Award winner sets a sustainable precedent

April 20, 2009
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When the Grand Valley Chapter of the American Association of Architects gave Integrated Architecture its Honor Award for sustainable design last month, the judges’ comments ranged from “simple and restrained” to “straightforward and respectful.” One described the entry as a “very nice precedent for future public restroom facilities,” an accurate description of what the project was really all about.

Integrated captured the association’s only sustainable Honor Award this year for its design of the toilet and shower building at Grand Haven State Park, a facility that has been operational since late last summer. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is using the design as a prototype for all the state parks and campgrounds it operates. So the design has set a precedent.

“When they approached us originally, that was their goal,” said Randy Pease, a senior designer at Integrated who worked with Ryan Brouwer on the project.

“They asked us to help them to rethink how they construct these. So Grand Haven was the first one. It really started its life as the prototype. I guess we did know it was going to go in Grand Haven, but we also had an eye on future locations,” he said.

The DNR has toilet-and-shower buildings of varying sizes in roughly 200 parks and campgrounds across the state, and the agency’s goal is to eventually replace every one with Integrated Architecture’s design. In fact, one is now being built in Otsego.

“With Otsego, we tweaked the design a little bit. You probably wouldn’t notice the difference, but we’re constantly fine tuning it,” said Pease. “The intent is that this one is the prototype, or it becomes the prototype.”

The Grand Haven building is on track to cut natural gas usage by 35 percent and reduce water consumption by 12 percent over the previous facility. Multiplying those reductions by the number of properties the DNR oversees will result in huge savings on energy bills for taxpayers. The design also meets the state’s green initiative standard by maximizing the use of renewable energy.

Keys to the design are energy-efficient electric lighting linked to occupancy sensors, showers that are timer-controlled, no or low VOC finishes, and walls, sinks, countertops and toilet partitions largely built of recycled materials. The HVAC system is 95 percent efficient and can be restricted to a small section of the building, if the need calls for that.

The urinals are low flow. The faucets have battery-powered electronic sensors. The showers emit 1.5 gallons of water per minute. The water heaters are at least 90 percent efficient, and one natural gas-powered heater can serve three showers.

“The building is very energy efficient, both from an energy consumption and water consumption standpoint. But I think equally important, and still a very important part of sustainability, is the user experience. Probably the component that straddles both of those is the use of daylighting, and it’s really quite different than their older facilities,” said Pease.

Daylighting refers to a couple of things. One is the building’s sensors that automatically turn the lights on when the sun begins to set and off when it rises the next morning. The second is related to that function: the real and perceived safety someone either feels or doesn’t feel in a park or campground.

“One of the issues that the DNR brought to us originally is there is always concern about safety in that environment, especially late at night. So with regard to the daylighting, from dusk to dawn there is an ample amount of light flooding the spaces, so there is an inherent safety in that,” said Pease.

“Along with the safety issue, there is kind of a rethinking of planning so the building’s perimeter becomes much more porous. If you were to look at the floor plan of the building, you would see you actually enter the building from all four sides. What we did away with was the traditional sort of dark passage that you entered into before entering the restroom.”

The building itself was designed with thick masonry walls to withstand the constant wind and sand blasts that can pound a structure over time. The roof was designed to hold photo-voltaic panels to supplement the electric use and power the ventilation system. Translucent plastic panels were installed in the upper portions of the exterior walls to let natural light enter the building.

As every architect knows, each design has its own challenge. Pease said in this case, it was dealing with what often is a harsh environment because of the building’s proximity to Lake Michigan.

“I think the walls are thick and massive, from a design standpoint, to sort of conceptually ground the building in what is really a very dynamic environment. So the stone walls, I think, really serve as an anchor for that. But there are also low concrete seat walls that are in front of the building on the west side, and those are to buffer and hold back the sand,” said Pease.

Pease said the AIAGV Honor Award Integrated received was as much about saluting the new approach the DNR has taken to its campgrounds and parks as it was about celebrating his firm’s design of the project.

“It’s a shift on the part of the DNR, or the state, to recognize the changing use of these restrooms. Traditionally, these were large, multi-occupant restrooms with separate little shower closets. With this facility and their future facilities, they have really made an attempt to accommodate families,” he said.

Pease said the Grand Haven building has eight family restrooms. All are large and contain a toilet, a lavatory and a shower. So now a mother with a couple of children can take them into this restroom and not worry about being separated from them.

“From what we understand, the campers have really embraced this idea, and it has really proven to be one of the best features.”

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