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The Greenest Building

by Worldchanging Chicago local editor, Patrick Rollens

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Two weeks ago I visited the Alberici corporate headquarters, better known as the greenest building in the world. It was nothing short of inspiring. I was at once overjoyed and envious -- overjoyed because of the superlative commitment this represents, and envious because I wanted to work in such an amazing building.

At the time of this writing, the construction firm's St. Louis, Missouri main office building boasts the highest LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating ever awarded by the US Green Building Council: 60 points out of a possible 69. Under the USGBC's LEED program, points are awarded for fulfilling certain sustainable building techniques, such as using efficient ventilation systems or recycling construction waste. As an example of just how formidable Alberici's LEED platinum rating is, consider this: basic LEED certification requires just 26 points. The phrase "above and beyond" doesn't begin to describe the extent of Alberici's commitment to going green.

During my visit, I was curious to learn how those coveted 60 points manifest themselves in the building's daily operations. Would the changes be dramatic or subtle? A smart investment or a financial sink?

The first thing Alberici visitors notice is the massive wind turbine that graces the 13.86-acre site. It's clearly visible from the highway, rising on a thick white stalk just off the interstate. The turbine itself is actually pre-owned; it's a leftover 65-kilowatt turbine from a California wind farm. Under normal use, the turbine generates about 18% of the 110,000 square foot building's power, which is about equivalent to powering all the electric lights in the facility. That 18% generation capacity is by design rather than the limits of technology. If the building generated any more electricity, batteries would be necessary to contain the leftovers, or additional technology would be required to sell the extra kilowatts back to the St. Louis grid. As it is, the turbine generates just the right amount of power for the building's daily use.

The building itself was converted from a 50-year-old manufacturing building. Because Alberici didn't need the entire building immediately for office space, they were able to get creative with the structure. Fully half of the original building was given over to a tiered parking garage, and a 70-foot bay in the center of the facility was modified into an open-air driveway landscaped with native plants and grasses. Both of these modifications have the potential to be converted back to office space if Alberici outgrows their space.

When designing the redevelopment, Alberici limited the amount of asphalt used in the landscaping, thereby reducing the heat island effect that plagues so many urban areas.

On the roof, a rainwater collection system filters the water and uses it to flush the building's toilets and urinals. Retention ponds nearby pool the site's stormwater, preventing it from overloading St. Louis' archaic sewer system. Solar thermal panels provide about 90 of the building's hot water needs. According to publications on the building, the Department of Energy certified the Alberici headquarters as 60 percent more energy efficient than a conventional building.

The interior is no less impressive. Because the building was originally designed as a gigantic industrial factory, Alberici's designers had to create a mezzanine level to provide two functional floors for offices and workspace. And again, sustainable solutions are easy to spot.

Rapidly renewable resources (bamboo, cork, soy, etc) were used whenever possible for interior finishes, desks, bars and bulletin boards. Natural day lighting is an important at the Alberici headquarters; every employee has access to sunlight, and research has shown this goes a long way toward improving morale and employee retention. A carbon dioxide monitoring system automatically keeps tabs on the building's air quality, periodically introducing fresh air from outside when necessary. During the summer, employees are encouraged to open the building's windows and create a refreshing cross breeze.

Wandering Alberici's halls, I was struck by the overall synergy of the building. The air smelled great, artificial lighting was diffuse and minimal -- even the cafeteria offered organic fare. The entire project was a series of small, sensible decisions made to gently lessen the building's environmental impact, and the end product is an uplifting example of worldchanging at its best.

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It'd be interesting to know which 9 LEED points they *didn't* get awarded.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 3 Feb 07

I would check out case studies on the building from the USGBC. In it, you can see which credits it achieved, and look up which ones it did not.

Posted by: Joshua Clements on 3 Feb 07

One rather glaring LEED point they didn't receive was for "adaptive reuse of an existing site." Because Alberici's redevelopment work was so intensive, the building was deemed a "new construction" project for the purposes of achieving LEED points. As such, it wasn't eligible for the "adaptive reuse" points.

Posted by: Patrick on 3 Feb 07

When a company sets an example such as this its positive action places eco-friendly principles squarely into the mindset of large groups of people daily - those who work there and those who pass it by. Bravo.

Posted by: Doug Snodgrass on 4 Feb 07

I thought you might be interested in listening to William McDonough's speech at Stanford Graduate School of Business about the philosophy behind green building:
Maybe not as inspiring as walking through the greenest building in the world but still very powerful. Enjoy!

Posted by: Babette on 4 Feb 07

Sounds like an amazing building. I do find it odd though that the half of the "greenest building in the world" is devoted to parking spots. If everyone is driving to work, doesn't that kind of defeat the purpose?

Posted by: Chris on 21 Feb 07



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