Arboretum Unveils Greenest Building For Miles

by kespeland on December 14, 2007

Bullitt County’s Bernheim Arboretum has just won the top award for green building from the U.S. Green Building Council. It’s the first project not only in Kentucky but surrounding states to achieve the council’s LEED platinum certification. WFPL’s Kristin Espeland takes us inside the innovative new visitor center.

Buildings can be big polluters. And big consumers. A United Nations research team reported this year that buildings consume nearly 40 percent of the world’s energy. But a green building, like Bernheim Arboretum’s visitor center, tries to leave that cycle of consumption and waste. Bernheim education director Claude Stephens says building green starts with where you locate a building. This one sits on a little hill, tucked in between patches of forest.

“The north side of the building is an evergreen screen…in the summer.”

Next, Stephens says a building has to work with natural resources, like sun and rain, instead of wasting them. A green roof, planted with grasses and flowers on top of a layer cake of protective materials, collects rain. Then it slowly runs off into cisterns around the building.

“On this side the rain’s dripping down into this concrete box… but it’s plumbed at the bottom… before it goes into that lake down there.”

Three underground cisterns store rainwater on the other side of the building to use for flushing toilets. That wastewater streams into an underground tank lined with peat moss. Peat filters the water so well…it’s piped over to a plant nursery. Even parking lot run-off is filtered, beds of oyster mushrooms planted downstream suck up toxins like oil and gas and break the molecules down into harmless components. As for the building itself… it’s a rustic square of wood and glass … with high ceilings and windows everywhere and trellises extending from each side where vines are being trained to provide shade. The wood inside and out is a warm caramel color. Not what you’d expect from, well, old pickle barrels. Operations director Roger Fauver.

“The timber for the construction… we went to Fremont, Ohio to the Heinz pickle company. And they gave us their pickle vats. So my crew spent about two weeks up there dismantling those pickle vats.”

Fauver says the concrete floor inside and outside the building also recycles material called fly ash.

“It’s doing away with the Portland cement… now they’ve actually got a use for it. ”

Inside this 2 and a half million dollar structure, a computer controls the geothermal heating system… which circulates a fluid kind of like antifreeze through deep underground wells and back into the building to heat or cool it. Electricity powers the lights, which means this building’s carbon footprint is not entirely zero. But energy consumption is low because of all the windows and the efficient heating and cooling system. In the main room, visitors can browse exhibits that explain the local landscape or shop for locally made gifts. Education director Claude Stephens says the interior’s design evokes the surrounding forest.

“When you’re inside this building… you almost feel as if you’re outside at the same time. And if it’s a cloudy day it’s a little darker, the environment controls the building.”

And Stephen says the environment should also reclaim the building at the end of its life cycle. The entire structure is designed to come easily apart so the construction materials can be reused yet again.

Listen to the story.

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