The Brock Environmental Center is Alive

Hourigan Construction helps build the Brock Environmental Center, which is not only LEED Platinum, but is also seeking a Living Building Certification.

The 10,000-square-foot building will serve as the hub for CBF’s Hampton Road office and support its Chesapeake Bay education, outreach, advocacy and restoration initiatives.
The 10,000-square-foot building will serve as the hub for CBF’s Hampton Road office and support its Chesapeake Bay education, outreach, advocacy and restoration initiatives.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s (CBF) Brock Environmental Center was named in honor of Joan and Macon Brock in recognition of their generous $3.5 million leadership gift toward this ambitious project, which obtained LEED Platinum and is seeking a Living Building Challenge certification. If this certification is achieved, the building will be the most environmentally sustainable building in the United States.

Located in Virginia Beach at Pleasure House Point on the Lynnhaven River, this environmental education facility will focus on promoting preservation, sustainability and education. CBF raised $10 million for land acquisition and construction of the state-of-the-art Living Building; $5 million for programs to improve water quality, including advocacy, environmental education, restoration and outreach; and $5 million to endow the center and its programs.

The 10,000-square-foot, one-story building will serve as the hub for CBF’s Hampton Road office and support its Chesapeake Bay education, outreach, advocacy and restoration initiatives. In addition to offices for CBF and partner groups, the Center provides meeting rooms and exhibit display areas, and an 80-seat conference room designed to express CBF’s mission to defend one of the nation’s most valuable and threatened natural resources – the Chesapeake Bay.  

With six employees as LEED Accredited Professionals, seven employees as members of the U.S. Green Building Counsel (USGBC), and four employees who are members of the International Living Building Institute, Hourigan Construction was up to the challenge of the CBF vision.

They have previously constructed five LEED certified Naval Facilities in Norfolk and Virginia Beach and the LEED certified AECOM Regional Office in downtown Norfolk, VA.

Hourigan started design on the project in October of 2012; the following September, construction began.

“The goal was to build one of the most sustainable building in the world,” Chris Brandt, executive vice president of Hourigan Construction says. “The project team of 60 people was tasked with designing and building it.”

Hourigan was already involved in sustainable construction practices, but Brandt says they wanted to take it to the next level by becoming a part of a Living Building Challenge.

[What is a Living Building?]

The Living Building Challenge, a program of the International Living Future Institute, has redefined the meaning of sustainability within the green building movement. This non-governmental organization is committed to catalyzing a global transformation toward true sustainability resulting in a future that is socially just, culturally rich and ecologically restorative across development at all scales—from new construction and renovation, to infrastructure, landscapes and neighborhoods.

To qualify as a Living Building, the project must adhere to specific regulations within seven primary sustainable design categories, known as petals, in regard to the International Living Future Institute’s dandelion logo, which include the following:

  • Site
  • Water
  • Energy
  • Health
  • Materials
  • Equity
  • Beauty

Certification is based on actual performance, so projects must meet all criteria for twelve consecutive months of operation before the certification can be completed.

Currently, only five projects in the world have received this certification while twelve others have entered their twelve-month operational phase required prior to the audit. At this level of sustainable performance, these projects can truthfully claim to be the “greenest” buildings found anywhere and will serve as role models for projects to follow.

The Brock Environmental Center is one of these projects that is attempting to be known as a Living Building.

“The building lives off the environment," Brandt says. "There’s nothing else like the Living Building Challenge out there. A Living Building uses every source of natural and renewable energy -- including wind, solar, earth and water -- to provide power for the building rather than power coming off the grid.”

[Achieving Net-Zero]

Brandt explains that this makes the building net-zero for energy use. SmithGroupJJR designed the building to use very little energy by incorporating a series of aggressive, energy-saving features such as natural ventilation, natural daylighting and sunshading, highly efficient geo-thermal heating and cooling, and super insulation. 

“Sometimes the building is using energy from the grid, but sometimes it’s giving energy back. You’re using the sun, wind and geo-thermal energy to power the building," he says.

Brandt explains that when the building cannot power itself with its photovoltaic cells and wind turbines, for example on a cloudy day when there is no wind, the building will then run off the grid.

"The idea is that you produce enough energy throughout the year to power the building and give energy back to the grid; you’re offsetting any energy usage taken from the grid,” Brandt says. 

Another aspect that contributes to being net-zero is how the building uses water. A collection system will store rainwater in tanks under the building and then filter it for hand-washing and drinking through a state-of-the-art water filtration system licensed by the State of Virginia’s Office of Drinking Water. The Center features waterless, composting toilets, and all grey water (wastewater generated from sinks and showers) will be channeled through a wetland constructed of native plants where natural processes will clean and return it to the underground aquifer.

“This is the only building in the world that captures its rainwater, filters it and treats it for drinking,” Brandt says.

The Center is on track to be the first commercial-scale building in the continental U.S. to earn net-zero water status.

[Material World]

Hourigan also had to be very mindful of the materials they used during construction to qualify as a Living Building.

Brandt explains that the Living Building Challenge does no allow use of certain products deemed harmful and placed on the "Red List." The Red List requires manufacturers disclose the ingredients in their products to ensure that they are free of Red List chemicals and materials.

"Items like PVC are on that list," Brandt says. "Even though the pipe itself is not harmful, the manufacturing process of the piping uses harmful chemicals during production. The Living Building Challenge is trying to avoid products that are harmful to people and the environment.

"If you know anything about construction, how do you build a building without PVC?” Brandt continues. “This is what the red list is about. It makes the project that much more difficult to design and construct without using your normal construction materials.”

Much of the building materials used on this project were salvaged, re-used or reclaimed from other sites around the area as a requirement of the Living Building Challenge. Some of this reclaimed material included ‘sinker cypress’ which comes from the swamps of Louisiana.

“Back in the 1800’s, they used to do logging and they floated these logs down the Mississippi,” Brandt says. “Many of them were log jammed and they sunk to the bottom of the river. After 150 years, these items have been retrieved and we used them on the outside of the building. They’ll last for 60 years or more.”

The construction crew also used a gym floor from a local high school and barn siding that was going to be thrown away as material for the floors in the building. Mirrors and toilet accessories from a local hospital demolition were re-purposed in the building, and the Rainwater Cistern and reception desk millwork were constructed from salvaged pickle barrels. Hourigan also salvaged doors from other buildings, and even re-purposed used wine bottle corks for the hardware to open the doors.

“A lot of different items were salvaged from other products so that we didn’t have to buy something new,” Brandt says. “The less you have to fabricate, the less carbon footprint you leave on the environment from a new manufacturing standpoint. You’re using the old and refurbishing them. That’s part of the Living Building Challenge, creating a carbon-free footprint.”


A large part of material selection on this job was determined by the term “sourcing.” Different weight materials have different distance requirements in terms of where they can be obtained from in relation to the jobsite.

“Heavier materials, like structural steel, can only be brought in from within a 500km radius from the project site for sourcing,” Brandt says. “You bump the distance up to 1,000km, and you can obtain lighter materials, like wood and plastics. Jump to a 2,500km radius and you can get paper and lightweight ceiling tiles and carpet.

"The heavier the product, the closer it has to be to the project," he continues. "This cuts down on trucking, has less effect on the atmosphere, and is friendlier on the environment. The Living Building Challenge really hates cars, trucks, and any type of transportation.”

[Clean Construction]

Hourigan Construction used cutting-edge building techniques in constructing the Center in order to minimize environmental impacts. In addition to using toxin-free building materials not on the Red List, sustainable measures used during construction included solar-powered tools and paperless construction documents.

“We brought in a mobile photovoltaic cell on wheels to provide temporary power to the site,” Brandt says. “About 50 cells provided enough power to run the tools on the job.”

Normal construction equipment noise was reduced by the use of filters and baffles on the exhaust systems of operating equipment. Hourigan placed these devices on backhoes, excavators and even pumps, retrofitting their existing equipment with these filters and silencers to reduce their carbon footprint on this project.

“We placed a catalytic converter, just like what’s on your car, on these machines,” Brandt says. “These converters stopped the fumes from turning into carbon monoxide that gets released into the atmosphere. It cleaned the exhaust just as the filters do on the discharge that come out of your car. We put the sound baffles and filters on most of the equipment we used on the project to lower noise pollution and emissions.”

Companies working together on the site would also share equipment to keep noise and emissions down.

“When you have a piece of equipment on the site, you’re not usually using it 100% of the time,” Brandt says. “You use it for a while, then it sits. They tried to be efficient in the use of all equipment.”

Slings or, in effect, construction equipment ‘diapers,’ were also used so no equipment discharge would be deposited on the building site.

“We used geotextile fabric and hooked it to the underside of the carriage on each piece of equipment,” Brandt says. “In theory, this material catches any fluids, mostly hydraulic, that would spill out of the machine.

“The fabric catches the fluid, but as you move the equipment, it’s hard to keep the fabric tight. The machines are hot, so you have to leave the fabric hanging down and it just catches on things and tears. It’s an imperfect science, but through the use of these diapers, we attempted to minimize the spilling of hydraulic fluid and motor oil.”

Brandt says the fabric itself is inexpensive to purchase if there is a need for keeping fluid waste off a site. The challenge comes when you need to repair and replace the fabric over the course of a project.

“If you put it on once, you have to put one on 20 times. The thought and the process is right, but it’s still imperfect,” Brandt adds.

Finally, Hourigan’s on-site construction offices used less energy and water than normal system sites. Instead of piping in treated water from the public grid, a 100’ freshwater well was installed to use existing water for construction use.

[Beyond LEED]

The CBF occupants were trained in the day-to-day operations and measurements of the renewable technologies. A 12-month measurement period is planned to commence in early 2015 and continue until early 2016. The Living Building Challenge certification is targeted for mid-2016.

The ultra-green Brock Environmental Center is just the latest CBF initiative to push the boundaries of sustainability. The Foundation started with the 2000 completion of its Annapolis, MD, headquarters building, the Philip Merrill Environmental Center, also designed by SmithGroupJJR. In 2001, the Merrill Center became the world’s first LEED Platinum building and was soon-after recognized as an international model of sustainability.

“What LEED Platinum was when we were designing the Philip Merrill Environmental Center, the Living Building Challenge is now,” says Greg Mella, SmithGroupJJR project manager and design architect. “Back then, we were designing to do less harm to the environment. Now, we’ve designed a building that could actually improve the environment.”

Brandt agrees, adding, “LEED Platinum, the highest certification you can get from the USGBC, tends to come pretty easily once you apply the Living Building Challenge to a project.”  

Brandt estimates a Living Building is 10 to 20 times more sustainable than a project that has been LEED Platinum certified.

“On a job like this, it’s not about saving money,” Brandt finishes. “The purpose of the project was to show that something like this could be built; that a building could live on its own.

“These buildings do not leave behind a carbon footprint, they do not put harmful chemicals in the air, and that’s the key,” he says. “The hope and goal is that more and more people start doing this, so the process becomes less expensive, and in turn, even more people start doing it.”