New GRAM Makes Waves in Green Construction

August 20, 2007
| By Pete Daly |
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GRAND RAPIDS — There is a wave of green construction sweeping through West Michigan, and riding the crest of that wave is the new Grand Rapids Art Museum.

The $60 million art museum is scheduled to open on Oct. 5. When it does, it may be the first completely new art museum to open with a silver Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating from the U.S. Green Building Council. It may even achieve a gold LEED rating, eventually.

A gold is the goal, but "we don't have the gold yet," said Celeste Adams, director of GRAM. "Actual certification doesn't come through until about six months after construction. At this point, we know we have enough points to qualify for silver."

The LEED Green Building Rating System spells out in detail what constitutes a "green building" in five areas related to environmental protection and human health: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, use of recycled or recyclable materials, and indoor environmental quality.

The highest LEED rating is platinum, followed by gold, then silver. Below silver are several levels of "certified" ratings. Nationally, more than 900 buildings are LEED certified and thousands more are in the works.

Major art museums in particular are severely 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 affects the indoor air quality.

"The air inside an art museum must be very consistent. The standard is 72 degrees, plus or minus three degrees, and the air must always be at 50 percent humidity. The air is maintained at that level 24 hours a day," so the system is "never off," said Kulapat Yantrasast, the architect who completed the design of the building. The design was begun by a London firm, Munkenbeck and Marshall, which was replaced in 2005 by Yantrasast's Los Angeles-based firm, Workshop Hakomori Yantrasast.

Yantrasast said that, because fresh air must be continuously brought into a museum, "there is always a lot of energy being consumed to condition the air in a conventional art museum."

To help keep down that energy cost, the new GRAM uses an "energy wheel" system of air conditioning filters that transfer the temperature and humidity from the air being discharged to the fresh air coming in on the other side of the filters. The three wheels in the system are each 12 feet in diameter.

Another "green" feature of the new museum is the capture and use of rainwater, funneled from the roof to a storage tank. Heavy runoff from rooftops and parking lots is a serious ecological problem in major urban areas, as seen periodically in Grand Rapids when sewage overflows into the Grand River as storm-water runoff floods the city sewage treatment system.

The stored runoff from the roof will be circulated to a reflecting pool in a "pocket park" visible to people in the museum lobby. Overflow from the pool goes down an exterior "water wall," replicating a waterfall, and is then recycled.

Some of the stored runoff will also be used for flushing toilets in the building, cutting back on the museum's municipal water use.

The museum carpets are of recycled plastic, while others are composed of biodegradable materials made from corn. They are recycled and sustainable materials, but also are part of the LEED goal to improve indoor air quality.

One goal was to make sure there was no formaldehyde in the interior materials, which can slowly release low levels of gas that impair indoor air quality. Yantrasast noted that indoor air quality issues are also a major consideration in new home construction now, not just in commercial or institutional buildings.

Natural light will be used to reduce energy costs, presenting another major challenge in an art museum setting.

"There are two issues you need to control," said Yantrasast. In an art gallery, the ultra-violet rays in natural light can harm artwork. "At the same time, with the light, comes in heat," he said, which pushes up the air conditioning cost.

Large skylights in the roof of the building have layers of glass louvers that filter and screen the light. Some of the walls will be glass, with louvers on them, too, to reflect some of the sun's heat back outside while admitting a safe degree of light.

The building is organized around a central pavilion of glass and concrete, with a three-story gallery wing. The special exhibition and permanent collection galleries total nearly 18,000 square feet. The entire building is 125,000 square feet, providing more than three times the gallery space GRAM had in the old federal building, its home for more than 25 years. Adams said the old facility had 80,000 to 90,000 visitors a year, but she expects annual visits to total 140,000 or more in the new building after the museum's first year of operation.

"In our first year, we anticipate a quarter of a million people," she added.

The biggest structural challenge was the concrete shell, which was time consuming and labor intensive because it required wooden forms for each segment of poured concrete, according to Adams.

Workshop Hakomori Yantrasast is the design architect, but Design Plus, a major architecture and design firm located in Grand Rapids, is the project architect of record. That means Design Plus is responsible for integrating the design with the actual construction process. Design Plus has completed three LEED-certified projects (including Lake Ontario Hall at GVSU, which has silver LEED certification) and has six more in progress.

Dave Mester, the Design Plus project manager for the new GRAM, agrees completely with Adams that the architectural concrete has been the most challenging aspect of the project. He said there is no room for error when pouring the wall sections.

"Once it's done, it's done, and it's either acceptable or it's torn out," said Mester.

The original concept for the new GRAM was that the structure itself would be a work of art, he noted. He said most buildings have a structural component and an exterior façade that the public sees. "Our structure itself is our façade," he said.

Yantrasast concedes that building green "does add cost to the construction," but he also noted that GRAM will save money on energy costs over the long term.

Adams said she does not know how much LEED certification added to the cost of the structure, but said construction industry estimates indicate it averages about 10 percent.

The decision to design the new museum for a LEED rating was made in 2001, a direct result of a $20 million gift from the Wege Foundation. This past March the New York Times published an article about the new GRAM and retired Steelcase executive Peter Wege, a longtime environmentalist.

When he made the gift to GRAM, Wege insisted the new museum be green, using LEED guidelines. He said he always requires LEED certification for building projects receiving funds from the Wege Foundation, one of the largest foundations in Michigan.

"A couple of other large foundations are doing the same thing as a result," he said, at the GRAM construction site in early August.

"The Kresge Foundation has followed my lead here, and I think I'm going to get the Kellogg Foundation to do the same thing," he said.

Wege said he is personally lobbying directors at many of the largest foundations in Michigan to get on the LEED bandwagon.

Building green is "not going to be that expensive," said Wege. He said a company or organization should use LEED guidelines even if they do not intend to apply for an official LEED certificate.

"You'll be able to build a better building as a result," he said. "This building is going to last a couple hundred years," he said, gesturing toward the new GRAM.

The Wege Foundation also helped pay for the new Grand Rapids Ballet Company's Peter Martin Wege Theatre, which will also be LEED certified. The theater, which will have a community open house on Sept. 15, is described by the GRBC as "a 300-seat, environmentally sustainable facility believed to be one of the first dance theatres of its kind in the country."

The new GRAM will open with a special temporary exhibition called "Four Salvaged Boxes: Museum Design for Environmental Sustainability," which will be on display until next June. Salvaged material from the construction site will be used in the exhibition, which will explore the impact of green design on art, society and modern life. It also will include sketches and models showing the building's green systems, and new, environmentally correct construction materials.

Rockford Pepper Construction is the major contractor on the project, which broke ground in September 2004.

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