Sustainable Center for Woods Hole
The result, despite its historic facade, is a high-performance building. The modern addition is modestly hidden behind the house and is elongated along its east-west axis to optimize passive solar performance. The envelope is highly insulated, and throughout we installed energy-efficient building systems, fixtures, and equipment.
Although we will not release detailed performance projections until there is sufficient data to back them up, we expect the building to use less than half of the energy of a code-compliant reference building.
Systems for Sustainability
The roof of the addition and front porch support a 2300-square-foot (215-square-meter), 26.4-kilowatt photovoltaic array, producing a projected 37,000 kilowatt-hours of power annually. The array is connected to the regional power grid, to which electricity flows in times of local surplus.
The center relies on a variety of systems for thermal comfort, beginning with natural ventilation, enabled by operable windows in all occupied spaces. For the offices, heat and cooling are decoupled from ventilation air. Ventilation is provided to each office through enthalpy wheels which recover heat from the exhausted air.
A hydronic valence convector system provides radiant cooling and heating of the offices using significantly less energy than fan coil units would. The lab and assembly areas have separate water-to-air heat pump systems.
The needed heating and cooling energy is reduced through the use of a groundwater well, which stays at a relatively constant temperature year round. The water is run through modular water-to-water heat exchangers in which heat is either rejected or extracted, depending on the season. The water is then returned to the standing column well.
On the hottest days of the past summer, the building was cooled with the groundwater system powered by the solar panels alone. Even during the middle of the day, the system produced enough energy to be able to return excess power to the grid.
The research center's new home optimizes the use of natural lighting for both energy efficiency and aesthetics, with daylight reaching all interior spaces. In the existing house, the windows are double-glazed and use high-performance glass. In the addition, the windows are clear, triple-glazed, argon-filled insulating units.
Plugging the Leaks
Through the insight and expertise of mechanical engineer Marc Rosenbaum, energy systems advisor to 2rw Consultants, Inc. and to our team, we learned a great deal about the building envelope, starting with the importance of minimizing air infiltration.
Fiberglass insulation performs poorly without a high-performance air barrier and without eliminating the thermal bridging that often occurs at the framing. "Housewrap" as commonly used is also not an effective air barrier.
The kind of taping and sealing required to form a really effective infiltration barrier is very labor intensive, complex to document — especially in an old house — and nearly impossible to implement without daily site supervision by an air-barrier expert.
Seeking an alternative approach, we examined every potential insulation material including sprayed minerals, rice husks, cellulose, and polystyrene boards. In response to reservations about quality assurance in the air barrier, expanding sprayed foam emerged as the solution despite some reservations about its upstream and downstream effects on the environment.
The type of insulation we used — Icynene — has no ozone-depleting blowing agents or formaldehyde and has an open cell structure that virtually eliminates subsequent off gassing of uncured material. It expands to fill every gap and stays tight to the wood frame.
I visited the site on a freezing winter day as the project was nearing completion and found that a small portable heater in the basement entry vestibule effectively heated the entire building. All the upstairs offices were comfortable even for someone sitting next to the large window walls.
Benign Materials, Inside and Out
We specified high-durability, low-maintenance, low-VOC (volatile organic compound) materials, paints, and adhesives for use throughout the center. We used no carpet. For wall framing, windows, trim, and flooring, we obtained wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, supplied from well managed forests. The floors were framed using engineered wood products made from plantation-grown wood.
Over all, it was a simple palette. Most interior materials were defined as either "silica" (glass, stone) or "cellulose" (wood) with some obvious exceptions in mechanical and electrical systems and other special parts.
Earth-friendly principles continued in the landscape design of Susan Nelson/ Warren Byrd. The 19th-century house's grass lawn was replaced with a wildflower meadow. Grading and planting were designed to retain and cleanse stormwater runoff from a permeable-surface parking lot. The overflow is captured and treated at a retention pond. A cistern collects rainwater for use on site.
The wastewater treatment system was designed to also serve as a research and teaching tool. Nitrate in the soil from conventional septic systems is a threat to coastal ecology. As waste material from the Woods Hole building moves through stages of purification through a Ruck denitrification system, soils scientists collect data through ports in the system for their research on component concentrations.
Saving the Old House
One initial challenge facing the team was whether to retain or demolish the existing house. Anyone who has ever performed a "gut" renovation on an old wood house knows that, after evaluating the need for structural upgrades and envelope performance, the argument for preserving history may seem more sentimental than rational when compared to factors of economy and layout, which often favor building new.
Even the clear environmental benefit of material reuse would not have led to the decision to renovate had the house not been of historic importance to the community. The Woods Hole Research Center became a new building hung on an old skeleton, but it preserves a cultural memory.
Using a comprehensive approach to sustainable strategies in the conversion of a summer home into an environmentally intelligent scientific headquarters, we have demonstrated how a net energy producing building can also be a delightful work environment for researchers passionate about global environmental issues.
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Mark Rylander, AIA is an associate partner with William McDonough + Partners, in Charlottesville, Virginia, and project manager on the Woods Hole Research Center. He is the 2004 Chair of the AIA Committee on the Environment.
Architect: William McDonough + Partners
General Contractor: T. R. White, Inc.
Landscape Architect: Susan Nelson/ Warren Byrd
EnergyAnalysis: 2rw / Marc Rosenbaum, P.E.
Mechanical Electrical Plumbing Engineer: 2rw, Consulting Engineers, P.C.
Structural Engineer: Robert Silman Associates
Civil Engineer: Holmes and McGrath, Inc.
Lighting: Clanton & Associates
Specifications: Heller Metzger
Energy Generation: Northern Power Systems
Code Consulting: John Ferguson