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CASE STUDY 3

Thoughtful, Intentional Decision-making Leads to a Better Building for People and the Environment

Brock Environmental Center is among the first in the nation to embrace energy and water independence

By Greg Mella, SmithGroupJJR

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation set out to create the most sustainable building possible for the new Brock Environmental Center, This aspiration included a new mindset on the materials for the new building.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation built the Brock Environmental Center to engage, inform, and inspire generations about the environment and how people can all help Save the BayTM. The Foundation’s goal was to create the most sustainable building possible. This aspiration included a new mindset on the materials for the new building.

The project team established specific goals for materials selection:

  • Avoiding materials that contain 14 “red list” ingredients;
  • Requiring disclosure of the chemical constituents of building materials;
  • Pursuing locally sourced materials to the greatest extent possible;
  • Maximizing the use of salvaged and reclaimed materials; and
  • Purchasing wood products certified by the Forest Sustainability

These goals were components of the client’s pursuit of the Living Building Challenge and LEED Platinum certification. Additionally, the foundation saw the correlation between material impacts and the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Given this, another goal was to set a high benchmark for others to follow.

Key Strategies For Success: Avoid chemicals of concern by using natural materials and products with minimal processing

The design team met those goals using a systematic but novel process for materials selection. They embraced a philosophy that the safest way to avoid chemicals of concern was to use natural materials and products with minimal processing, like metals, wood, stone, and concrete. This approach was consistent with the project’s design goal to connect visitors to the project’s unique site through the material palette.

Key Strategies For Success

#1: The team embraced a philosophy that the safest way to avoid chemicals of concern was to use natural materials and products with minimal processing, like metals, wood, stone, and concrete

#2: An all-day charrette was used to create and document a methodology for materials research and to “divide and conquer” upon realization of the magnitude of the task

#3: Incorporating salvaged and reclaimed materials wherever possible simplified materials research, and selecting natural, bio-based materials also lessened the need for complicated ingredients research

As A Result

Today the Center is an innovative example of environmentally sensitive and smart building—among the first in the nation to embrace energy and water independence—and advances CBF’s efforts to defend one of the nation’s most valuable and threatened natural resources, the Chesapeake Bay.

As selections progressed, the design team contacted manufacturers to learn whether their products contained red- list chemicals. Initially, they were satisfied with a manufacturer’s letter indicating that the product was compliant, but over time we realized that a more rigorous approach was needed. Some manufacturers stated that their products complied, but red-list ingredients were found in their literature or in MSDSs. These were not deliberate attempts to deceive, but rather reflect how few individuals within a company actually know what is in the products they make, combined with the complexity of chemical accounting. (While the red list has only 14 ingredients, these contain over 300 chemicals with unique CAS numbers.)

The approach was modified to pursue a full accounting of materials, preferably via a health product declaration (HPD). The team assumed a product did contain red-list chemicals unless they could vet for themselves a complete list of ingredients. Occasional exceptions were needed if manufacturers indicated a small portion of the ingredients were proprietary, and those exceptions were accompanied by advocacy letters encouraging greater transparency.

An all-day charrette was used to create and document a methodology for materials research and to “divide and conquer” upon realization of the magnitude of the task

Key Strategies For Success: Create and document a system for roles and responsibilities in large scale projects

Materials research involved all project stakeholders. The contractor, brought on during early design, shared the research effort with the architect, subcontractors, owner, and their representatives. An all-day charrette was used to create and document a methodology for materials research and to “divide and conquer” upon realization of the magnitude of the task. Figure 1 illustrates a portion of the process established during this charrette and shows the role materials transparency played in the selection process.

Many of a building’s components are guided by generic performance specifications instead of proprietary specifications (e.g., lumber, wiring, piping, small accessories). The architect researched the proprietary products while the contractor and subcontractors vetted the other products.

Subcontractor involvement was valuable, given the role subcontractors play in determining the specific products that make up a building.

Figure 1: Materials Selection Process Courtesty: SmithGroupJJR

Key Strategies For Success: To reduce costs, select salvaged and reclaimed materials wherever possible

The team found that products with good disclosure of ingredients do not have a cost premium; however, the potential soft costs associated with material research can be significant. They used approaches to reduce this fee impact. Owner, architect, and contractor each hired interns to assist with the research. The initial charrette established a clearly defined process and tools to organize research, allowing a smooth hand-off to interns. Incorporating salvaged and reclaimed materials wherever possible (siding, flooring, trim, doors, lavatories, tile, granite, and hardware) simplified materials research. Selecting natural, bio-based materials also lessened the need for complicated ingredients research.

Lessons Learned

The team’s work contributed to a building with fewer potentially hazardous chemicals and more intrinsically safe materials based on a thoughtful, intentional decision-making process. These attributes contribute to a better building for people and the environment.

While the team knew that getting disclosure of ingredients would be hard, they believe that as more and more teams ask for this information, the burden will be reduced significantly for teams that follow. They committed to publicly sharing their materials research by posting it on their website. They update it regularly, at http://www.smithgroupjjr.com/info/ transparency/.

The benefits of their efforts are not immediate, but in time, as more teams demand HPDs, others will have the ability to make more informed choices about the products they include in their design. To quote Justice Louis Brandeis, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” As manufacturers embrace greater transparency, people are beginning to see their efforts pleasantly accompanied by the elimination of chemicals with known health hazards. That is the end goal and justification for the research and advocacy on this project.