In this installment of the series, I decided to follow up on the recommendations I received from at least five different people over the last few months to feature the EPA’s Campus located in the Research Triangle Park:
Being the intrepid Freelance Internet Journalist (Blogboy) that I am, I dutifully Googled their website to learn some background on this expansive project that was originally dreamed up back in 1984 and completed in 2001. As you can probably tell from the timeline, the years leading up to the completion of the project were filled with planning, research, budgetary headaches, as well as some strident opposition from a few of our less "visionary" North Carolina Senators. The fact that this project was finally approved and completed is a testament to those who do have a vision, and should be a lesson to us all.
As I mentioned in a previous diary, the environmental impact of a project (especially one with this scope), must be gauged before ground is broken, and a detailed plan of conservation and construction waste disposition needs to be in place and adhered to. It’s not something that can be dealt with later, or left up to some third party to be responsible for. Granted, the EPA would (theoretically) be the last client that would ignore something like this, but it’s a critical component of sustainable development, regardless of who the end user will be.
Just a few notes on steps that were taken on this specific project to minimize the environmental impact: a plant rescue program was initiated after the construction footprint was determined, utilizing volunteers to dig up and relocate plants to other areas of the site, as well as donating some to both public and private gardens. All of the wood resources (trees, limbs, stumps) were salvaged for use as building materials or processed on site and turned into usable mulch—no burning was allowed. Larger rocks were crushed and reused for various purposes. As far as waste byproducts from materials brought to the site, 80% of those were reclaimed for use elsewhere by the contractor, representing some 20 million lbs. of material that would normally have gone straight to the landfill.
The guy posing in the Atrium above is Pete Schubert, an engineer who very graciously escorted me around, while fielding my (probably painfully) uninformed questions about the site and other things that popped into my head. We talked quite a bit, and our discussion kept flowing back to the subject of water resources. The implications of drought, the consequences of our lack of foresight in the use of potable water for functions that could easily be replaced by less "clean" forms of water, the wasteful behavior of the average person, etc. I have a sneaking hunch that our fresh water problems will eclipse our energy worries in the decades to come, and will be much more difficult to solve, especially if we continue to operate the way we do now.
In order to minimize water use, designers utilized a wide range of water conserving fixtures on this project, over and above the EPACT (Energy Policy Act) standards required. Considering that laboratories are ubiquitous on-site, these steps conserve an enormous amount of water—much more than the average commercial facility. But designers were also faced with a reality that others with numerous and massive chilling units face. Water-cooling needs on this scale have (historically) carried with them an incredible appetite for both fresh water and energy, mainly due to the heat-exchange aspect of the process: chillers wick away heat from machinery and/or electronics, that heat being transferred to the water which carries it away, new water must be cooled before it can do the required job, etc. And it goes on and on. And on. Untold gallons and kilowatt hours dedicated to this one function. In an effort to minimize this impact, the EPA decided to incorporate cooling towers in the facilities’ construction. The heated water travels up into the towers, where exposure to outside air draws the heat away, successfully cooling it so it can return to do its job again. Very cool.
When I decided to begin this series, educating myself was really the prime motivator. There’s a lot of information out there (here) on the Intertubes, and I don’t want to be "that guy" who turns his nose up at using the Internet as a research tool, but sometimes you really do need to get up off your ass and go somewhere. It’s not like your chair will get miffed and run off with the credenza while you’re gone. Often these little fact-finding missions are incredibly informative, giving you a glimpse of something you would never have seen remaining sedentary. Sometimes it merely opens a door in your mind, which can be a priceless event in itself. Look, I’m a writer, so bear with me here.
One of the many things I’ve learned is how important energy efficiency is in the formula for weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels. It’s easily the single biggest and most important piece of the puzzle. Considering that buildings (as opposed to domeciles) are the main culprits, efficiency measures can have a stunning impact on lowering the amount of resources used and reducing negative environmental effects. But...I want to focus on something that doesn’t receive the attention it deserves, that being human efficiency.
As a former Army sergeant and current factory manager, I have witnessed countless demonstrations of the nearly incalculable potential for achievement that is embodied in a motivated person. With machinery and structures, you can calculate everything from energy used to throughput and output. Heck, you can even reasonably predict future efficiencies using metallurgical (and other) data predicting wear and weathering. But human behavior modeling is an art, and not one that many people are skilled at. Without waxing Maslowish, let it suffice to say that many factors can impact a person’s ability to function well. Within the discussion of Green Building, what is the point in chasing after a LEEDS certification if the people the building houses are not happy, efficient and productive? Plainly put, there is no point.
All of that was merely a dramatic lead-up to the introduction of one of my favorite aspects of the RTP Campus—the day care center:
This is not just a kiddie storage unit, it’s actually a school. For children ages 0 (no, I didn’t see any) to 5 years old, it’s an incredibly cool place where they are loved, taken care of, and guided through a learning process in an extremely positive environment. My little tour of the day care only lasted for about 10-15 minutes, and I only saw about 40 of the some 188 children on the books (42 on the waiting list), but they were all well-behaved and happy. Not a single tear in the place. Think about that. For those here who have to do the twice-daily day care run, how often does that happen?
For the moms and dads who are working within sight of this school, who often come over to have lunch with their kids, can you imagine the peace of mind? That peace of mind is also transferred to coworkers, who don’t have to be exposed to a stressed-out parent who is constantly worried about how their child is doing on the other side of town. It also reduces the "carbon footprint" of the child, because he/she doesn’t have to be driven miles out of the way each day. Okay, that last part was a little clinical, but you get what I’m saying.
On-site day care centers are much more than merely employee benefits geared at retention, they are part of our sustainable future.
*Note: for an in-depth analysis of this project from start to finish, you can receive a copy of The Greening Curve, EPA Publication 220/K-02-001 by mailing your request to:
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Office of Administration and Resources Mgmt.
Research Triangle Park, NC 27711