Urban Land Institute

Brock Environmental Center

Virginia Beach, Virginia

The Brock Environmental Center, located in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean, is drawing tens of thousands of visitors as one of the world’s best examples of sustainable and resilient design. This environmental center and office for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), a leading regional environmental organization, is operating at net-zero water, waste, and energy use. The building has extremely low monthly operating costs and has raised awareness of low-impact design, helping the organization achieve its mission of protection, advocacy, education, and restoration of the bay’s environmental health.

The Brock Center is raising the bar in modeling environmentally intelligent construction and living, a CBF goal dating to its first composting toilets in the 1970s. In 2000, CBF completed a new headquarters, the Philip Merrill Environmental Center, in Annapolis, Maryland. It was the world’s first building to achieve LEED Platinum, the highest designation in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system. Completed in April 2015, the Brock Center is CBF’s second landmark building designed and constructed in concert with its natural surroundings, with minimal impact on the surrounding land, air, and waterways.

For the Brock Center, CBF and the Washington, D.C., office of architecture firm SmithGroupJJR aimed for a newer and more rigorous sustainability standard, the Living Building Challenge, intended to encourage development with a positive, regenerative impact on the environment. Certification by the International Living Future Institute requires net-zero energy and water use and waste generation, meaning the building conserves or produces as much of those three elements as it uses. It also requires avoidance of the use of fossil fuels and 300 “red list” toxic chemicals. A building’s net-zero energy, water, and waste performance must be demonstrated for a full year of operation before certification is awarded. The $8.1 million, 10,500-square-foot center has earned both LEED Platinum and Living Building certification.

“Visitors leave with the sense that sustainability and resilience are not that hard, and you don’t have to lose comfort, beauty, or efficiency to get there.”—Mary Tod Winchester, Chesapeake Bay Foundation Vice President

Beyond the building, the project included protection of the 118-acre Pleasure House Point site, a low-lying area that was the last large undeveloped parcel in Virginia Beach and had been intended for development of 1,100 high-rise condominiums and townhouse units. The city of Virginia Beach and the Trust for Public Land worked with CBF to purchase the property after the developer defaulted on loans during the economic downturn of 2008. CBF owns ten acres, which are integrated into a public conservation park that encompasses the remaining acres owned by the city.

The center features a conference room, meeting and exhibit rooms, a catering kitchen, decks, and an education pavilion, which are often used during field education experiences, seminars, community gatherings, and corporate events. More than 40,000 people have toured the building and property since it opened.

“The center reduces pollution and gives back to the environment, which is critical for the bay, and it also is an excellent education tool that clearly demonstrates to government leaders, decision makers, architects, contractors, engineers, students, teachers, and the general public about sustainability and resilience,” says Mary Tod Winchester, CBF vice president for administration.

Mitigating Risks

The Brock Center design addresses protection against high winds, storm surge, and flooding. The building is situated 200 feet from the shoreline and elevated 14 feet above sea level on cast-in-place concrete columns and spread footings—exceeding Federal Emergency Management Agency elevation requirements for 500-year flood and sea-level-rise projections. It also is designed to withstand 130-mile-per-hour winds, exceeding local code requirements. The curved roof design and building materials contribute to wind and water resilience: durability is enforced by zinc roof shingles, deep protective overhangs, and naturally rot-resistant cypress siding.

The building works to achieve water independence by using rainwater for all water needs, including drinking. Rainwater is harvested from the roof and diverted and stored in two 1,650-gallon tanks in an insulated area beneath the building. The center is the first commercial building in the United States permitted to treat rainwater for potable uses. The water is purified with filtration, ozonation, and ultraviolet treatment.

The building also collects stormwater runoff in rain gardens that filter it before it is released back into the aquifer. Graywater from sinks and a shower also flows into rain gardens. CBF, local community groups, and the city are restoring adjacent wetlands by removing invasive species to allow native plants to naturally filter and absorb stormwater and water from sea surges.

The ability of the structure to operate as a net-zero building is enabled by highly effective energy conservation features.

The center has a 45-kilowatt solar photovoltaic array on the roof and two standalone ten-kilowatt Bergey residential wind turbines that can generate more than 100 percent of the energy the building requires to operate. The solar panels contribute about 70 percent of the building’s electricity and the wind turbines about 30 percent. The building envelope is super-insulated—walls to R-35, the floor to R-31, and the roof to R-50, more than double typical thermal resistance levels for the region. The R-7 windows are argon-gas filled and triple glazed with low-emissivity coatings. The actual energy use intensity of the building is a remarkably low 14,120 Btu per square foot per year.

“The resiliency question focused on how a susceptible site like the Brock Center can be developed to withstand flooding, hurricanes, and power outages, so that the center not only can stand, but thrive during these events, even serving as a haven for the adjacent community.”—Greg Mella, SmithGroupJRR

Creating Value

CBF does not need to purchase flood insurance because of the building’s position 14 feet above sea level and above the 500-year floodplain. It is also built to withstand high winds, so it is less likely to experience damage. Fireman’s Fund Insurance offers a discount for green-certified buildings, which generates a premium savings of about $2,200 per year.

A key resilience factor is continued safe operation of the building if an extreme weather event were to reduce access to potable water or knock out the municipal water supply or wastewater treatment system. The Brock Center’s design reduces the demand for potable water by nearly 90 percent. The building has been using a very efficient 50 gallons of water—rainwater treated to be potable—per day. With daily consumption running at about one-third of the projected 145 gallons, the building is expected to perform well even in a drought. The center also holds a supply of treated potable water capable of withstanding a six-week drought. The water supply is in a mechanical loft, meaning gravity can supply water even when there is no power.

Dealing with human waste is a huge concern during disasters. The flushless composting toilets’ holding tanks under the building have been secured to the foundation in watertight concrete vaults designed to prevent waste from escaping during a flood. Small battery backups can maintain emergency lighting, security, and a toilet exhaust system for multiple days during power outages.

Cost savings to operate the net-zero-energy building have proved to be substantial. Brock produces 83 percent more energy than it consumes in a typical year. Electricity bills average about $17 per month—basically the cost of connecting to the grid—compared with $800 to $1,000 per month for a conventional office building of similar size. The center is considering using batteries to take the Brock Center entirely off the grid.

Another benefit for the building’s 25 staff employed by CBF and a partner organization is the high level of employee wellness and productivity attributable to nontoxic materials, abundant natural light, mixed-mode ventilation, and efficient geothermal heating and cooling.

An indoor environmental quality (IEQ) assessment survey of employees, including self-ratings for productivity with follow-up measurements of selected IEQ variables, found “compelling evidence that the low-energy building provided high standards of comfort” for thermal comfort, air quality, and lighting, says study director Hyojin Kim, assistant professor at the Catholic University of America School of Architecture and Planning. The building offers employees a high level of “adaptive opportunity,” or control over their environment, with operable windows, ceiling fans, and blinds. Studies show a close relationship between high IEQ satisfaction and productivity.