Day 22: Tour of a LEED Platinum Building

Portland was one of the major destinations on our trip because we have a few friends there, including one who is in the Army and is currently posted there. Portland doesn’t have a military base, so he works out of the Federal building downtown. When he mentioned in passing that his office was in one of the greenest buildings in the country, he’d barely finished his sentence before I asked about the possiblity of a tour. It turns out that when you run a LEED Platinum building you get a lot of tour requests, so the building manager was more than happy to oblige.

My school is in the planning phase of a new math and science center, and the current goal is to have it certified LEED Gold or better. Platinum would be ideal, but the architects mentioned at one point that reaching that level is hard unless your building is much larger than ours will be, and after the tour I understand why. I’ll share below some of what I learned on our tour, but the biggest take-away is this: I was blown away by the creativity of the architects and engineers who put this building together. While the expertise they showed in designing this building is something that can only be gained through education and experience, the solutions they developed require a perspective that we can begin developing in even our youngest students.

As for the things I learned about this building:

  1. One of easiest ways to make your building greener is to take advantage of your environment. In the Pacific Northwest that means collecting rainwater for re-use. They have a 165,000-gallon cistern in the basement that stores collected rainwater. The collected water is then used to flush the toilets, water the plants, and replenish the mechanical cooling system. When the plants are watered, the runoff is funneled to the cistern as well, meaning the water gets re-used more than once. All told, they collect and use almost 600,000 gallons of rainwater each year, significantly reducing both costs and the need for water from the city’s water system.
  2. The roof is covered with solar panels, but this isn’t the only way they take advanatge of the sun to reduce power needs. Just outside the windows of the building are “lightshelves,” which reflect sunlight up to 16 feet into the building to increase the amount of natural light available. This is paired with smart light sensors that will automatically reduce the brightness of lights based on the amount of sunlight coming in, further reducing electricity consumption.As great as the sun can be for light, it can be a real problem for climate control in the building. To reduce the direct sunlight that can heat a building up, a system of “fins and reeds” was attached to the outside of the building. From the outside, it looks like this:

    From the inside, the combination of the lightshelves and the fins and reeds looks like this:
    The GSA gives a lot of tours to school groups, so they had posters made up that explain how this works:
  3. One of my kids’ favorite features was the elevator. Similar to the regenerative braking feature of some cars, the elevators in the building generate electricity as they descend. This was interesting, but the much more fascinating feature was how the elevators are dispatched. When you walk up to the elevator bank, rather than “Up” and “Down” buttons, there’s a number pad. You enter your destination and then the panel tells you which elevator to take (the elevators are numbered). By using this “destination dispatch” method the number of trips is reduced, thereby reducing overall usage and inefficiency.When the building was originally built it had eight elevators. In the renovation that brought it to Platinum status they were able to reduce this to six elevators because of the more efficient usage. In addition, only two of the elevators go to the upper floors for the same reason. This reduced construction costs and allowed them to regain space for other purposes. Here’s a picture of the panel that replaces the call buttons:

    And while the picture doesn’t truly convey just how disconcerting it is, here’s what the inside of an elevator with no floor-number buttons looks like:

  4. Finally, something in which I have significant personal interest: the heating and cooling system. I teach primarily in a building where my classroom temperature is an obstacle to learning about 75% of the time, so I was very interested to learn about climate control when energy efficiency and minimal environmental impact are primary goals. In this building, all spaces are heated and cooled through a radiant system that is installed in the ceiling. I’m familiar with radiant heat in the floor, but I’ve never seen it in the ceiling and I’ve never seen radiant cooling at all. The ceiling tiles are not the typical acoustical drop-ceiling tiles you’re accustomed to seeing, but instead look like this:They are definitely more visually appealing than standard acoustical tiles, but their primary purpose is to radiate heat in the winteer and absorb it in the summer using pipes that run through the ceiling. From another of their educational posters, here’s how the system works:

    In principal it sounds great, but my friend who works in the building says that there are drawbacks. For example, temperature for the entire building is set from a central office and cannot be changed. Despite the design features of the building some spaces get warmer in the afternoon than others, and there’s nothing the occupants can do about that.

Overall, I was very impressed with the building, and I have a completely new understanding of what what it takes to design and build an environmentally-friendly building. As I said earlier, I also have an even greater respect for those who design these facilities. Most importantly, I feel affirmed in my belief that we should be teaching our students to ask questions, view problems from multiple perspectives, and to consider the impact of an action on others, for these are the attributes that are leading to impressive problem solving.

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