Going For the Gold
By Bill Moore
With an eagle feather helping waft incense into the conference room air, an Omaha Indian tribal elder blessed the three-story glass, native limestone and brick building that now houses the Midwest regional headquarters of the United States National Park Service
Designed by the architectural firm of Leo A. Daly and built by Kiewit Construction, both with headquarters in Omaha, the new Carl T. Curtis building may soon become only one of 28 Gold-class LEED office buildings in the world. If approved, it will have gained this distinction by meeting a stringent set of environmental guidelines including energy efficiency improvements, storm-water drainage handling, even the installation of a dozen 110 volt AC plugs in the parking lot to recharge electric vehicles... someday.
Given the uniqueness of the building and the fact that it's virtually in EV World's "backyard", I thought our readers would be interested in learning about it and what it takes for a commercial building to earn certification as a "Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design."
The site of the Carl T. Curtis National Park Service Midwest Regional Headquarters, as it is officially designated, is on what was once industrial brownfield originally occupied by Union Pacific Railroad tracks, a lead-acid battery maker, a huge scrap metal yard and some really ugly molasses storage tanks that once serviced the annual barge traffic that plies its way up the Missouri river each summer. Back in the early 1990's, then-U.S. Senator Bob Kerry (D. NE) -- who most recently served on the 9/11 Commission -- garnered support for the idea of rehabilitating the area in what became known as the "Back to the River" initiative. The city of Omaha acquired the land and began recruiting potential developers.
Where the Union Pacific originally had its 100-year-old switching yard and locomotive maintenance sheds became the site of the new Qwest Arena and Convention Center. Closer to the river, the Gallop polling organization built a brand-new campus and Rick's Boatyard built a new restaurant. Between these two, Noddle Development, in partnership with Pacific Reality, the National Park Service and the General Services Administration commissioned the Curtis building.
John Townsend, who served as the project manager for the Park Service, explained to me that with the advent of the Lewis and Clark Expedition bi-centennial and its location in Omaha, the Service had outgrown its headquarters on 17th and Jackson, across the street from the city's detention center. A GSA study looked at a number of different options, including moving the service into the old federal building a half mile away.
According to Townsend, Park Service administrators convinced the GSA that it was important for the Service to have its own, environmentally-sensitive building, given the service's mission of protecting and preserving the nation's numerous national parks. Such a building would not only better meet the needs of the nearly 200 employees based in Omaha but also would send a positive message about the service's commitment to also preserving the environment.
Out of the 28 bids submitted to the NPS and its partners, all but five were quickly eliminated because they failed to meet the service's minimum requirement of an LEED certified "Silver" designation. Those five were whittled down to the Noddle Development team when they proposed "going for the gold," as Pacific Realty's Jerry Culver put it to me.
What set the Noddle proposal apart from the rest starts in the parking lot, which looks like your conventional concrete slab. According to Culver, a slight change in the size of the aggregate used in the pavement lets it reflect more light, lessening the amount of heat created by the lot. All rainwater runoff is channeled into a pond-like catchment basin designed to let the water slowly percolate down through the soil at the same rate it would had the land not been paved. A series of soil layers incorporated into pond also filters the water, which eventually flows back into the adjacent Missouri River virtually as clean as when it first fell as rain.
All of the landscaping was done using drought-resistant native plants that require almost no watering or maintenance after they become established in two years. I asked former Omaha-mayor and Congressman Hal Daub about how to encourage similar plantings in the city's suburbs where non-native Kentucky bluegrass is the norm. He responded that he has planted his homes using native plants and grasses, which with consummate political skill ducked the question.
Culver added that the building also includes employee showers for those who wish to bike to work and want to clean up prior to starting work. A paved biking and walking trail winds along the river from the Heartland Park area to the south, where UP has its national train dispatch center and Conagra has its food test campus, all the way to the airport some four to five miles to the north.
The building itself envelops some 65,000 square feet. Like the parking lot, it too was built with an adjacent catchment pond to facilitate filtration of runoff to compensate for the building's footprint. The limestone used for the west facade came from Kansas in keeping with the requirement to use as much "native" or regional materials as possible.
The structure is oriented along an east-to-west axis to make use of some passive solar heating, although according to Culver, most of the HVAC load of the building is cooling, rather than heating. Both the north and south sides of the office portion of the building are insulated, low-E glass, giving the majority of employees beautiful views of the river. Interestingly, some of the manager's offices are in the middle of the building where they aren't treated to such wonderful vistas. To help prevent overheating, the southern exposures of the building incorporate solar shading overhangs. For cost reasons, the structure incorporates no active solar arrays, fuel cells or green roof. Electric power and gas are supplied by our public utilities.
In order to keep costs down -- the building itself ran a little over US$12 million -- while shooting for gold certification, Leo A. Daly's architects and engineers incorporated some ingenious touches. Culver explained to me that all of the building's ventilation ducts and vents are in the floor rather than in the ceiling, which is the conventional approach. He said that while this is bit more expensive, it takes less air pressure, smaller fans and therefore less energy to control the building's temperature.
Rather than cover the entire ceiling with tiles, all of the office work zones are lit with "light clouds." These are suspended ceilings below which are mounted florescent light fixtures that shine up, instead of down. The reflected light is less harsh. In addition, the lights in the building are controlled by both motion and ambient light sensors and only come on when there is someone in the room or if there isn't sufficient exterior light.
All of the restrooms in the building use water conservation appliances, including toilets that offer two flush modes, one for urine and the other for feces. I was told there are also some waterless toilets in the building, but I didn't get a chance to see them.
The Curtis building is a remarkable structure and one in which I certainly wouldn't mind working. However, as you might expect with any new approaches, the building is having a few "teething" problems according to some employees who were on-hand for the dedication and open house. The waterless toilets emit a slight odor and there is so much ambient light flooding the north side of the building that one person told me he was having a hard time reading his flat panel computer monitor. They've now installed window shades to help control the light. And the contractor who finished the stained concrete floor in the lobby explained to me that they polished the concrete too hard. This prevented the acid stain from taking evenly, leaving a bit of splotchy appearance, though I wouldn't have noticed had he not pointed it out.
Despite these minor annoyances, it really is very encouraging to see buildings like this going up. It certainly represents the direction in which we need to be headed. I asked Jerry Culver how much "going for the gold" added to the cost of the building. He replied that until he builds more building like this, he really wasn't sure, though I suspect somebody, somewhere has a general idea. He did say that it would be far cheaper to operate over the lifetime of the building than a non-LEED building; and since his company leases the building to the GSA, which in turn it leases to the National Park Service, all parties involved have a vested interest in saving taxpayer dollars, while helping restore a small piece of the environment along the river explored by the Corps of Discovery.
One thing does seem certain, while Lewis and Clark might have a difficult time today recognizing the Missouri they polled and paddled up two century's ago, I am convinced they would be pleased with how their descendants have transformed a 20th century industrial blight into a 21st century development that respects the river's past, the present and the future.
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