ACCOKEEK – The United States government may be stepping away from the fight against climate change, but Prince George’s County remains at the forefront with the certification of the greenest building in Maryland.
On Monday, a few days after President Donald Trump announced the U.S. was withdrawing from the Paris Accord agreement among nations of the world to combat climate change, representatives from county government, architects, regional groups and federal agencies gathered at the Alice Ferguson Foundation (AFF) to celebrate the certification of its Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation Environmental Education Center as a living building, one of just 13 buildings in the world – and the first in Maryland – to achieve the distinction, which is regarded as one of the hardest to attain in the industry. It also earned the highest number of points toward LEED certification of any building in the state.
“Throughout the decades, our guiding principals have been education, inspiration and innovation, all three of which are exemplified in the building that we are here to certify today,” said Lori Arguelles, executive director of AFF. “Our living buildings are designed to function like species in an ecosystem and mimic the beauty, resourcefulness and efficiency of nature’s architecture. Living buildings are designed to regenerate, not deplete, their surroundings.”
The campus will divert 120 tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year, which is equal to 25 cars’ worth of emissions.
The certification is made by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), who runs the Living Building Challenge to encourage entities around the world to build in the most sustainable ways. According to Kathleen Smith, vice president of the Living Building Challenge at ILFI, to achieve the designation, the environmental center had to meet 20 requirements across seven performance areas: place, water, energy, health and happiness, equity, materials and beauty.
“To create a living future, we need to be thinking about all of these aspects in the work that we do,” Smith said. “This building represents a deep commitment by the Alice Ferguson Foundation and by the design and construction team and everybody involved in this project. It’s a commitment in terms of the effort involved in creating a living building, but it’s also a commitment to the environment and to people now and into the future.”
Among the features of the center are a rooftop solar panel array that allows it to be a net-zero energy building; salvaged wood; grey water drip irrigation system to allow waste water to infiltrate the ground; low-flow plumbing and composting toilets; native plants; daylight and occupancy sensors for lighting controls; and a geothermal well for heating and cooling.
The project was supported by a mix of private and public partners, including Prince George’s County government, which contributed $3.9 million. The state of Maryland (Maryland Energy Administration), the Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, Unilever, the Chesapeake Bay Trust and others also contributed.
Construction was done sustainably as well, Arguelles said. The 450 materials used are free of the hundreds of “chemicals of concern” in the Living Building Challenge Red List, and 73 percent of the materials came from within a 500-mile radius of the site. More than 92 percent of the construction waste generated from the site was recycled. Arguelles added that because of AFF’s efforts in finding materials for the building, some of the local suppliers have removed the Red List chemicals from their products forever.
County and regional leaders highlighted how the building illustrates the ways in which going green can help businesses and the economy to thrive.
“It’s showing that we can defeat climate change while we also grow the economy. It’s not an either-or scenario,” County Councilman Mel Franklin said. “We’re getting a glimpse into the future.”
Smith added that removing the red list chemicals from the supply chain also benefits workers’ health.
AFF hosts hundreds of children every year, and the new building will provide them an opportunity to see “the cutting edge” of environmental science and best practices, Franklin said. But its location also means that adult groups from Washington, D.C. and the region can come and see best practices for themselves. Architects and construction companies, procurement officers and others have already taken tours of the facility.
Lance Davis, program manager for design excellence, architecture and sustainability with the U.S. General Services Administration said he can bring his staff and superiors to the Cafrtiz center to see what design or technology elements they can incorporate into other projects.
“One of the great things about this building and that it’s in Prince George’s County is that it’s not only educating students, but it’s also educating government executives,” he said. “Buildings like this give us that opportunity to bring some of those officials out, to bring some of the design teams, and say, ‘hey, yes, this is much smaller than what we are having to deal with, potentially, but it’s that starting point.’”
Davis said even under the Trump Administration, GSA remains committed to its pledge to have all new construction of government-owned properties be net zero energy and water or waste by 2020. This, combined with the example of the Cafritz center at AFF, provides opportunities to attract more federal facilities to Prince Georges’ County, said David Iannucci, assistant deputy chief administrative officer for economic development in County Executive Rushern Baker, III’s administration.
“We’re working to make sure that the residents of Prince George’s County can work in the county that they live in,” he said. “And one of the things we need to do to make it possible is to have more buildings like this because when we’re pursuing the General Services Administration for leases, we have learned- the hard way, in fact - that our buildings may not be up to standards. So we want to use this building as an example to teach our landlords and our owners what they need to do.”
The county is also pursuing other projects- such as net zero energy homes constructed by the Redevelopment Authority- to become “a mecca for green buildings, green businesses and green technology,” Baker said in a press release.
AFF itself will continue to advance green infrastructure. The Cafritz environmental education center is phase one of an ongoing project that will also see the construction of an additional solar array and a new, carbon-neutral overnight lodge.
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