Green For Green's Sake
Eco-Friendly Facilities & Operations Yield Economic, Environmental Savings
By Wynn St. Clair
The way Americans approach environmental issues took a dramatic turn in May 1999, when Will Rogers challenged the country to rethink its reasons for going green.
"Show me a healthy community with a healthy economy and I will show you a community that has its green infrastructure in order and understands the relationship between the built and the unbuilt environment," said Rogers, president and CEO of the Trust for Public Land.
His words, spoken at the White House-sponsored Town Meeting for a Sustainable America, turned the conversation away from the idea that environmental stewardship was solely a moral imperative. In the 21st century, it's has quickly become a fiscal one as well—a fact that recreation managers are embracing with groundbreaking structures and creative initiatives.
Soaring energy costs, for example, have led to increased interest in so-called green buildings, structures designed to be energy-efficient, water-conserving and protective of air quality, among other things.
Several facility managers nationwide have turned to the LEED—Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design—Green Building Rating System to help them achieve their eco goals. The voluntary standards and certification program recognize structures that are more environmentally responsible, healthier and profitable.
The rating system offers four certification levels for new construction (certified, silver, gold and platinum) that are achieved via credits in five green design categories: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality.
When the University of Arizona began an expansion project on its student recreation center, school President Robert N. Shelton's construction policy called for the project to earn at least a LEED silver certification. It was an ambitious goal, but the project team welcomed the challenge with a design and construction practices that increased longevity while reducing the negative environmental impacts and improving occupant well-being.
As the team, led by staff Senior Architect May Carr and Facilities Project Manager Brian Dolan, completed the design they realized that, because the UA already has so many sustainable programs, systems and design standards, the campus was accumulating enough preliminary points on the SRCE project to possibly achieve Gold certification. Midway through the $27.5-million project, team members learned that platinum certification, the highest level for sustainable construction, was in reach at no extra cost to the project.
In the end, the 54,000-square-foot building, which essentially doubled the facility's existing recreation space, exceeded the Platinum threshold by four points and opened in November 2009. The certification made the UA Student Recreation Center Expansion project the first LEED platinum university recreation facility in the country.
"It is absolutely unique and phenomenal to set out to design and construct a facility with a silver certification goal and to then achieve platinum—but that is exactly what happened," said Peter Dourlein, the university's assistant vice president of planning, design and construction. "When we consider that some folks set out for silver- or gold-level certifications and do not achieve them, this is a real testament to the university's ongoing sustainable practices. This is also reinforcement for selecting a high-quality, collaborative team and a process for design and construction that works toward all parties crossing the finish line together. Being sustainable and green isn't just a catch phrase, it's moving up on the shopping list that excellent students, faculty and staff use to determine where they live, learn and work. The campus recreation staff here not only recognized that, but led the charge to achievement."
The certification was a major accomplishment for the university, which has long prided itself as a leader in designing and constructing energy-efficient, sustainable buildings. In fact, the entire campus has been deemed a "living and learning laboratory for sustainability." This has manifested itself in many ways. The UA has a hyper-efficient central plant that utilizes systems like creating ice on summer nights, off peak, for use in cooling during the day. It also boasts solar electric and solar thermal, co-gen turbine generators, highly efficient boilers and a network of underground chilled water and steam serving the campus.
Throughout the entire project, the team aimed to keep student wellness and sustainability an inteogral part of the design. The design team also accessed the expertise of campus sustainability leaders—those who teach sustainable design and construction or work daily to integrate green initiatives in their services.
The impressive project features a series of courtyards that provide for outdoor recreational activities such as yoga. There also are volleyball courts, shaded covered walkways and a larger space devoted to the center's Outdoor Adventures, a terrific resource for students to rent equipment and participate in organized outdoor trips, classes and events.
Inside, the expansion provides a significant new fitness center, a large cardio mezzanine and a multi-use athletic court gymnasium. "The SRCE is a visible symbol of the university's commitment to student health and wellness," Dourlein said.
Natural light is used to the maximum capacity with major building spaces oriented so that light is prevalent throughout the facility, yet direct sunlight is controlled by the building's signature roof overhangs. Water harvesting, high-efficiency lighting and plumbing contributed to the platinum LEED rating.
The construction team also used recycled materials wherever possible—from the recycled rubber for the flooring to recycling the parking lot upon which the center was built. About 20 percent of the building's materials are recycled content. And much of those materials come from within 500 miles of the site, which reduces both shipping costs and greenhouse gases from long-haul transportation.
Nearly all of the waste material from the construction process was recycled, thereby avoiding adding to the landfills and, in some cases, actually producing revenue from the sale of the recycled materials. The result of these sustainability goals being achieved is a significant cost savings over the lifecycle of the building. They'll end up paying for themselves many times over, Dourlein said.
The floors in the cardio equipment area are made of a recycled content rubber product, which is both highly functional and aesthetically appropriate. In other areas, simple exposed concrete floors were utilized, though the floor was ground down to expose the aggregate and create a highly polished surface. These concrete floors are very low-maintenance and rival the looks of a high-dollar terrazzo product without the need to add more materials and chemicals to the building. Similarly, exposed ceiling structures provide low-maintenance surfaces and create visual interest.
"Highly creative use of everyday, average local products helps to meet both sustainability and aesthetic goals while being fiscally responsible and durable," Dourlein said. "These spaces achieve our goal of not just facilitating function, but inspiring it."
The team also employed leading-edge technologies to lower energy costs. Members utilize dual-pane, argon-filled glazing systems with thermally broken frames and selected lighting control systems that automatically and variably modify the amounts of electrical lighting depending upon the exact amounts of natural daylight available. The mechanical systems, connected to an efficient central plant, are carefully metered and controlled to utilize as much outside fresh air for preconditioning as is prudent given the temperature and humidity. These controls and systems save nearly 51 percent of the energy as compared to the baseline, Dourlein said.
In an important and creative twist, students also were involved in the project as a way of educating future construction and design leaders. Students in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' soil, water and environmental science program, for example, helped in the project's sustainability by making physical improvements and adaptations in the ways that the site and landscape capture and use rainwater, making the most of every rainfall.
The finished product—along with its groundbreaking platinum certification—has created quite a stir on campus, where students have given an enthusiastic endorsement of their new recreation space.
"The students feel that their fee dollars have been appropriately and judiciously utilized to create high-quality, sustainable and very much needed spaces," Dourlein said. "We also know we achieved success because the students and campus community will be the first to tell you this facility belongs to them."
Not every green project, though, needs to be as grand as the University of Arizona's history-making endeavor. There are little things every recreation manager can do to be a bit greener.
In Dublin, Ohio, for example, officials installed a green rooftop at the Dublin Community Recreation Center. The 2,300-square-foot rooftop, a labor of love for the city engineer tasked with educating the public about storm-water issues, features two rain barrels to harvest rainwater for the rooftop plants, and a rain gauge to measure how much water is being diverted from nearby South Indian Run stream.
The green rooftop also includes a walkway, a small patio and educational signage for use during guided tours. There's even a little rabbit that lives up there.
"We weren't sure what the public reaction would be, but they love it and they love the idea of it. It's a significant improvement from what was there," said Jamie Adkins, the city's sustainable programs manager. "We thought this location would benefit the community the most because the recreation center is a community gathering space that also has high visibility."
The roof's benefits include a reduced volume of storm water, along with the pollution that water can carry, flowing off the roof. It also improves climate control efficiency within the building, extends the life of the existing roof and provides aesthetic visual benefits.
The city is working on making the rooftop—and its ecology mission—as accessible to the public as possible. Officials are working at establishing guided tours because safety concerns prevent the public from being able to just wander around the roof on their own. They'll also put the roof's rain gauge information on the Web site and compare that data with the numbers from other areas of the roof that are not yet green so the public can see the difference.
"This was a huge opportunity for us to get the community engaged on this topic with all of the benefits to the environment," Jamie Adkins said. "Plus, it's also really pretty."
In addition to the $22,230 allocated by the city, the project was paid for with a $50,650 grant from the Ohio Environment Protection Agency's Surface Water Improvement Fund. The fund's primary objective is to improve water quality in the state's lakes, streams and rivers—a goal Dublin has met with its rooftop.
"We didn't need it to meet our stormwater requirement, but it certainly helps," Adkins said. "If you have a flat roof, it is well worth the educational investment for the community. It's also a good example for the community. That was our goal: to show them not only do we talk the talk, we walk the walk. It's a small step, but it's a really good step."
In Elmhurst, Ill., the park district also has taken a step toward cleaner, greener parks by partnering with a Colorado-based company to deliver an eco-friendly dog waste program to its parks.
The initiative included the installation, supply and upkeep of waste bag dispensers made from 100 percent recyclable aluminum. The dog waste dispensers are maintained by crews driving hybrid vehicles, and are filled with 100 percent biodegradable bags, designed to naturally deteriorate within 18 months. Much like the district's popular adopt-a-park program, the service is funded at no cost to taxpayers through cause-marketing efforts by businesses and organizations.
The Colorado-based company actually sought out the local business to fund the project. Participating companies receive advertising both on the dispensers and the individual bags themselves.
"We calculate it's saved us over $9,000 a year when you consider the savings of vehicle expenses to maintain the dispensers, the cost of the waste bags, etc.," said Megan McNamara, the park district's marketing specialist. "That's a priority for us. We're always looking at any way we can to save taxpayer dollars."
The Colorado company hires people from the community to refill the dispensers and maintain the signage, meaning there is no extra work for district employees. The public response has been extremely positive, with the park district expanding its original offering of 12 dispensers in eight parks to 29 dispensers in 19 parks.
"It's an eco-friendly pet waste service that's even creating jobs in the local community," McNamara said. "It's good for the environment and good for the taxpayers. It's a win-win."
In Preble County, Ohio, park officials tackled a different kind of waste in a green way. The park district recently installed an environmentally friendly toilet that uses no electricity, water or chemicals in Allen & Adaline Garber Nature Center. The eco-savvy commode does not discharge liquids, chemicals, sewage or odors into the environment, minimizing many of the inconveniences of the traditional portable restrooms.
Although not a composting toilet, Preble County's new restroom treats and stabilizes human waste through dehydration and evaporation. The waste is reduced into an inoffensive, dry, ash-like material, which is then disposed of according to local county, state and federal regulations.
When Preble County purchased the environmentally friendly toilet for its nature center, the restrooms were relatively new to the Ohio market with only one other park using them. Though there is always some risk with being a trailblazer, park officials did their homework and decided the toilets would be the best way to protect the nature center creek that feeds into Twin Creek, one of the state's best streams of its size in terms of water quality and which carries the designation of being an exceptional warm water habitat.
"As a park district we try to do everything we can to be environmentally friendly, and this installation seemed to be an acceptable solution to a difficult problem," said Mary Hayes, the park district's grant manager.
The restroom, which is handicap-accessible, is located about half-mile from the nature center building, in a forested area where a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk and hiking trails exist. With no utilities out there—no water, no electricity, no gas—it would have been cost-prohibitive to dig a well and run underground power lines to the site, Hayes said. With the eco-friendly restroom, all the district needed to do was obtain a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency.
The facilities also have won rave reviews—something recreation managers rarely hear when it comes to outdoor toilets.
"When one talks about parks and restrooms, the images of an outhouse or a concrete enclosure automatically come to mind," Hayes said. "But everyone who visits our (new restroom) is amazed."
When embarking on initiatives such as these, it's important for recreation managers to demonstrate and instill in patrons the importance of creating a sustainable environment. The Rockford (Illinois) Park District's dedication to this idea is reflected in the rules for birthday parties at SportsScore Two, a recreational activity complex with 19 regulation soccer fields and 14 outdoor practice fields, five sand volleyball courts and an indoor sports center containing three multi-sport surfaces.
Though the park district has an overall environmentally friendly perspective, SportsScore Two takes it an ambitious step further with its party packages. The complex has the impressive goal of hosting parties in which the only waste products created are recycled napkins, which even then only fill up half a lunch bag.
"We decided to do this because our park district is really trying to do green," said Becky Starks of the Rockford Park District. "We decided if we started out young by concentrating on our youth, they would continue throughout their lives."
The facility does not use any paper plates or Styrofoam at parties, opting instead to scoop ice cream into dishes made of recyclable materials. When the parties end, the staff carefully sort and separate the waste, designating them for the recycling bins or compost heaps.
Organizers rely upon reusable party decorations such as biodegradable balloons and colorful table linens to create a festive atmosphere. The chairs in the room also have been reupholstered with—what else?—recycled fabric.
"Our party decorations are even made with felt so they are all also reusable," Starks said. "Everything down to the piņatas are made from recycled materials."
To discourage guests from bringing presents covered in gift wrap, the complex offers a 10 percent discount to anyone who brings their gift wrapped in a brown paper bag. This particular initiative has led to a lot of spirited and creative decorating on the kids' part, Starks said.
"We're really trying to educate kids because the more we recycle, the more green we can be and the better that is for everyone," she said.
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