15 Feb 2012

Building Belmont: In Lean Times, Efficiency Counts

In Belmont, Massachusetts, the first public building to earn certification from the U.S. Green Building Council isn’t the town hall or the mayor’s office, it’s the town’s forward-thinking senior center.

“It’s a stereotype that these are the concerns of the younger generation,” says Nava Niv-Vogel, director of the Belmont’s Council on Aging and the senior center. In creating a “green” building, she says, “We get as much enthusiasm from our senior users as from younger people.”

The 19,000 square foot building, called the Beech Street Center, attained its silver LEED certification (Leader in Energy and Environmental Design) in December. LEED certification requires that the building’s design, construction, and future maintenance are all geared to protect the environment – as well as the people who pass through its doors.

Projects earn LEED points by meeting all manner of environmental criteria – including using recycled and sustainable materials, saving energy and water, creating a healthy indoor environment, and encouraging others to conserve.

Among the Beech Street Center’s design features:

  • Construction on the site of a former building rather than using open space, such as farm land, thereby preserving biodiversity and soil that absorbs rainfall
  • Recycling of construction waste
  • Floors made from easily renewable cork, bamboo, linseed-based linoleum, and recycled tires
  • Passive solar heat from large south-facing windows that are shaded in summer by leafy trees
  • Geothermal heating and cooling system that doesn’t use fossil fuels (oil, gas or coal)
  • Energy Star-rated fixtures and energy-efficient lighting
  • Paint, carpeting, glues, and composite woods that eliminate or minimize toxic fumes known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
  • Landscaping with native plants that require minimal watering
  • Bike racks and reserved parking for compact cars, hybrids, and car-poolers, and those carpooling

Lean fiscal times don’t exactly beg for people to spend extra on energy-efficient and healthy features. But towns and cities are getting the message that these up-front payouts are actually smart investing for the future.

The project’s architect, John Catlin, has designed more than two dozen senior centers across the region, and finds many are choosing “green” features. Catlin says the “biggest bang for the buck” in terms of energy efficiency has been the geothermal system. Geothermal isn’t cheap–just drilling the two 150-foot deep wells required to run the necessary pipes cost about $90,000. But, says Catlin, “Geothermal pays for itself, especially if you‘re using air conditioning, which it produces at minimal cost. On municipal buildings, the energy savings are so great, within five years you pay for the additional cost for putting in the well system.”

Nava estimates that in the first year, fuel bills for her department were almost $35,000 below previous years– even though the new building is more than 6,000 square feet bigger than the leased space they’d been using previously, which had no air conditioning.

The second investment Catlin says will bring significant financial return is creating efficient lighting. The building uses Energy Star light fixtures with compact fluorescent bulbs, as well as high-intensity metal halide lights. Windows on the building’s east, south and west sides bring in plenty of daylight, as do solar tubes in the upper-floor ceilings, which go through the roof to bring in more daylight.

The abundance of natural light cuts down on electric bills. But conserving energy is just one of the benefits of the building’s light, bright interior. “When you’re over 60, you need three times more light than a 20-year old does,” says Catlin. Further, the type of light is as important as the amount.  “Natural daylight is a huge issue, because it reduces depression.  And you need about 30 minutes of outside sunlight [twice weekly] to metabolize calcium and Vitamin D, so we also included outdoor patios and covered porches.”

The Beech Tree Center also uses many building materials made with minimal levels of  VOCs. These volatile chemicals are found in many paints, stains, carpets, flooring, particleboard, plywood, and other materials and are released into the air, sometimes for years. “For people with chronic illnesses, these irritants in the air can really aggravate breathing and eye issues,” says Catlin.

“Having the building is a remarkable improvement,” says Council on Aging director Niv-Vogel. “Everyone is much happier, and there’s a feeling like seniors count in the community in a different way, with a space that dignifies them.” She acknowledges that success does bring some own challenges. “More people want to use the center, and there’s a demand for more programs. We’re all busier!”