by Alex Wilson
The Philip Merrill Environmental Center of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation serves as a model of sustainable development and a demonstration project for resource protection/ restoration, environmental advocacy and education.
The Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Virginia is the nation's largest, most diverse and most productive estuary. More that 3600 species of plants and animals call it home, and more than a million waterfowl winter there. Thousands of "watermen" make their livelihood from the Bay's bounty, which includes oysters, striped bass and more than a third of the nation's blue crab. Many more make their living on the tourism spawned by the region's rich natural and cultural history. The Bay is 200 miles long with nearly 12,000 miles of shoreline, and it drains 64,000 square miles of land including parts of New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.
The ecological and economic importance of the Chesapeake Bay is tremendous, yet dramatic pollution and development pressures over the past 50 years have taken a heavy toll. Oyster harvests plummeted from 35 million pounds a year in the 1950s to less than 3 million pounds a year today. A prime culprit has been nutrient pollution, and while significant progress has been made, nutrients from fertilizer runoff, stormwater pollution and septic systems remain a significant problem.
So too is sprawl. The population of the Chesapeake Bay watershed is 16 million people - nearly 40% more than in 1970. Loss of wetlands, increased automobile use, agricultural runoff, deforestation and overfishing are just a few of the problems facing the Bay.
Since the 1960s, dozens of federal and state agencies, government commissions, academic programs, and nonprofits have been working to rescue the Bay from these problems and restore it to the healthy ecosystem it once was. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), founded in 1967, has been leading the charge. Facing the need for more space in the mid-1990s, CBF trustees considered expanding in downtown Anapolis, Maryland, where they were based, but they couldn't find the right building. Then they were approached about protecting a 31-acre property on the Bay that was slated for development. Could they protect the land by building on it?
From Vision to Reality
CBF purchased the land and hired SmithGroup, Inc., an architecture firm in Washington DC., to design a headquarters building that would be in keeping with the organization's mission of resource protection/restoration, environmental advocacy and education. Because the site is located on the Bay, it was clear from the start this needed to be the greenest of buildings. Clearly, the use and management of water and protection of the land would be very high priorities, but so would low energy use, reliance on renewable energy sources and selection of materials that don't result in significant environmental burdens during their manufacture.
With a $7.5 million gift from newspaper publisher Philip Merrill, the Foundation had the freedom to incorporate a wide range of leading edge green technologies, even those that increased construction costs. A decision was made to seek the highest level of LEED certification. A visioning charrette, organized by the Sustainable Buildings Energy Council with support from the US Department of Energy, identified a wide range of strategies for greening the project. Those ideas were refined by the Smith Group and the Philip Merrill Environmental Center was completed in December 2000.
In serving as a model for sustainability, the building has succeeded admirably, and in 2000 it was awarded the first-ever LEED version 1.0 Platinum rating (the very highest). The building also received recognition from the AIA (American Institute of Architects) Committee on the Environment as one of the Top Ten Green Projects in 2001 and in the same year won an ASHRAE Technology Award.
The Greening of a Building
For starters, construction of the building had minimal impact on the 31-acre site. Only those portions of the property that had previously been developed were affected by construction - the 31,200 square foot building occupies roughly the same footprint as the beachhouse and swimming pool it replaced. The need for excavation was minimized by placing the building on piers, which also allowed parking underneath, thereby downsizing the parking area required around the building. Parking needs - and the environmental impacts of commuting by single-occupancy vehicles are also kept in check through CBF efforts to promote other means of transportation including carpooling, bicycling, walking, even kayaking by the building's 100 employees. Alternative fuel vehicles (electric, hybrid, natural gas) are available for day use by employees who don't drive to work.
Undeveloped portions of the site are being restored to the native ecosystems appropriate to the Bay shoreline. With a little help from human stewards, native grasses and wetland plants are quickly establishing themselves on the site, as are oysters in reefs just offshore.