Feature Article - September 2009
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Green Up

Trends in Eco-Friendly Facility Design

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Inspiring Example:
Washtenaw Community College Health and Fitness Center, Ann Arbor, Mich.

This school not only wanted a new health and fitness center, they had very specific goals in mind—green goals that led to a structure certified LEED Gold. Built on the site of a former soccer field and just yards away from the Huron River, the Center provided a lot of opportunity for design creativity, which is how the gold certification came to be. "We focused in on aspects of the project that users would touch and feel on daily basis," explained Robert (Bob) McDonald of Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative. "You don't have to sacrifice being comfortable to be in a LEED-certified building." And, to ensure things were being done exactly right, Project Manager Mike Fleming actually came to live in Ann Arbor for the project's two years of construction. The result? A variety of sustainable measures, from excellent air circulation to lighting that uses sunlight whenever possible, ensure that the 76,000-square-foot space is warm, open and inviting. The Center also nestles nicely into the surrounding campus. It's positioned near public transportation and includes plenty of bike storage for those who pedal in.

Starting Fresh

If you're preparing to construct a new recreation facility, you have the most possible options for incorporating green elements. "The biggest thing with a new facility is site selection," said Robert Braun, AIA, LEED AP, of Langdon Wilson Architecture Planning Interiors in Irvine and Los Angeles, Calif., as well as Phoenix, Ariz. "If you're smart about where you put the building it really sets the direction for the success of design." For example, "you want to take advantage of regional transportation," he said. "[And] you don't want to go into green space and convert it to a building." Braun was project designer for the Titan Recreation Center at CSU Fullerton (certified LEED Gold), which was constructed on a former parking lot. "A big black space that radiated the sun's heat was reduced by putting in a recreation center and a parking garage," he said. "Those now have cool roofs [made of light-colored materials] that reflect radiant energy, rather than being a heat sink."

Once you've chosen your site, the building's design presents your next chance for greening things up, and recreation structures lend themselves particularly well to this goal. "The major spaces in a recreation center—the gym with a running track; the fitness area that includes all the equipment, recumbent bikes, weights and elliptical machines; the circulation spaces; and a possible aquatic center—are almost 70-percent big-volume spaces," said Douglas L. Shuck, AIA, NCARB, a principal at WTW. These vast, open expanses are well suited to introducing natural daylight through walls or the roof and incorporating energy-efficient HVAC systems, he noted, as opposed to an office building that may have lots of smaller spaces.

"Recreation centers are traditionally energy hogs," McDonald added. "It takes a lot of power and natural gas to heat and cool and light and maintain these kinds of facilities, so in terms of the biggest bang for the buck, that's usually on the energy-saving side."

Some sustainable strategies are ages-old, like geothermal heat (which borrows the earth's warmth for the building), and some are new developments, such as photovoltaic (solar energy cells) to heat water for the pool. And speaking of pools, McDonald noted that aquatic-area water-saving strategies also capture the attention of many of his clients. Traditional sand pool filters "have to be backwashed nightly or every other night, which means you're dumping gallons of heated and treated pool water down the drain…. But now we have regenerative filter technology, which is effective at filtering out organic matter. You do have to backwash, but every couple weeks versus every other day, and it also uses less water—essentially just one filter-tank-full of water is needed to backwash, not hundreds of gallons."