​SmithGroupJJR's Design for the Brock Environmental Center Goes Beyond Green


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By Jean Nayar

Photography by Dave Chance

SmithGroupJJR designs a net-zero structure for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation
that reduces work footprints with the help of Teknion, and breaks
 new ground in
sustainable design

It’s not every day that a building makes history. But, in many ways, the newly constructed Brock Environmental Center in Virginia Beach, VA, has done just that. As the hub for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Hampton Road office, the Center supports the Foundation’s education, outreach, advocacy and restoration initiatives to protect the Chesapeake Bay—one of the nation’s most valuable and threatened natural resources. And because the sustainably designed, net-zero structure has broken new ground, not only has it caught the attention of its local community, but it also promises to stand as a model for new
sustainable commercial structures across the country. Of course, that bodes well for the planet overall, too.

In embodying a few calculated risks to push eco-friendly building into some largely uncharted terrain, the 10,520-sq.-ft. Brock Environmental Center has quickly rewarded its stakeholders with an abundance of successes throughout the course of its short life. “Our goal was to create the greenest building possible to reflect the Center’s mission to preserve the Chesapeake watershed and to serve as a teaching tool,” says Greg Mella, vice president of SmithGroupJJR, who was the project designer and principal in charge of the project. Like SmithGroupJJR’s design of the Philip Merrill Environmental Center, the Foundation’s predecessor structure in Annapolis, MD, and the first commercial building in the world to earn LEED platinum status in 2000, the new facility also earned top LEED certification. Lifting it to the next level, however, are integrated aspects that also put the project on track to garner certification by the more recent and more stringent Living Building Challenge (LBC) established by the International Living Future Institute. “When we began the project there were only two other commercial structures in the world that had achieved full Living Building Challenge certification,” adds Cheryl Brown, a principal at SmithGroupJJR.

When it was completed in November 2014, the Brock Environmental Center marked the conclusion of a successful community effort to save Virginia Beach’s 118-acre Pleasure House Point tract from an 1,100-unit development. Echoing qualities of the site and nearby shoreline, the narrow curved structure recalls the sinuous shapes of the live oaks, gull wings, and oyster shells that permeate its surroundings, while siding made from reclaimed 19th-century cypress sinker wood and zinc shingles reference the fish-scale and woodsy textures and palette of the site. Oriented on an east/west axis, the optimally insulated structure also embraces passive solar principles and includes triple-glazed operable windows that maximize natural ventilation and daylight with minimal heat gain. 


“Our goal was to create the greenest building possible to reflect the Center’s mission to preserve the Chesapeake watershed and to really serve as a teaching tool,” says Greg Mella, Vice President of the SmithGroupJJR

Teknion showed its commitment to LBC standards by divulging ingredients used in its products and eliminating toxic chemicals

Among the features that have enabled the building to achieve net-zero energy are solar panels and bird-safe residential wind turbines. “They’ve already allowed the Brock Center to produce 89 percent more energy than it has consumed,” says Christopher Gorri, Brock Environmental Center’s manager. Additionally, a rain collection system allows the structure to self-generate all of its own water needs. Two standing seam metal roofs capture rainwater and fill two 1,650-gallon cisterns, enough to withstand 60 days of drought. “It is the first commercial building in the U.S. ever permitted to generate its own drinking water for employees and public from rain water,” says Mary Tod Winchester, the Center’s vice president of administration. In addition, grey water from sinks and showers and excess roof runoff is diverted to rain gardens that naturally filter and manage all water on site.

Since monitoring of the building’s performance began in April 2015, the building has not only exceeded expectations on energy and water conservation, but has also proved to be a more comfortable and efficient place to work than its employees had anticipated. Although the footprint for workstations for its staff was reduced from 120 sq. ft. per person to 45 sq. ft. per person to minimize the structure’s environmental impact and energy requirements, the employees have embraced the collaborative atmosphere that has emerged in the loft-like, open-office environment, which allows access to sunlight and fresh air for all. Enhancing the effective work spaces are conscientiously designed workstations and furniture, much of it from Teknion. Since the Center was built for longevity, flexibility was key and Teknion’s benching-style District furniture and its Expansion line training tables were chosen to ease reconfiguration to accommodate growth. In addition, the movable furniture in the Center’s conference room can be arranged to suit a variety of purposes including lectures, community meetings, and hands-on demonstrations.

Whenever possible, locally sourced natural materials from the Southeast were used inside and out to reinforce a sense of place and biophilic goals, while ingredients in the materials were documented to ensure no LBC red-list chemicals were included. This also factored into the designers’ decision-making on furniture. “Teknion showed its commitment to LBC standards by divulging ingredients used in its products and eliminating toxic chemicals,” says Brown. The LBC’s DECLARE label offers a concise way of reporting the ingredients contained in manufactured products, just as a nutrition label does for food. “It is our mission to have all of Teknion’s products have a DECLARE label,” explains Tracy Backus, director of sustainable programs for Teknion. “The District, Livello, and Expansion lines currently exclude everything on the LBC’s red list and conform to its criteria.” Reclaimed materials were also used whenever possible. Maple floors from a local gymnasium, for example, were transformed
into interior flooring; interior wood trim was made from salvaged school bleachers (with students’ carvings and graffiti preserved); and cabinet pulls were made from salvaged champagne corks.

The Center now provides experiences for 2,500 students and teachers, who arrive by school bus across Hampton Roads, each year. It also houses other local conservation partners and provides a venue for community meetings, collaboration and training.“We wanted to build a model so that the public can see and experience it and say ‘I can do that,’” says Winchester. “We wanted to push the bar and build a facility that will become the new norm and our goal was to incorporate net-zero ideas here that showed we weren’t just building it, but living it.”



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