New Model for Green Building Opens in Virginia Beach | Community Idea Stations


New Model for Green Building Opens in Virginia Beach

More than a decade ago, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation constructed the Merrill Center, one of the world’s most energy efficient buildings. Now the group is setting an even higher standard with its new Brock Environmental Center. From Virginia Beach, Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.

Learn More: Find more details about the Brock Environmental Center and the Living Building Challenge.


With views of salt meadows, Crab Creek and the Lynnhaven River, the Brock Environmental Center was designed to complement and respect its natural surroundings.

Greg Mella: One of the biggest ideas that came out in early concepts for the building is that we’re not going to put cars on site. It’s such a wonderful site, we don’t want to have cars leaking oil onto the watershed.

That’s Greg Mella, architect with Smith Group JJR, the firm that designed the Center.

Mella: We wanted to create a billboard: the first thing you see is that aha moment for the building.

Visitors park their cars on a nearby city street and after emerging from short trails through maritime forest, see the distinct curves of the 10,000 square foot building.

Mella: The form really does recall the gull wings of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s logo, also we looked at live oak trees that you see on site and how they tend to grow horizontally and create a sense of shelter, and then we even used a zinc shingle on the roof forms which kind of recall the scales of a fish. So really when you see these forms and you see these things, they become iconic symbols of the Foundation and what they’re trying to do.

Mella and his firm also designed the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Merrill Center in Annapolis, Maryland. In 2001, it became the first building in the world to earn LEED Platinum certification, the highest rating in green building practices. With this new project, the Foundation had more ambitious goals: to comply with the Living Building Challenge, which Director of Facilities Paul Willey says is the “greenest of green” standards.

Paul Willey: And some of the elements involved in that are we have to be net zero energy, that means we have to make as much energy as we use. And a big part of that is having energy conservation practices in place so we use 80% less energy than a typical building.

To cut down on heating and cooling costs, the building uses geothermal wells, natural ventilation and high levels of insulation. The strategic placement of windows illuminates the building naturally and on most days they won’t need to turn on overhead lights.  Although the Center is still connected to the grid, its energy supply is generated onsite by two 80 foot tall wind turbines and more than 160 photovoltaic panels.

Willey: Let’s go underneath the building...

Another element of the Living Building Challenge is net-zero water. That means they’ll be capturing and filtering rain for all their water needs.

Willey: I need to jump through and turn the light on...

Willey walks underneath the building and opens the door to a small room containing two 1600 gallon rain cisterns. From here, water is pumped to a filtration system

Willey: And that filtering system will produce potable drinking water for all of our needs at the Brock Environmental Center and we’ve designed this system so that we can capture and hold enough water to get us through the drought cycle that’s typical to this area.

Just like net-zero energy, Willey says this system works because of the water-saving elements they’ve implemented. The toilets are compostable, waterless units and the faucets are low-flow. Rain gardens will capture extra runoff and graywater, or the water that washes down the drains, will be used to irrigate native plants.

Willey: And that water we keep that in a tank and the tank is buried over there and it goes into a special graywater vegetated garden so all the graywater is treated on site, stays on site.

The building was also designed with climate change in mind. It’s raised nearly 14 feet to protect it against sea level rise and flooding from a 500-year storm.

Willey: The building itself is designed to take an eight foot rise and a four foot wave, that’s a tremendous amount of water, not something any of us would want to see here.

Inside the building is bright and airy. A long hallway connecting meeting rooms and office spaces has sweeping views of the water and provides easy access to outdoor spaces.

Willey: So this is our office space. We did an open office space because it allows you to have a more energy efficient place as opposed to closed offices.

Many components used in the Brock Center were salvaged including bleachers and a gymnasium floor from an area school.

Willey: So we went in and we pulled the whole gym floor up, brought it in here, laid it down and sanded it down. This is the finished gym floor on this side. This gym floor was headed to the dumpster, this was hard maple floor that was headed to the dumpster and we have it through all of our office spaces.

Barn beams, doors, countertops and sinks were also reclaimed from other buildings. Most of the new building materials were made in the US and meet strict green building criteria. That means avoiding items on a “Red List,” including chlorofluorocarbons, formaldehyde and PVC.

Chris Brandt: If you said that to anyone out there in construction, and said no PVC in construction, they’d go how do you do that?

Chris Brandt is Executive VP with Hourigan Construction, which built the Center.

Brandt: It’s piping for plumbing, it’s conduit that you use for electrical wire. There are a couple options out there but the options are very, very expensive. And so there is a product out there that’s called HDPE that we found. It is a plastic but it’s not PVC, it’s not polyvinylchloride.  It took us a while to find it, and that’s what in all the plumbing and all the conduits for the building.

Brandt will be monitoring the Center’s energy and water use for months to come. He says they may need to make some adjustments along the way, but if they meet certain benchmarks for a full year, they’ll achieve Living Building Challenge certification.

Brandt: There are five other projects in the world that have been certified so far, we hope to be the sixth. There are several other buildings that are being built and they’re in process of being certified. But there’s a certain certification, we’re going for entire Living Building Challenge certification, that means all seven petals have to be achieved and some of the Living Building Challenge certifications only get like net zero energy and water, we’re doing all of them so there are very few that are like that. We hope to be the sixth in the world, we’ll be first in Virginia and on the East Coast.

Even with the use of salvaged materials, it’s expensive to build green. Construction of the Center cost about $400 a square foot, about 25% more than mainstream building practices. Some of that will be recouped by saving on energy costs and using materials that last longer, like the zinc roof and cyprus siding. And Willey says this investment is about more than upfront costs.

Willey: For us, we’re pushing the envelope and we’re trying to change the industry, so it costs a little more to be the leader but the payoff educationally is worth it.

Six years ago, this area was slated for two high rise condos, but the Foundation, state and local officials and the community rallied to protect it. Now more than 100 acres are preserved. Architect Mella says the whole process has been community-focused and collaborative.

Mella: Expertise from local universities, from scientists within the Foundation, just teeming with high school students, researching materials, it’s hundreds of people that go into a small 10,000 square foot building, it’s amazing.

The Brock Environmental Center will house the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Hampton Roads staff and environmental group Lynnhaven River NOW. It was also designed to benefit the larger public, with spaces indoors and out for community and student groups.  The Foundation hopes the Center will “raise the bar for environmentally smart buildings” and serve as a model for similar projects around the country and the world. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News