The people of Flint, Michigan, find themselves trapped in a web of finger pointing, bureaucracy and ineptitude over the disaster that is their lead-contaminated municipal water system. Sadly, Flint is not alone. The Natural Resources Defense Council, in an extensive analysis published last month found that 18 million people in the United States were served by water systems with lead violations.
All of which serves to put The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Brock Environmental Center, designed by SmithGroupJJR, into sharp focus. Last year, Brock became the first commercial building in the continental U.S. to be permitted to treat, to federal standards, harvested rainwater for potable uses.
That, in part, is why The Brock Center recently achieved the world’s biggest accolade for environmentally friendly design by earning the Living Building Challenge (LBC) certification from the International Living Future Institute. The certification means the building has produced more energy than it used over 12 consecutive months and met a host of other strict criteria for water use, location, health, materials, equity and beauty. To date, there are only 10 other such ultra-sustainable buildings in the world certified by the Living Building Challenge.
“We didn’t start out in this project thinking that this design could be a template for buildings deserting their lead-contaminated water systems,” said SmithGroupJJR project manager and design architect Greg Mella, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C. “That specific issue wasn’t even on our radar screen.
“But the Brock Center’s performance has certainly pushed the boundaries on what is possible,” Mella said. “Regenerative, net-positive design is more than an aspiration – it has been achieved.”
The center collects rainwater from its roof and then stores it in tanks located below the elevated first floor. A state-of-the-art water filtration system — licensed by the State of Virginia’s Office of Drinking Water — then filters the water for drinking as well as hand-washing. The Brock Center features waterless, composting toilets and all grey water (wastewater generated from sinks and showers) is channeled through an infiltration garden consisting of native plants where natural processes will clean and return it to the underground aquifer.
The Brock Center is also noteworthy for being a net-zero energy building; it generates its own electricity via solar and wind-powered renewable energy. Over the past year it’s actually produced 83% more energy than it used. The building’s electric bills are $17 each month — the minimum fee to simply tie into the electrical grid. Any excess energy the Brock Center creates goes to Dominion Virginia Power.
Could the Brock Center serve as the model for building owners concerned about freeing themselves from lead contaminated water systems? Daniel Horne, engineering field director for the Virginia Department of Health’s Office of Drinking Water, praises the Center’s revolutionary design. But it’s just one building, built from the ground up with a specific set of design assumptions in mind. “As you try to scale up, it becomes less likely that everyone buys into that (design),” he said. “Brock gets by because it’s not going to have people taking 25-minute showers.”
Deserting a city’s municipal water system poses other, even more nettlesome public policy issues. What if a fire breaks out? What if it doesn’t rain? And, if enough commercial building owners leave a municipal water system, won’t that mean fewer system customers over which to spread the costs of water delivery, leading to price hikes for those who remain? These are thorny challenges, as a state regulator’s primary duty is to meet customer demand for water anywhere, anytime, for almost any use.
But that’s what architects do – meet challenges and solve problems. For fire suppression, Virginia officials required the Center to be connected to a city water hook up; it saved money to connect to city water for that purpose only. SmithGroup’s Mella pointed out that many commercial buildings use rooftop cisterns, including at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Annapolis headquarters where the Merrill Center uses captured rainwater for fire suppression.
As for the weather, the infant solar energy industry faced similar knocks about a lack of sunlight. Today solar panels are in use nearly everywhere.
“My concern with Flint, as horrible as that situation is, is that we don’t look at it and say we have to legislate the life out of the ability to come up with innovative solutions,” said Elizabeth Heider, FAIA, chief sustainability officer for Skanska USA and a member of the team that built and designed the Center. “We can leapfrog over the situation that happened in Flint to new solutions that can provide great drinking water, which is what the Brock Center demonstrates.”
“The Brock Center begins to demonstrate the opportunity for a building to create a self-sufficient supply of potable water,” Heider added. “Now you can begin to take a look at buildings as part of the utility distribution solution that will create communities that will be more resilient in an event of a major event like Flint.”
John Schneidawind, Director, Public Affairs & Media Relations, AIA