Green Up

Trends in Eco-Friendly Facility Design

By Jessica Royer Ocken

It has gotten a little easier to love the earth.

Although constructing recreation buildings (or sprucing up the ones you have) in a green or sustainable way still takes some extra planning and effort, it's not a task reserved solely for those who crunch granola while hugging trees and admiring their huge budgets. Costs are coming down, and in a lot of ways, green design just makes sense—whether it's saving on energy costs, conserving water, providing a healthy atmosphere for patrons or being a good steward of resources that tops your list of priorities.

"Five or 10 years ago, [sustainable design] was something new that we would present to a client and try to educate people about," said Robert (Bob) McDonald, AIA, LEED AP, senior principal at Denver's Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative. "Now almost everyone is aware of it. They've heard of LEED [the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification standards], and they're interested in it. It's being adopted a lot more frequently."

The technological innovations, sustainable materials and design/construction techniques that make a building greener are being used more broadly in all types of projects (not just recreation), so they're easier to find and less expensive to use, and as they conserve energy, they also lower operational costs. Think LED lights and motion sensors to automate temperature and lighting controls, for example. In addition, when you take into account the purpose of recreation buildings—promoting exercise and healthy entertainment—sustainable design is a particularly good fit. "A healthy building and the well-being of the public go hand-in-hand," said Edgar Farrera, AIA, LEED AP, director of sustainable design for Marmon Mok Architecture in San Antonio, Texas.

The eco-aware architecture firms at the forefront of green design for recreation facilities note that many of their projects are on college campuses. "Colleges and universities are increasingly under pressure from students and donors to be good stewards of environment," Farrera explained. "Many have policies for sustainable building, and the same for communities and cities. Many cities have voluntarily adopted green building standards."

This means green building requirements for park districts and community recreation structures across the country may not be far behind. "Eventually, in another 10 to 15 years, we won't even be writing about LEED," said Erik Kocher, AIA, LEED AP, a principal and partner at Hastings & Chivetta, an architecture firm based in St. Louis. "It will just be what you do." In fact, many eco-friendly firms, such as those we chatted with for this story, say their basic approach to building design is often green enough to earn LEED certification without much extra effort. This gives them, and their clients, the freedom to get creative and push for LEED silver-, gold- or even platinum-level certification.

Inspiring Example:
San Antonio YMCA, San Antonio, Texas

Using an existing space (rather than carting it off to the landfill and starting over) is a very green concept. "The greenest building is the one that's already there," said Edgar Farrera of Marmon Mok. The San Antonio YMCA has recently purchased several abandoned grocery store buildings and is converting them into gyms and natatoriums. "That's a great reuse of a building that's difficult to move [on the real estate market]…. Now instead of blight—a big vacant box getting tagged [with graffiti]—they have a facility to promote health," he said. "It's a win-win all over the place."

To LEED or Not to LEED

The LEED rating system awards points for making sustainable choices in several categories that cover a project from planning and design to construction and on through operation. Projects earning enough points can be LEED certified, and are awarded silver, gold or platinum status if they are particularly high-scoring. Points categories include:

Site Selection: LEED encourages transforming a parking lot or other previously developed site into a building, rather than taking up green space. This category also looks at issues like landscaping with plants appropriate to the region and managing erosion and stormwater runoff.

Water Efficiency: LEED looks for smart water management inside and outside the building. Points earned in this category often come from installing efficient fixtures and appliances, as well as managing runoff through smart landscaping.

Energy & Atmosphere: This category encourages innovation to minimize the amount of energy needed to run the building, including heating and cooling of air and water. Points are awarded for particularly efficient systems, as well as those that use alternative sources of lighting such as sunlight (rather than artificial light) and solar energy (instead of electricity).

Indoor Environmental Quality: Selecting natural materials that don't "offgas" chemicals into the air, as well as creating spaces with daylight and pleasing acoustics can earn points in this category.

Locations & Linkages: LEED also looks at how a building fits into the community around it. Is it constructed near public transportation and green space? Does it repurpose a previously developed site?

Additional LEED points can be earned for Awareness & Education, if building owners provide those using the structure with the tools they need to maximize its green features; Innovation in Design, if the project goes above and beyond to incorporate eco-friendliness and enhance performance; and Regional Priority, if the building addresses challenges, such as water conservation in the American Southwest, that are of particular importance in that area of the country.

Based on these general categories, LEED provides specific checklists for new construction, operation and management of existing buildings, homes, schools, healthcare structures and more. Visit the U.S. Green Building Council's Web site at to learn more about LEED certification, including the latest requirements for LEED 2009, the third revision to these standards, which was introduced in April.

Although LEED certification can be prestigious, the process of having a project assessed for certification does add some cost, and this official recognition is not essential for a building to be environmentally friendly. In some cases, park districts or college campuses opt to incorporate the sustainable design elements that make sense for them—and perhaps even use the LEED certification checklist as a guide—without actually spending the money to have their project documented for LEED certification.

"We often work with clients who just want to be sustainable at a level they can afford," said Joseph W. Nagy, AIA, LEED AP, an associate with WTW Architects of Pittsburgh, Penn., and Colorado Springs, Colo. "They don't want the expense of documentation, so we build a perfectly sustainable project without documentation."

It can be helpful to determine early on whether or not LEED certification will be something you want to pursue. "Decide if you're going for certification or if you just want to do what we've been calling 'street smart' design," said Ohlson Lavoie's McDonald. "Book smart goes for certification and tries to get LEED points, often at quite an expense, whereas street smart just looks at sustainable ideas and implements those that make sense financially and responsibility-wise," he explained. Even if you decide to go for certification, "you don't have to get every point possible," he noted, but you need to decide what points you're going to pursue, because this impacts not only the design team and your choices about materials, but the contractor as well. "They've got to be aware that it's a LEED project because they need to handle materials correctly, provide dust control, stormwater management and recycling for construction waste," he added.

So how do you determine whether to pursue LEED certification? "In my experience, [the decision is] more of a PR or marketing-type thing," McDonald said. His firm does a lot of work with medical facilities, and "in terms of the [wellness] message a hospital group is trying to send, having a LEED-certified building fits in well." LEED certification could be a boon for a health- and fitness-oriented recreation buildings as well. "Lots of users are looking for that," McDonald explained. "If they have a choice between a club that's certified versus one that's not, if all other things are equal they may choose the one that's certified [in terms of] indoor air quality standards, water standards and sitting lightly on the earth."

In some cases federal or private grant dollars may be available to support sustainable building projects, and local utility companies may offer discounts to green buildings. So it's important to inquire about these opportunities and whether LEED certification is essential to qualify, or if incorporating sustainable practices is enough.

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."

Inspiring Example:
Athletics and Events Center for Ithaca College, Ithaca, N.Y.

"We used about every strategy we know on this building," said Moody Nolan's Troy Sherrard about the new recreation facility currently being constructed for Ithaca College. He's particularly proud of the way they've tackled the common recreation facility conundrum of how to manage an oversized space and provide the air-handling mechanics needed for its maximum use, like graduation or another special event. For this facility, the answer is a dramatically eye-catching (and highly functional) ventilation tower. More than just a striking feature of the building's entry fašade, the solid tower will channel hot air like a stack, while cool air is brought in through louvers. This effect will allow the field house to condition only the bottom 20 feet of the space—where the activities and those watching them will be found. This will reduce the building's cooling requirements by more than half.

The materials you select will also contribute to the building's sustainability. "Typically our [materials] specifications, for all of our projects, are on the more environmental side," said Alan Harmon, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP, a project manager with the Recreation and Sports Studio at Marmon Mok. "Low-VOC paints are not just for LEED points, they're better for us, for the contractor, and the end user…. We also use pervious pavers around the site, which allows drainage from the building to avoid overflow." Rather than using the maple flooring traditionally found on basketball courts, Marmon Mok is now considering sustainably harvested, rapidly renewable bamboo flooring that meets the German rating performance standards for ball bounce. "One of greatest things about a product like that, in a recreation center with a couple of basketball courts, that's a large square footage," Harmon said. When an office opts for bamboo countertops, they get the satisfaction of having made a good decision, but the actual environmental impact is fairly small. Changing the flooring in a rec center, however, yields a significant result.

Choose materials with a high recycled content for areas like weight room flooring and jogging tracks, suggested Kocher. Look for lockers made of recycled materials—or use recycled lockers. Recycled or partially recycled ceiling tiles, steel, carpet and linoleum are also possibilities. Or choose wood that's been harvested according to Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standards. (See for details.)

"Take advantage of technology," advised Troy Sherrard, AIA, LEED AP, an associate principal architect with Columbus, Ohio's Moody-Nolan Inc. "Install occupancy sensors—anything to help automate the building and keep humans out of the picture." Humans, after all, are notorious for leaving the lights on when they exit a room and the water running the whole time they're at the sink.

"These [automated] devices are getting better," said Sara R. Boyer, AIA, LEED AP, an architect with Moody-Nolan. "You don't have lights out in the middle of a meeting because there's no motion." Sensors can also make sure areas are heated and cooled only when they're in use, or when carbon dioxide levels reach a certain point (the gym can get a little hot and sweaty, after all). Other technology tricks include using low-flow toilets and shower heads to save water, and opting for on-demand water heaters, which are installed near the locker rooms and save energy by just heating water when it's needed.

To really take things to the next level, find creative ways to reuse the byproducts produced by the building itself. Water that flows down the sink or shower drain may be useful for watering plants outside, and collected rainwater can also keep the landscaping happy.

"Pools offer a number of challenges, in terms of being a hot, humid environment with intense ventilation and mechanical needs, but you can also use them as a heat sink," noted Farrera. "Take the excess energy from air conditioning; that heat can be used to warm the pool area rather than sending it outside as you would normally, so you've got free heating."

And that's not the only sort of energy that can be harnessed and reused: "One of the coolest things I've been researching recently is the ability to harness kinetic energy generated by kids on cardio equipment," said WTW Senior Associate Larry Payne, AIA, LEED AP. Elliptical trainers and recumbent bikes can be linked to the building's electrical system and made to power the lights as exercisers pedal. And if the riders are really dedicated, extra energy can be sold back to the local power grid. "That, in conjunction with educational displays that show how the building functions from an energy standpoint, raises awareness of sustainability for the everyday user and offers the potential for LEED innovation credits," Payne noted.

Also remember that sustainability is not just about the finished product. The way you build and manage your construction site are also important factors. "When constructing, put in wet materials like paint that may offgas a bit before you put in any materials that might absorb those odors," Payne said. "Sustainability begins in design and continues through construction and the life of the building."

Inspiring Example:
Dakotah! Ice Center, Prior Lake, Minn.

Minnesotans love their hockey, so the 214,000-square-foot Dakotah! Sport and Fitness facility had been well-used and well-loved since it opened in 1994. In fact, in 2008, another 63,223-square-foot ice arena was added to the complex and the Center became home to the Prior Lake High School boys' and girls' hockey teams, as well as the Prior Lake Hockey Association. This new center was constructed with an eco-friendly mindset, and to top things off (literally) it's crowned with a 32,648-square-foot green roof. Made of pumice, ground coconut husks and pine bark, the roof is planted with sedum, which will grow six to eight inches tall and shield the roof from the sun, extending its life. The roof includes a viewing area where the public can have a first-hand look at how the growing is coming along, and 16 solar panels collect sunlight to heat the water used to resurface the ice.

This large-scale green roof project will be studied carefully in the coming years by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, which owns and operates the center, and the information they gather will be shared with the public and with others considering green roofs. Visit to learn more.

Getting Green

The fact that sustainability is not something that's finished when the building is complete means day-to-day operations should keep the earth, and the health of your patrons, in mind. "Building your facility as a high-performance green and sustainable structure is important and key, but it is only the first step," Farrera said. "If you look at most facilities, only 20 percent of the effort goes into building the facility, and 75 percent is the operation of the building over its life…. How [the building] is maintained and used, that actually ultimately will have a more profound impact on the environment than its opening day."

This also means that even existing buildings can be upgraded and operated in a more eco-friendly way, and sticking with what you have can earn you some LEED points right off the bat. "Don't wait for a whole new building," Sherrard said. "Take steps today. Change to LED lights, use green cleaning supplies, renovate your building before you build a new one—that's the ultimate form of recycling as long as it works. If you're adding on to your building, do it the smartest way possible. You could break down parts of the old building and use them."

And once again, LEED can be your guide, whether or not you decide to pursue certification. Have a look at their guidelines for existing buildings, which focus on maintenance and operations, and offer lots of inspirational ideas. "Choose plumbing fixtures that save water," suggested Boyer. "You can do that in a new project or in a retrofit—low-flow shower heads, toilets with dual flush or lower flow, and automatic hand sensors that use less water."

Think about energy use as well. "Just replacing lighting in a space [with] more efficient lighting or adding different controls—dimmers, photo cells, motion sensors—can cut back drastically on the energy used to light and cool the building (as lights give off heat)," McDonald said.

Switching to green cleaning is another favorite fix among these experts. A change to natural housekeeping products "lowers chemical contaminants and VOCs in the building, so it immediately upgrades the whole indoor environmental quality for users," said Langdon Wilson's Duane Fisher, AIA, LEED AP. As an additional bonus, it may also save you some green. For example, some of the universities Langdon Wilson has worked with have swapped paper cleaning materials for microfiber cleaning cloths that can be washed and used over and over again, noted Nagy.

Other easy tips from these green gurus include:

  • Start a recycling program at your community center or fitness area.
  • Add blinds to a big bank of windows to keep heat out during the summer, and let natural light in during cooler times.
  • Think about scheduling and use your buildings efficiently. You can shut down the mechanical system in parts of the building that aren't being used for a period of time.
  • Evaluate your current energy use by reviewing historical records to see cycles and trends in your spending. Then try energy-efficient light bulbs or low-flow plumbing fixtures or improved irrigation and plant choices for your landscaping and see how the savings add up as energy costs rise!

Inspiring Example:
The Dudley H. Davis Center, University of Vermont, Burlington

This state-of-the-art student center is certified LEED Gold, and each point was meticulously earned at each phase of the project. More than 92 percent of the construction waste was reused or recycled, and even more amazingly, more than 95 percent of the two buildings deconstructed to make way for this project was recycled or reused, including concrete rubble reused as underlay for paths and roads surrounding the building.

But this project is also an excellent example of the social benefits of sustainability. One of the University's goals was to use local materials whenever possible, explained WTW Architects' Joseph W. Nagy. They wanted to use brick from a local manufacturer, even though an initial cost estimate showed it could be obtained more cheaply from a national manufacturer and shipped in. They approached the Vermont Brick Company and explained their project—and their need for 300,000 exterior bricks. They were able to come to an agreement and placed an advance order that kept the factory running, and their staff employed, through the usually slower winter months. It was a boost to the local economy, in addition to avoiding the carbon footprint of shipping in bricks from somewhere else, and the University felt good about the way they were attaining their green goals for the project.

Taking Action

With a bevy of ideas now in hand to inspire you, all that's left is action. But this is another way in which embarking on a sustainable project, be it new construction or the greening of your current situation, is a bit different. Sustainable practices are inherently collaborative—whether a design team and construction crew are working together to recycle materials from the building site or whether the janitorial staff and building managers are brainstorming strategies to conserve energy and reduce waste during day-to-day operations—so talking together about your goals with everyone from the maintenance and housekeeping staff to managers to architects and design professionals is key to effective action.

Because doing things in a sustainable way is an ongoing process, it's also important to have everyone who will be involved on board from the beginning. Don't be surprised if some education is required to get to your goal, as "green," for some, may still carry the stigma of being mainly the purview of hippies and also rather expensive. But don't despair. "Sustainable design is rapidly taking on the approach of the triple bottom line," Payne said. "For the longest time it was thought of as just a way to help the environment. Then people realized it can save them some money, too. And now, especially at the university and government levels, we're finding out that, in general, people want this to happen, so there are positive social benefits that can be realized." With three ways to win, what are you waiting for?

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