Where Passion Prevails

A trio of projects — a speculative office building, a renovated storefront, and a nature center — show how sustainable design can mold a building's very soul

November 01, 2003 |

A Speculative Office Gamble

Many speculative office developers consider sustainable design an expensive and troublesome luxury that offers little return on their investment dollar. But in its EcoWorks at Southlake office park in Lenexa, Kan., the Zimmer Companies, Kansas City, Mo., see sustainability as a sales tool that eventually will pay dividends.

Completed last year, the first two buildings of the planned six-building, 300-acre Southlake Technology Park incorporate numerous sustainable elements, earning the project a Certified rating in the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design green building rating program.

The two buildings, totaling 130,000 square feet on 40 acres, are the first LEED-certified buildings in the Sunflower State, but they are not Zimmer's first foray into sustainable design. The developer combined with the Kansas City, Mo.-based firm of Gastinger Walker Harden Architects (GWHA) on the 1997 historic renovation of the former New York Life building in Kansas City, Mo.

When the LEED program came along in 1999, Zimmer chairman and CEO Hugh J. Zimmer saw it as a means to give his company "a competitive niche ahead of the marketplace."

The Building Team, which included GWHA as architect and Kansas City, Mo.-based J.E. Dunn Group as the general contractor, at first planned to gain a Silver rating for the project, says Kevin Harden, GWHA principal. But with the project already in design, the team had to lower its sights a bit to keep the work within budget.

The merits of possible sustainable elements had to be weighed against their costs, says Harden. "With a speculative building, we had to make sure the price range was in keeping with the marketplace." Ultimately, the project was completed for $7 million, which, Zimmer says, included a 5% premium for sustainability. He says the project could have attained a Silver rating, but he didn't think it judicious to "buy" the necessary points.

Natural light, energy-efficient and environmentally friendly building materials and systems, water conservation, and site measures are integral to the project. The orientation of the buildings maximizes available light; daylighting techniques, light shelves, and window shading have also been employed, says Harden.


The first two buildings in the EcoWorks at Southlake speculative office development in Lenexa, Kan., utilize key principles of sustainability, such as siting the buildings to maximize available daylight, to maximize energy efficiency.

The building is covered with a white, reflective TPO roof. Gypsum wallboard, insulation, metal studs, acoustical ceiling tiles, and carpet all contain a high recycled-material content. Low-VOC paints were used, and CFC refrigerants were eliminated in the HVAC and fire-suppression systems.

Energy efficiency gets a boost through the use of insulated glazing and water-cooled air-conditioning units, which have an economizer cycle. An integrated electronic DDC control system provides energy-efficient control. Wind turbines on site are used to power the buildings' interior common areas.

Low-flow toilets and hands-free faucets reduce annual water usage more than 30%. An existing spring-fed lake is used for irrigation. Native plants, rather than grass, were used to keep water demand down.

To ensure that tenants adhere to sustainable principles, the developer requires tenants to sign an agreement that they will comply with LEED criteria for tenant finish.

"The biggest benefit in environmentally sensitive design is the probability that you're going to get increased productivity from the people who work there," he says. "I don't think you're going to sell [sustainable design] on energy savings alone." He says, however, that developers like himself would like to see more research on whether green buildings actually do improve the productivity of occupant workers.

With the project coming on line just as the leasing bubble burst, rentals have been slow. Samsung Electronics is the sole tenant, occupying 7,000 square feet. But Zimmer remains undaunted, refusing to cut rates to fill the building. "We went into this as a long-range project," he says. "The idea was that we'd have to carry it for at least five years to realize a return."

More and more companies are adopting sustainable principles into their corporate ethic, Zimmer says, "and when they come to Kansas City, I want them to come to me."

A Shining Green Beacon

With the Pacific Ocean as a backdrop, the Natural Resources Defense Council's West Coast headquarters resembles a lighthouse in the midst of the dense urbanity that is Santa Monica, Calif. Containing offices and public learning centers, the storefront structure, which opens this month, is meant to set a standard of how buildings can reduce harm to the environment through the well-planned use of land, water, energy, and materials in attractive and practical ways.

At 15,000 square feet, the building, whose footprint is a tight 5,500 square feet, is being submitted to the USGBC's LEED program for Platinum certification, the highest ranking available. "The ability to achieve a high LEED rating has nothing to do with size; it has to do with ambition," says Jean-Maurice Moulène, director of business development for project designer Moule & Polyzoides, Architects and Urbanists, Pasadena, Calif. The general contractor was TG Construction, El Segundo, Calif., with Syska Hennessy Group, Los Angeles, as M/E/P and CTG Energetics, Irvine, Calif., as commissioning agent.

Located on a transit line in an urban, mixed-use district, the $3.81 million project originally was intended as a renovation of an existing building. However, the structure ended up having to be gutted, with only the exterior walls left intact. Ninety-eight percent of the materials left from the dismantling of the building and from the construction of the new one were reused or recycled, according to the NRDC. All materials used in the building either contain recycled content or are recyclable.

By capturing rain, shower, and sink water to irrigate landscaping and flush toilets, the building uses 70% less water than a conventional building of its size. Electricity consumption is reduced nearly 60% by maximizing natural light and using task lighting, dimmable electronic ballasts, and occupancy sensors. Photovoltaic cells on the roof produce 20% of the building's electricity.

With its composite clapboard exterior and large operable windows, the building is organized around a series of internal central lightwells that are designed to be reminiscent of lighthouses. "They start at the front and march through the building, bringing in natural light to a very tight, narrow infill building while creating a generous public circulation space," says Moulène. The lightwells culminate in a third-floor outdoor patio that overlooks the ocean and is surrounded by a collection of small seaside buildings.

Although the city of Santa Monica is known for its progressive green guidelines, Moulène says the Building Team's greatest challenge was in working with the city to gain the necessary approvals for the project. "Cities often have an enlightened leadership that is not carried through in their staff," he says.

An Urban Oasis in East L.A.

The dense urban community of East Los Angeles may seem an unlikely location for a nature center, but that's where you'll find Audubon Center at Debs Park. The 5,023-sq.-ft. facility is set in a 238-acre urban wilderness inhabited by coyotes and 138 species of birds.

The $4.9 million nature center, owned by the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, is scheduled to open this month. Its Building Team is seeking a Platinum rating under LEED Version 2.1 from the U.S Green Building Council.

An environmental educational facility for children and families, the center is a prototype for Audubon's national urban nature center initiative. It is also an outgrowth of the organization's green building practices that began in 1990 with the refurbishing of a historic building in New York City into its national headquarters, Audubon House, by the Croxton Collaborative, New York, N.Y.

"We have a unique opportunity to incorporate sustainability with educational outreach and share what we have learned with visitors to Audubon centers across the country," says Melanie Ingalls, senior program director, Audubon California. "Helping people see the choices they can make is one way to achieve our mission."

The relatively narrow L-shaped building is sited with a south and east orientation that maximizes daylight. The operable windows promote cross-ventilation and views of the natural landscape. The building's exterior walls, made from ground-face concrete block, have been left exposed on the inside and insulated and finished in stucco on the outside. In combination with concrete floors and high windows, the exposed interior walls flush out heat and maintain moderate temperatures within the building.


Audubon Center at Debs Park in East Los Angeles meshes classic structural elements with high technology.

Landscape features of the site include extensive restoration of more than 17 acres, including enhancement of existing oak and sycamore woodland and coastal sage scrub.

The decision to go Platinum came out of review of the possible cost of laying down more than 5,000 feet of electrical and sewer lines, says Chuck Davis, senior partner and principal-in-charge for designer EHDD Architecture, San Francisco. "We started thinking about the money that was required for the hookups and decided that it was an opportunity to go all the way," he says.

As a result of this decision, the electrical system was essentially taken off the grid and replaced with an on-site photovoltaic system that supplies energy for heating, cooling, lighting, computers, and offices. "The project has only one connection to the grid," says Davis.

More than 200 PV crystalline panels provide enough battery capacity for up to three days without direct sun. Should such a situation occur, power use would be prioritized on the basis of "load shedding," says EHDD senior associate Glennis Briggs.

Taking the center's wastewater treatment off the municipal system required special permission from the city of Los Angeles, says Briggs. Pending city approval, 70% of gray and black water will be recycled for toilet flushing. The other 30% will be recycled back into the soil through an anaerobic subsurface dispersion field. Waterless urinals will reduce water use by an additional 25%.

"Some of the systems are admittedly complicated, or at least seem that way because they're new," says Audubon's Ingalls. "We are committed to monitoring the results so we should be able to help others as time goes on."

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