon Wilson

Structural engineer: Martin & Huang

Electrical engineer: Fred Brown Assoc.

Mechanical engineer: Tushiyama Kaino

Lighting designer: Sylvan R. Shemitz

General contractor: Koll Construction

General information

Area: Approximately 200,000 gross square feet

Construction time: December 1997 to June 1999

Project suppliers

Concrete: Ashgrove Products

Exterior glazing: Viracon

Wall insulation: Owens Corning

Stone, countertops, flooring: Cold Spring Granite

Washroom partitions: All American Metal

Plumbing: Crane, Sloan, Simmons

Wood doors: Oshkosh

Plastic laminate: LSI

Patio pavers: Westile

Wall, floor tile: Terra Green

Carpet: DuPont

Wood and vinyl trim: Woodcraft

Lighting fixtures: Finelight, Thomas Co.

Lighting controls: Watt Stopper, Motorola

Ceilings: USG Corp.

Wall coverings: Koroseal

Interior coatings: Sherwin Williams

Environmentally sensitive building products (Recycled content in EPA headquarters specifications, including post-consumer content)

Category Specification Benefits Recycled content
Insulation Fiberglass Efficiency and energy conservation Glass cullet: 50% (EPA guideline: 20-25% total recovered materials)
Concrete Mix includes coal fly ash and ground granulated blast-furnace slag Improves concrete strength, stability Coal fly ash: 10% Granulated slag: 20% (EPA guideline: NA)
Windows Insulated windows, window overglazing Energy savings Materials: 60% (EPA guideline: NA)
Carpet and adhesive Recycled nylon fiber, SB latex resin emulsion Recyclability and low toxicity Nylon: 50% Adhesives: 10% (EPA guideline: NA)
Paint Reprocessed latex No VOCs Latex: 30% (EPA guideline: 20-99% total recovered materials)
Primer Latex No VOCs Latex: 30% (EPA guideline: 100%)
Washroom partitions, finishes Steel, plastic laminate Uses recovered metal and plastics Steel: 10% Plastic: 30% (EPA guideline: 20-30% total recovered materials)

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