Paving the Road to Nulu

Jul 1, 2009

By Douglas V. Pierson AIA

As an East Coast transplant in Los Angeles, I didn’t know much about Louisville, Kentucky, before designing The Green Building with my oldest friend, Gill Holland. I met Gill in Paris during a college year abroad in the South of France in 1985. We became fast friends and, that summer, bicycled from Spain to Norway stopping at most, if not every, architecturally significant structure along the way. The trip took three and a half months to complete and along the way, Gill and I discussed our future career plans, his in film and mine in architecture.

Nearly 20 years later, in March 2006, and after several years at Frank Gehry’s office, I became a partner at (fer) studio with Chris Mercier, also and ex-Gehry architect, to set up a green architecture firm with a strong focus on design. Meanwhile, Gill was working on his second environmental documentary, “FLOW” (For the Love Of Water). Inspired by his work, Gill and his wife, Augusta, purchased a 110-year-old warehouse in downtown Louisville with visions of refurbishing it to U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) guidelines and bringing green building awareness to Louisville and its developers. One month later, in April 2006, (fer) studio became the architect for The Green Building. Shortly after, Tim Peters, a veteran of the Louisville construction culture, was brought on as the construction manager, and the owner, architect, builder team was formed.

I took my first trip to Louisville for the project and became immediately engaged with the city’s intriguing history, geography and local culture. Louisville is a crush of convergences. In a sense, it is the country’s northernmost Southern city, the southernmost Northern city, and the easternmost Midwest city. Louisville is influenced by its convergence of regions, dialects, traditions and communities. It is simultaneously close enough to large metropolitan areas such as Chicago and New York to have big-city ambitions and far enough away to establish its independent identity.

Similar to most American cities, downtown Louisville fell into disrepair in the 1960s and ’70s when residents and businesses migrated to the suburbs. The Green Building is located in what was once downtown’s more-afflicted area, The East Market District, a federally classified distressed area. The convergences I discovered in Louisville are reflected in The Green Building, a 19th century warehouse modernized with 21st century green building techniques and technology. Today, thanks to the popularity of The Green Building, East Market Street is becoming a burgeoning city center for restaurants and art galleries.

The road to NuLu, as the area is now called, has been tested by a continuous series of challenges during the design and construction process:

Flexible design program: The Green Building is a working model for active collaboration between architect, owner and builder to weave the integration of new technologies (a moving target) into the design program (traditionally a static element of the process). To reconcile these different approaches, the program was left intentionally loose at the onset to allow for the participation of experts in various fields as the project developed. Initial design schemes were built as a physical model by (fer) studio to test the dual design approach of engaging spaces and sound sustainable design principles. The model was then brought to the site as a design tool. As engineers became involved, the team navigated through design shifts that would allow the overall intent to remain intact while incorporating new and efficient systems into the overall approach. As a result, the team was able to absorb and incorporate new construction methods and systems such as geothermal wells, energy recovery ventilation and mass energy storage, all while staying in step with the overall design intent.

Cost controls: Also a constant challenge was cost escalation. Each time we added systems, we added cost and scope. In order to mitigate the increase, we constantly balanced the design program through a give-and-take process. In order to incorporate new systems such as geothermal wells, we revisited the design scope to search for areas where we could reduce scope and maintain the overall design intent.

LEED tracking: The third challenge in the project was the need for sensibility at the site for an array of conservation and tracking efforts required by the project team. Resourceful and time-consuming efforts were required to substantially minimize landfill diversion during demolition. All old timber members were inventoried and allocated for future use in the design integration process. Also, close scrutiny was required for all materials and resources specified in the project. For example, management of the changing landscape of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified wood was constantly required since suppliers continually shifted the percentage and availability of the certified wood within their product (e.g. plywood) without notice.

Nonetheless, in September 2007, demolition began. LEED requires that all debris be collected and weighed and for each certification level, a specific percentage of its total weight and physical space diverted from the landfill. A local group called Green City Recycling oversaw the paperwork and the itemizing of salvaged materials. According to Green City Recycling, of our 1,029.5 cubic yards (cy) of material, 551 cubic yards was diverted and recycled.

Summary of recycled material:

Wood -  301.5 cy
Cardboard - 38 cy
Concrete - 126 cy
Metal - 54 cy
Plastic - 19.5 cy
Other - 12 cy

What couldn’t be re-used in construction was either sold or donated for re-use at other sites, including:

150,000 BTU furnace and compressor
1,200 square feet of carpet
Four windows
10 light fixtures
Two 125,000 BTU furnace and AC units
1 door
125,000 BTU furnace and AC unit
2 areas of glass 50’x12’
Freon from six condenser units
70-gallon water heater
125,000 BTU furnace
12 wood newel posts
42 50-gallon bags of sawdust
Furnace and compressor
A coil unit and compressor
72 light fixtures
122 florescent tubes
22 locksets
17 hinges
1 vanity and sink
1 toilet
1 medicine cabinet

Construction began in October 2007, and we obsessed over recycled, sustainable and earth-friendly materials. New wood was locally sourced and FSC certified. We used low-to-no volatile organic compound (VOC) paints that actually exceed the requirements for LEED, and we examined every square inch of the plans for opportunities to recycle existing materials. Even the building’s conference tables are made from what were formerly structural wood members.

Recycled content in construction materials:

30% of concrete
70% of heavy and light gauge steel
40% of gypsum board
10% of cement board
40% of concrete blocks
30% of all glass
70% of all aluminum window products
70% of all roof flashing products
100% of wood floors
15% of translucent acoustic gallery ceiling
60% of bathroom partitions
30% of ceramic tile
80% of batt insulation (recycled denim from blue jeans)
35% of rigid exterior building insulation
30% of architectural exterior louvers
20% of countertops
3% of exterior sheathing
35% of vinyl composite tile flooring
60% of linoleum flooring
40% of all furniture and finishes

The Green Building exceeds by a remarkable 65 percent all energy efficiency standards set by Kentucky Energy Code and the American Society for Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers, Ventilation for Acceptable Indoor Air Quality. This was accomplished through natural daylighting, solar panels, geothermal heat pumps, an energy recovery system, an energy storage system and a green roof.

Natural daylight design was incorporated to save energy, reduce operating costs and earn points towards LEED certification. In addition to opening up nine windows that the previous building tenant had sealed, a continuous clerestory was added by bifurcating the existing roof into two planes sloped in opposite directions, raising the natural light level from 20 percent to 95 percent. The additional clerestory and windows reduce the need for artificial lighting during the day and provide heat during the cooler seasons in addition to increasing employee productivity and retention (according to several studies). The clerestory provides deeper controllable light penetration, which reduces excessive brightness, and directs more light into the space as a result of their height and angle. Exterior louvers at double height glazing conditions allow for glare reduction and radiant heat reduction before entering the building while increasing views to the outside.

The Green Building also has 81 solar panels on its roof, which provide almost 15 kilowatt/hours at peak. The wall just below the panels displays three DC-AC converters that count the CO2 saved from entering the atmosphere as a result of the solar panels. In fall 2009, The Green Building saved 30,000 pounds of CO2 /month, enough to offset the entire carbon footprint of all the workers in the building. An automatic carbon dioxide control system monitors whenever the CO2 level in any given room hits more than 550 adjustable parts per million and automatically opens vents to introduce fresh air. This system also measures the amount of fresh air in the building, providing an analysis of how much ventilated air is displacing the less-healthy conditioned air.

Underneath The Green Building are a dozen 300-foot wells, which serve as geothermal heat pumps (GHPs). These use the constant temperature of the earth just a few feet below the surface (between 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit) to cool the building in the summer months and heat the building in the cooler months. This system reaches high efficiencies (300-600 percent) on the coldest of winter nights compared to 175-250 percent for air-source heat pumps on cool days. Additionally, these wells are closed-loop to avoid dumping processed water back into the aquifer and to eliminate discharge into the city’s overloaded stormwater drains.

One of the most interesting green technologies in the building is the 1,100- gallon energy storage tank in the basement. This tank uses energy from the grid during the off-peak hours of the evening to freeze (charge) 4-inch ice balls with glycol-based heat transfer fluid and melt (discharge) during peak grid hours. In other words, the tank stores energy when electricity is cheap and available and releases energy when it’s expensive and limited.

Lastly, what green building would be complete without a green roof? For The Green Building, we designed a green roof with a 4-inch base filled with sedums, which are drought-tolerant leaf succulents. Tracey Williams, a local Lousivillle horticulturist, selected the plant palette and designed a plan around the Norwegian symbol for the sun as an homage to The Green Building’s use of solar energy. In addition to adding green space, the green roof moderates the heat-island effect, mitigates stormwater runoff, provides water and air purification, and reduces energy consumption. Green roof systems have been shown to retain 60-100 percent of stormwater, preventing erosion and pollution into the sewer system.

The 15,000-square-foot Green Building opened in winter 2008 as Louisville’s first commercial building in pursuit of a Platinum LEED certification, which is still pending. The building is occupied by 732 Social, a restaurant by the James Beard-nominated Ton Brothers, The Green Building Gallery & event spaces, and the office studios of SonaBLAST! Records, Holland Brown Books and The Group Entertainment. In a little over a year’s time, The Green Building has had a much deeper impact on the East Market District and Louisville, as a whole, than Gill and I could have ever imagined in 2006 -- or in 1986 when we first discussed our designs for impacting the architectural industry and the environmental movement.

East Market is now the center of all things progressive in Lousiville. Gill and Augusta are working towards the creation a public two-acre open market around The Green Building, and Lousiville is contemplating a major bicycle transit system. Last month, Metro Council President David Tandy announced, during a press conference at The Green Building, a new proposed ordinance to encourage sustainable building practices and LEED certification of buildings in Louisville. Again, like Lousiville, The Green Building is a convergence bringing together North and South, old and new, community and government, built and green -- and two old buddies from college.

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Douglas V. Pierson AIA
Douglas V. Pierson, AIA, is design principal and partner at (fer) studio. Pierson joined form, environment, research (fer) studio in early 2006 and helped establish the office as a forerunner in contemporary design. He has worked on a wide range of internationally acclaimed projects, including Seattle’s landmark Experience Music Project (EMP), Melbourne’s Victoria State Library, The Corcoran Gallery, and a prefab hospital project in the U.K. He has also designed and participated in several noteworthy international traveling art and design exhibits including, The Work of Charles and Ray Eames, Pablo Picasso, and Howard Hodgkins Paintings.

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