Photo courtesy Portland, Ore. Parks & Recreation

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 achievement.”

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 platinum?’”

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 incarnation.

“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, too.”

Smart design

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 incentives.

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 pool water.

“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 drains).

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 philosophy.

“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 water.”

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 money.”

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 exhausts low.

“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 building.”

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 budget.”

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 year.”

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 operators.

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.