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Walking the Walk

The U.S. EPA leads by example with its newest laboratory — a LEED Gold-rated project

November 01, 2003 |

For officials with the U.S. General Services Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the New England Regional Laboratory in North Chelmsford, Mass., represented more than a new $18 million testing facility: It was an opportunity for the agencies to demonstrate their commitment to the environment.

"It gave us an opportunity to put our money where our mouth is," says Bob Beane, the laboratory's facilities manager.

The EPA was in need of a more modern facility, having occupied its existing regional laboratory for 20 years. After years of planning, GSA invited developers to submit proposals for a new laboratory site that it would again lease. "They realized that the state of lab use and how things were done had changed," says Jeff Dewey, who at that time was the project manager for Acquest Development, Buffalo, N.Y., whose proposal eventually was selected.

The GSA signed a 20-year lease with Acquest for the 67,000-sq.-ft. facility, which stands on a 12-acre site that was once a sand and gravel pit. Dewey, who now is employed by Boston-based iStar Financial (which has since purchased the property), says the site was selected according to the EPA's geographic requirements. Though the site isn't located near a mass transit line, Dewey says its location "at the cross hairs" of a major radial interstate highway (I-495) and a north-south connector (Route 3) enables the laboratory to better and more efficiently serve each of the New England states.

Completed in June 2001, the laboratory is comprised of chemistry and biology laboratories for analysis of air, water, sediment, and toxic waste. Ecology field monitoring and air monitoring also are conducted from the facility.

Ratcheting up the green

From the start, the EPA stressed sustainable principles, such as increased energy efficiency. But the project already was into construction in 1999 when the GSA and EPA decided to pursue certification under the U.S. Green Building Council's newly introduced Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system. "We wanted to make the lab a model for sustainability," says the EPA's Donald Porteous, director of the facility.

With the sustainable gauntlet thrown before them, Acquest's Building Team regrouped and rethought the project. To keep costs down, the developer chose to do the project design-build. However, because the project included so many decision makers, consultants, and specialty design-builders, Dewey characterizes the project as "modified design-build."

The developer held retained contracts with the project's construction manager and general contractor, Erland Construction, Burlington, Mass., and the A/E firm of Bernard Johnson Young (now Bernard Johnson Corp.), Rockville, Md. But the GSA held the contract with the LEED consultant, Architectural Energy Corp. (AEC) of Boulder, Colo., after it was added to the team.

In the end, what made the project successful was "that everybody committed to it early on, once it was decided to go for Gold [certification]," says Chuck Vaciliou, vice president and director of strategic development for Erland.

Additional sustainable elements were incorporated into the project in an effort to attain a LEED Gold certification under Version 1.0 of the program. Toward this end, the GSA brought in AEC "to provide structure and foundation for scoring the certification," says Brad Linden, Bernard Johnson's principal-in-charge. "The EPA's original solicitation contained green requirements, but AEC added things, such as a recycling program, which included reuse of materials and management of waste on site."

Achieving enough points to qualify for a Gold certification, the next-to-highest certification in the LEED rating system, proved difficult, not only because the project already was under way, but because the building was a laboratory. Laboratories typically require 50% more mechanical systems than an ordinary office building, according to Erland.

"[The USGBC is] trying to establish LEED criteria specifically for this type of building, but right now the program is geared more to office buildings," says Linden. "Laboratories are such massive energy consumers that it's difficult to score a lab facility to LEED scoring criteria because there are so many things in a lab that are energy crunchers."

Energy efficiency is paramount

According to the EPA, the building is at least 35% more energy efficient than a typical lab. This was achieved by participating in the local utility's energy conservation program, Massachusetts Electric Design 2000plus, and through the installation of energy-efficient M/E systems.

"The redundancies necessary in laboratories are sometimes contrary to energy efficiency," says Caroline Clevenger, the LEED-accredited coordinator for consultant AEC. "We tried to make sure that the equipment was properly sized, so that when the equipment was running, it was running efficiently."

The systems include: six modular gas-fired boilers, two water-cooled chillers, high-efficiency motors and variable-flow pumping systems, variable-air-volume heating and cooling systems with night and low-occupancy system setbacks, and an automated building management system.

Lighting technologies employed include energy-efficient lights, daylight dimmers, occupancy sensors, and extensive use of skylights to bring natural light into the building. A unique skylight application involved the use of a solar-reflective tubing system. In one of the first commercial installations of the product, sunlight passes through parabolic reflectors that intensify and conduct the light into interior reaches of the building.

The most visibly unique feature of the building is the use of grid-interactive photovoltaic awnings, which are rated at 2,000 watts peak. The system provides a small amount (about 4.5 kilowatt hours a day) of electricity to the building's electrical distribution system. Clevenger says the amount of energy supplied to the building is "almost token, but it's a start."


In addition to reducing glare and heat gain through windows, specially designed photovoltaic sunshades at the U.S. EPA’s New England Regional Laboratory in North Chelmsford, Mass., provide power to the building.

While the PV system represented an added cost to the project, EPA's Porteous says the system reflects the agency's desire to make the project a showplace. To reduce the cost of adding the awnings to the project, the manufacturer and members of the Building Team "waived their cost markups for the change," says Dewey. "That whole change was done at cost."

One of the additions to the project, the PV system wasn't yet on the market when the building was in design, and Erland wasn't able to access the product until after construction had begun. As a result, the contractor had to determine how to mount the system to the window mullions and feed the power hook-up leads through the mullions to the inverter without compromising the weather-tightness of the window system.

Adding the PV awning system stressed the construction schedule, says Erland's Vaciliou. "We were scheduled to have it all buttoned up by winter," he says. "But in adding the system, we had to enclose a section of the building that we didn't plan on."

According to the EPA, the use of 100% green power from purchased or generated wind-power electricity doesn't reduce energy costs. However, it does reduce conventional greenhouse gases that would have been emitted from conventional power sources. The laboratory's electrical contractor, Green Mountain Power of Vermont, provides enough green power to match the lab's electrical consumption — an estimated 2 million kilowatt hours per year.

The efficient and safe use and disposal of water and wastewater are tenets of the LEED certification process. In restrooms, waterless urinals and electronic sensors on plumbing fixtures were installed and contribute to a 22% savings in building water use, according to the EPA.

To reduce the consumption of water for irrigation purposes, rainwater run-off diverted from roof drains replenishes on-site wetlands. A well on the property supplies a portion of the facility's nonpotable water for minor irrigation. Use of indigenous species of trees and shrubs requires less water.

Wastewater in the laboratories is piped to a state-of-the-art acid-neutralizing system within the building. The system's two-step process prevents contaminants from entering regional wastewater plants. If the wastewater isn't completely neutralized during the two-step process, it is piped into a 500-gallon holding tank.

Approximately 8,000 yards of blasted ledge was processed on site and used to construct a retaining wall around the property. Crushing additional ledge and using it as sub-base for the building and entry road avoided having to transport an additional 785 truck loads of material off site.

Recycling of construction debris was emphasized in the project, a process that was new to most of the subcontractors on the project at that time. Debris was separated and deposited into several dumpsters on site. During construction, more than 50% of construction waste was diverted from the landfill.


Special dome-like skylights mounted on the roof feed sunlight through solar tubes installed in the ceiling.

Subcontractors schooled in green

The LEED process was daunting, especially for the subcontractors, says Erland's Vaciliou. "It was really a learning curve," he says. "Initially, there was resistance on the part of some of the subs because they were called upon to do more on the project than they normally would do."

Because of the way the process works, it requires "communication across disciplines," says AEC's Clevenger. "You have the mechanical engineer sitting down and discussing the project with others that they might not otherwise be involved with."

Educating its own employees, as well as the subs, about the LEED process was critical, Vaciliou says. Low-VOC materials were required. Carpeting had to be unrolled and "gassed off" off site before being installed. "You'd say to a sub, 'You need to use low-VOC materials' and the sub would say, 'But this is what we always use,'" says Vaciliou. "The roofers weren't used to the new low-VOC adhesives either. But after they started using them they liked them because they didn't smell like the other adhesives."

The building received its Gold certification last May. EPA facilities manager Beane termed the project the best experience he'd had in 36 years. "Everyone worked well together," he says.

Raising the sustainable goals well into the project significantly increased its level of complexity, according to the Building Team. "There was a kind of disconnect between the total communication of the goals," says Vaciliou, which resulted in an increased cost in having to redo things, such as reconstructing windows whose elevations were changed. Achieving the Gold certification added $264,000 (1-1.5%) to the total cost of the project, Vaciliou says. "A large part of the extra cost was the window change."

Bernard Johnson's Linden adds, "It was not the way we'd like to have a project work. Our configuration was challenging because we were trying to meet the criteria, and on the other side, the dollars are the forethought of the owner. Acquest put a priority on LEED criteria and a lot of decisions went that way."

Although AEC often has taken on projects where LEED certification was an afterthought, with this project, Clevenger says, "A lot of times we felt as if we were pursuing a moving target."

It's difficult to say if the project would have gone Gold under LEED 2.0, says Clevenger. "Some of the points we received we wouldn't have gotten under 2.0. We got more points for using green power under 1.0 than we would have under 2.0. But we would have gotten more points for commissioning under 2.0."

LEED Cost Summary

Sustainable site planning $11,200
Energy efficiency 119,000
Conserving materials & resources -1,050
Indoor air quality 47,500
Safeguarding water 35,800
Design excellence 20,000
Additional general costs 32,463
Total LEED cost $264,913
Total building cost $18,500,000
Cost per sq. ft.. $272
Total LEED cost per sq. ft. $3.89
Energy saved per year $80,000
Simple payback for LEED 3.31 years

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