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Elephants, LEED and limitless potential

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If you ask my friends to describe who I "am" for you, I'm willing to bet their answer will mention that I have a thing for elephants. Not surprisingly, it's almost impossible these days to read anything about elephants that doesn't mention their current plight in the face of increasingly widespread poaching, which always makes for rather heavy reading. 

As I've grown more and more invested in the fight to save elephants, I've become a sponge for news related to environmental conservation. Lately, there's been an outcry from environmentalists in DC lamenting the closing of the invertebrate exhibit at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park after almost three decades of educating the public on what it called "nature's unsung heroes."

Given how saturated my newsfeed has been with these topics, it literally made my morning the other day when I discovered that the new elephant habitat at the National Zoo had achieved LEED Gold certification!

The original elephant house, a building from the 1930s, got a serious revamp, and the finished product was an exhibit with over 96,000 square feet of space, including a quarter mile "trek" that leads from the approximately 13,000 square foot indoor exhibit to an outdoor two acre compound. 

The new habitat is a serious win for the zoo's four Asian elephants, Kandula, Ambika, Bozie and Shanthi.

Elephants at the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park walk along the perimeter of their new indoor dipping pool.

The structure's heated concrete floors are covered with rubber, while portions are layered with an additional four feet of sand. Not only is this a vast improvement for the feet of an animal that weighs, on average, about four tons, but sand also provides the elephants with much needed sunscreen to protect them in the heat of the day. Plus, it's fun to throw around with those trunks of theirs. Other forms of entertainment include rigs of tires and barrels, a pedal operated shower, and even indoor and outdoor dipping pools—another great way to beat the heat.

Arguably the most significant change to the facility is its shift towards a herd-style living environment. Rather than keep the animals separate from one another, this habitat fosters extensive group socialization, a necessity for a species proven to be capable of incredible emotional complexity and significant, long-lasting friendships. The facility can house up to 10 elephants and their young, and the zoo is expecting another three female Asian elephants from Calgary Zoo to join their herd this summer.

One of the National Zoo's Asian elephants applies some essential sun protection by throwing sand on its back.

While these improvements are great on their own, obtaining LEED Gold is the cherry on top of this deliciously awesome sundae. LEED buildings are known for their intelligent design and optimal performance, testaments to creative, forward and sustainable thinking during all stages of planning and construction. True to form, the Zoo's new facility, known as the Elephant Trails project, is a picture of energy efficiency and healthy, positive space.

Overhead you'll find a series of skylights, and at the back of the enclosure you'll see three large animal containment doors; combined, these features maximize natural light and provide ample ventilation, reducing electricity use (and cost) and keeping a steady flow of fresh air. A well-insultated building envelope is paired with forty geothermal wells for optimal indoor temperature control with minimum energy expenditure. The green roof, populated with native vegetation, also helps maintain a constant temperature, while also absorbing rainwater and reducing runoff. Water from the pools is filtered on site and reused, like many of the materials used during construction. 

Skylights and large door ways keep Elephant Trails full of natural light and fresh air,
creating a comfortable environment for both the elephants and their admirers.

When you add it all up, Elephant Trails is really something to get excited about, and knowing that the regrettable closing of the invertebrate museum will free up funding for more projects like this does take away some of the sting from that wound.

The new habitat is great for its residents, it's great for the Zoo's budget, it's great for the environment, and in that sense it's great for elephants everywhere too.

For some, that may seem like a leap, but it makes sense to me. See, there's growing evidence that the rise in elephant poaching is the result of ivory being one of the easiest ways to fund many of the armed conflicts currently playing out in continental Africa. There's also a substantial body of evidence that those same conflicts are caused by increasing land scarcity—scarcity that is being exacerbated by climate change. So, contribute to mitigating the effects of climate change by choosing a high-performance building and in a small way you're also helping save a species.

Like I said, it may seem like a stretch, but in a fight this dire every little bit counts. Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes put it best when she wrote:

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. 

And this doesn't just apply to elephants, but to species everywhere, to the planet as a whole. That's what I find so cool about LEED. No matter what you do or where you do it, odds are you're going to need some kind of building to call home base. And when you think about what building you want to call "HQ," you have the opportunity to choose a building that works for the environment, not against it. That one decision can have a seriously positive ripple effect on our world. With enough buildings and enough ripples, we'll start to see some major waves.

So congrats on the new home Bozie, Ambika, Shanthi and Kandula. Enjoy it, and take pride in knowing elephants and other creatures everywhere are thankful for it too.

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    Hannah Wilber made 9 contributions in the last 6 months

Hannah Wilber

Marketing and Communications Special Assistant U.S. Green Building Council

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