Calvin Center For LEED Education

November 3, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — The newest building on the Calvin College campus is taking green building to new heights.

Nestled within the college’s 90-acre Ecosystem Preserve, the Vincent and Helen Bunker Interpretive Center is an environmentally sound structure that qualifies for a Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) Gold rating by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Designed by Architect Frank Gorman with assistance from Randy VanDragt, biology department chair and director of the preserve, the center will not only house educational programs, but will also act as a learning tool itself.

“The college has a commitment to being environmentally conscious,” VanDragt said. “But it’s also an experiment to see how these types of design work.”

“Many of the things we did in this building may not be appropriate for every building,” added Gorman. “They’re done for teaching. We’re a college that needs to evaluate those things. And we want to help people better understand these concepts.”

The center’s means of attacking water conservation, for example, might not be ideal for many buildings.

So-called gray water — water that is used, but not for disposal of human waste — is processed through an indoor biomass: a large window box with plants whose roots filter the water and return it to preserve ponds. Human waste is processed through chemical composting toilets that feed into the soil. Neither form of wastewater enters local sewer lines.

“A composting toilet is not always going to be the best solution,” Gorman said, “but in a situation like this, where we were very far away from every infrastructional element, it proved to be a cost benefit to free up the building from the city and county infrastructure.”

“That’s the benefit of composting toilets,” he added. “You’re not tied to the sewer system. And our city’s sewer system is at capacity already; every time we have an abundance of rain we put sewage into the Grand River and Lake Michigan.”

The center’s distance from East Beltline sewer lines neutralized the difference in upfront costs between the eco-friendly system and the cost of installing a new lift station and connection to the city sewer.

The gray water filtration system will not likely catch on locally any time soon, however, as the region’s winter weather necessitates that such a system be built indoors.

Some of the other systems may prove beneficial for other builders as is.

Environmental protection figures in to the building’s exterior construction, helping to promote low-cost maintenance. The center’s metal roof, for instance, is rated for 60 years. The siding is constructed with a composite of recycled wood, resin and concrete that is more durable and stable than ordinary siding.

Too, structurally insulated roofs and walls reduce heat loss and cooling costs. The walls are built with 2-by-6 members rather than 2 by 4s; extra insulation space moderates the swings in building temperatures.

The windows open automatically, weather permitting, to help control the building’s temperature. Motion detectors control the lights, which automatically shut off when the building is empty.

One of the costliest features — but also the most likely to provide a long-term ROI — is the roof’s photovoltaic energy system that will meet 60 percent of the center’s energy needs, even on overcast days.

“This whole building is somewhat of an experiment to understand which of these elements that we put in are going to be applicable to other situations — to discover which ones of these will change the way we do business on every other building,” Gorman said.

“We’re monitoring these systems quite closely so that we have some idea of the direct economic impact on the campus,” added VanDragt. He indicated that the project will help determine the marginal costs in saving water and fossil fuel.

“We’re confident this will be a significant contribution to the campus and hopefully we’ll learn some things about LEED construction as a result.”

The center was funded by a $750,000 gift from Helen Bunker, along with $500,000 from Calvin alumna Thelma DeJong Venema and grants from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, Frey Foundation, DTE Energy Foundation and the Energy Office of Michigan.

The center replaces the preserve’s former headquarters at 3770 Lake Drive SE, also a gift from the Bunker family.

The educational programming provided to more than 2,000 local school children each year will continue at the new facility, along with academic research including tree mapping, insect studies and weather studies.

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