It’s not easy being green, but platinum? Well, that’s almost unheard of. And yet, the recently completed aquatics facility at the East Portland Community Center is expected to be the first of its kind to achieve LEED platinum — the highest certification level from the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design rating system.
“It’s our understanding [that] we’re the first
year-round pool complex in the United States, and maybe even the
world, to achieve LEED platinum,” says Richard Bosch,
architect and project manager at Portland, Ore., Parks &
Recreation. “The whole city is very proud of this
Lisa Petterson, project manager with Portland’s SERA Architects,
agrees that the impending LEED status is a true badge of honor,
given the reputation that aquatics centers typically have for being
energy hogs. “There aren’t very many LEED platinum
buildings in the country, and when you have a building that’s
a high-energy user like a natatorium, it’s that much harder
to achieve platinum,” she says.
Good, better, best
The facility was originally conceived more than a decade ago,
several years before LEED even existed, and before a current
Portland ordinance requiring city projects to attempt to meet LEED
gold requirements (one level below platinum.) After a series of
funding-related stops and starts, the project got under way in
earnest when voters passed a parks levy in 2002.
As the building team tackled criteria for LEED gold requirements
as well as other city mandates for conservation, members
conjectured that it might be feasible to actually surpass the
city’s expectations. The more they looked for ways to design
a building with lower operational costs and the newest technology
available, the more they saw they were meeting LEED platinum
criteria, almost as a happy coincidence in some instances.
“I don’t think we anticipated the number of
different synergies we would find in terms of the architecture,
mechanical systems and pool design,” Petterson says.
“It suddenly became a question of ‘Why not go
For Bosch at Parks & Recreation, the original frustration
stemming from funding-related delays was ironically fortuitous. If
the pool had been green-lighted back in the late 1990s, it
wouldn’t be nearly as energy-efficient as its current
“The first half of this decade is where the green industry
really got to be more inventive,” he says. “A lot of
the technology we ended up implementing didn’t even exist yet
in 2003. So just as LEED’s development sort of ran parallel
to this project, I think the technology was developing in parallel,
The aquatics center, a 15,000-square-foot addition to an already
existing community center built in 1997, boasts myriad eco-friendly
features inside and out. The building is aligned north/south, with
solid walls on the east and west (where the sun would be most
overwhelming). At the top of the natatorium, huge clerestory
windows take full advantage of natural light.
“Obviously, that provides a reduction in energy, but it
also adds to the quality of the space,” Petterson says.
Artificial lights set on automatic sensors turn on, zone by zone,
when the sun begins to set, or when lack of motion indicates the
pool is not in use.
The building’s sloped roof was designed
“PV-ready” with special built-in fasteners to hold the
85kW photovoltaic panels, which were installed this spring as the
final step for reaching platinum certification. These panels,
predicted to provide 15 percent of the building’s total
annual energy, were funded through a third-party process that lets
an outside company pay for the system — and thus reap the tax
Another six-panel solar thermal installation heats the water for
the facility’s showers, while a separate heat-recapture
system transfers waste heat off the mechanical system to heat the
“If you can capture that energy and use it for another
purpose, like reheating the pool water, then we’re not, in
essence, wasting that energy,” Petterson explains.
Outside, the facility manages 100 percent of its rainwater on
site, diverting it through bioswales and injection drywells that
deliver the water back into the ground (as opposed to storm
In addition to choosing technology and building material that
would maximize energy savings and minimize the effect on the
environment, team leaders approached the product with a simple
“We basically just applied the old ‘reduce, reuse,
recycle’ idea,” Petterson says. “If we
didn’t need an additional finish, we did without. We also
tried to reduce simple volumes, using the space efficiently without
having lots of extra corners.”
Recycled materials were used in various parts of the building,
including lockers, party rooms and bathrooms. Finally, whenever
possible, the designers sought multiple uses, be it structural
material that doubles as a finish or a roof deck made from material
that also absorbs noise. “We always ask ourselves, in every
decision we make, ‘Does this meet as many purposes as
possible?’” Bosch says.
Even the construction process was as green — 95 percent of
the construction waste debris was recycled.
Waste not, want not
Douglass Whiteaker, a principal at Water Technology Inc. in
Beaver Dam, Wis., was project leader in establishing the design of
the pool systems and waterfeatures, which include a lap pool and a
leisure pool with two water slides and a winding current channel
that ends in a vortex.
“The aquatic component is actually the most costly element
to build for first costs, to operate and maintain,” he says.
“We focused on components that would use less horsepower,
less water and less resources for heating and sanitizing the
The use of variable frequency drives on all the pump motors
reduced energy consumption straight off the bat, while a
regenerative media filter reduces to a fraction the amount of water
needed compared with a normal backwash filtration process. This
technology also saved the design team from a tricky plumbing
dilemma: “The sewer system wasn’t capable of handling
the amount of water from a traditional backwash cycle, so we would
have had to build an extra holding tank,” Petterson says.
“This solved that problem — and extra
Air quality also plays an important role in the LEED criteria, so
efforts were made to keep chloramines to a minimum, including the
addition of an ultraviolet filtration process for pool water, and a
mechanical system that supplies air high in the building and
“That, too, doesn’t cost extra,” Petterson
notes. “It’s just smart design. You’re able to
think about these things early on, while you’re shaping the
Making a splash
Costing roughly $11.5 million, the East Portland aquatics center
ended up being significantly more expensive than was originally
planned. But Bosch points to inflation and global economics —
not green technology — for boosting the price tag.
“The sustainability features did add to the cost, but they
were kind of the pimple next to the mountain,” he explains.
“It had maybe a 3 percent cost impact on the overall
Many of the green features are expected to pay for themselves
over time, though Bosch is hesitant to speculate on exactly how
much the facility will save in water and energy costs. “That
will be easier to determine a year from now, but I do know the
savings will be measurable and worthwhile,” he says.
“Our primary cost savings will be in water. We think
we’re going to save 11/2 million gallons of water per
Saving water, electricity and the environment requires more than
just a building with bells and whistles. It also depends on an
operations and maintenance team committed to keeping those features
running at optimal level.
“That’s critical,” stresses Whiteaker,
“because when you start raising the sophistication of the
equipment, you have to raise the understanding of the
So the operations and maintenance people in Portland were very
involved in the process, and they even came up with a lot of good
ideas on their own to help the facility conserve energy.”
The aquatics center is expected to officially earn LEED-platinum
honors sometime this summer, and already, similar projects are
looking to East Portland for inspiration. “I’m getting
a reasonable amount of inquiries from people in other cities who
want to see what it takes to achieve this,” Bosch says.