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Brock Environmental Center Operates Off the Grid, Public Water Supply, and Sewers.

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By Fran Dubrowski NC ‘70

This summer, I had the opportunity to tour, on behalf of BCEEAN, one of the world’s most environmentally smart buildings. In 2000, its owner, the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), built the world’s first LEED Platinum building (the Philip Merrill Education Center in Annapolis, Maryland).  Fifteen years later, when CBF needed a new regional headquarters in Virginia Beach, Virginia, it set out to top its prior accomplishment. 

CBF’s President Will Baker told the planning team, “Our vision, quite simply, is to create the most environmentally sustainable building in the world.” The result is the 10,500 sq. ft. Brock Environmental Center, whose roofline mimics the shape of a bird in flight. Designed to meet the Living Building Challenge, the built environment’s most rigorous performance standard, this cutting-edge facility strives to have “net zero” impact on the environment.

The building is entirely energy independent: it uses only the energy it generates over the course of a year. In fact, in its first 5 months of operation, the building fed back to the grid almost twice the energy it used, causing the local power company to show up, bills in hand, asking “How the heck did you do that?”  The answer: through a combination of geothermal heating and cooling, solar rooftop panels, two small (10-kilowatt) wind turbines, daylighting, sun shading, and natural ventilation. An automated building system manages heating, lighting, and ventilation to maximize energy efficiency; super insulation on exterior walls, floors, and roof reduces energy demands. 

The building is also water independent: it captures, filters, and stores rainwater on site to provide all of its water needs. The treated rainwater meets drinking water standards. 

Technology minimizes waste.  No-flush toilets turn solid waste into compost over time (2 to 3 years), liquid waste is sent to a production facility for conversion to saleable fertilizer, and a graywater garden filters wastewater from sinks and showers.  A rainwater garden keeps excess rain runoff from absorbing and carrying pollutants into the adjacent creek and river. 

The building is designed for resilience: it sits on pylons. The first floor elevation is 13.8 feet over sea level to exceed the standard for a 500-year storm and prevent flooding from projected sea level rise due to climate change.  The structure is also set back 200 feet from the water’s edge, twice the setback required by Virginia standards. 

Over 25,000 person hours were spent researching the content of every product and material used in the building to avoid, to the maximum extent possible, chemicals and materials harmful to humans. Salvaged and donated materials were repurposed and reused extensively to reduce the carbon footprint of construction. 

CBF’s intent was to create a national and international model for green building.  The result amply demonstrates that we have only begun to tap our potential for using less and cleaner fuels.  See for yourself: Brock Environmental Center tours are available to the public. Check it out!  It will be time well spent.

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