One year later: three of GR's new facilities

October 24, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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2007 may go down in the history of major construction projects in Grand Rapids: The Grand Rapids Art Museum, Metro Health Hospital and the JW Marriott hotel were all completed in September or October.

Now that those facilities have been in use for one year, key data now is in the hands of the facility managers and being studied carefully. Two of the three projects are particularly noteworthy for their participation in the U.S. Green Building Council guidelines for sustainable structures.

One of the three, in fact, got extensive national news coverage because of its green-ness. The Grand Rapids Art Museum was the first major new museum in America to open with the certainty of qualifying for a Silver LEED rating from the USGBC — and six months later the actual LEED rating was declared to be Gold.

"It's a lot of building for a small footprint on the environment," said facility manager Chuck Behm.

And very efficient, too, especially compared to the art museum's former home in the old Federal Building, which was built around 1910. According to Randy VanAntwerp, GRAM finance director, energy costs for the new building are about 36 percent lower per square foot than at the old building. He said a total of $527,000 is being budgeted for energy next year: $350,000 for electricity and $177,000 for steam from the downtown steam plant. VanAntwerp said the new GRAM, which is 125,000 square feet, actually came in slightly under its anticipated first-year energy costs.

Major art museums in particular are challenged to reduce energy consumption because of the exacting interior climate conditions required to protect and preserve art, coupled with the daily volume of visitors going in and out — which constantly affects the indoor air quality. The new GRAM had an estimated 140,000 visitors during its first year.

Behm said it was possible to maintain the temperature and humidity at more precise levels than in the old building. He added that the building’s system for capturing and reusing runoff from rain and snow is "working extremely well." Runoff from city roofs, parking lots and streets frequently overloads sewage systems, causing rivers to be flooded with raw sewage, as has been the case many times in the Grand River.

Behm said the recaptured runoff in the past year was "18,000 gallons of water that we don't have to get from the city." The recycled water is used to irrigate the grounds, and also for flushing toilets and urinals. It is also used in the coolers for the HVAC system.

Total construction cost for the GRAM (including professional fees and owner's costs) was $75 million.

The $150 million, 208-bed Metro Health Hospital, which opened in September 2007, has also won high praise for its sustainability. The hospital, located on the M-6 corridor in Wyoming, serves more than 130,000 patients. It has one of the largest "green" roofs in Michigan: Its 48,500 square feet of rooftop vegetation minimizes storm water runoff, improves insulation and reduces peak temperatures on the roof. But there are many other energy-saving and "green" features.

"I think from a design standpoint, we're running more efficiently than what I think we anticipated," said John Ebers, the Metro Health sustainable business officer.

Three 500-horsepower boilers were installed in the hospital but Ebers said that “pretty much” just one is being used. He attributes at least part of that to the heat recovery system.

The largest use of electrical energy is in the summer for air conditioning. However, Ebers and Bob VanRees, director of facilities and support at Metro, said they didn't have firm numbers yet for energy use at the new hospital during its first year.

The new hospital has more lights than the old facility, due to various code and state health requirements pertaining to new hospitals. But even so, Ebers predicts the annual energy cost for the lights will be less. One reason for that is the light sensors installed throughout the hospital, which automatically turn off lights in the administrative office areas when no one is present.

Ebers said the membrane under the vegetation on the green roof did have a leak in it the first month after the hospital opened, but that was quickly repaired. The small succulent plants growing in trays on the roof temporarily retain rainfall and then release it slowly, preventing a surge of water that has a negative impact on nearby streams.

The building also features water-conserving fixtures, including waterless urinals and low-flow faucets. Its construction incorporated recycled building materials and wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, and paints and interior furnishings were selected to have minimal impact on indoor air quality.

The new hospital is also noteworthy for reducing water used for daily mopping in the patient areas and for reducing the amount of medical waste that requires special processing. Those improvements, however, are not a result of building design but rather changes in the way things are done. For example, microfiber mops are in use, which require far less water than a conventional mop but clean just as effectively. Also, Metro Health Hospital switched to hazardous waste containers that are reusable and has a new process for incinerating the waste. Ebers said that change alone reduced the annual amount of hazardous medical waste by about six tons.

Ebers said the new hospital is expected to receive LEED certification soon. He noted there has been such a surge in green construction throughout the U.S. that the USGBC is behind in processing its applications for LEED certification.

The downtown skyline in Grand Rapids changed dramatically last year with the completion of the 24-story, 337-room JW Marriott Grand Rapids. The building, which cost in excess of $100 million, has undergone a year of "fine-tuning" that is typical for a hotel of its size and nature, according to Bill Woodall, assistant director of engineering.

That first year involved frequent air pressurization checks, because the open atrium from the ground floor to the 24th floor constitutes a very large volume of interior air.

"You're always prone to have about a 1 to 3 percent failure rate for valves and controllers," said Woodall, but all were minor and repaired quickly under warranty. He reported there was a slight amount of settling after the building was completed, which he termed typical for a “large building of this size.” That required some door and door closer adjustments but no major repairs.

Although the building was not designed to be LEED certified, it did incorporate many energy-reducing features, such as variable speed drives on all motors and energy-saving light fixtures. Johnson Controls provided a computer-based system for controlling and continuously monitoring the HVAC throughout the hotel, which Woodall said has proved very valuable.

"Overall, I think we've done pretty well," said Bob Mitchell, the director of engineering at the new Marriott. He said the hotel is budgeting about $1.3 million for energy in calendar year 2009. Heat is provided by boilers fired by natural gas. There is also a great deal of electricity required, and a small amount of steam purchased from the commercial steam plant in downtown Grand Rapids for use in the hotel laundry.

The new hotel was designed to be the most opulent in the region. It averages about 150 guests per night, according to Mitchell. One feature to enhance guest safety and comfort is an underground snow-melt system on the sidewalks outside the entrances, with heat from a dedicated boiler that instantly melts snow and ice. There was a little bug in the system for a brief time early last winter when it couldn't keep up with the ice, but that has been remedied. In addition to guest safety, the automatic snow melt system also has the added advantage of reducing labor costs for removal of snow and ice by hand.

The first year was also a time for implementing process changes. Mitchell said they are now finalizing a new recycling program at the Marriott that began several months ago.

"We have everything from a glass crusher to cardboard recycling," he said. The hotel recycles various types of paper, aluminum, plastics, batteries, fluorescent bulbs, and even the used cooking oil from the kitchen.

Mitchell said the monthly amount of recycled material is close to 6,000 pounds. While some of the materials obviously have some salvage value, such as aluminum and waste oil, Mitchell said the real economic return to the hotel is the amount saved by not having to pay a hauler to take those 6,000 pounds of material to a landfill.

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