LEED BD+C: New Construction v2.0
Felician Sisters Convent and School Renovation
Coraopolis, PA 15108
LEED Gold 2006
Goals and motivations
What were the top overarching goals and objectives?
Some important factors of the project were to preserve the historic character of the building, reduce operating costs for the sisters, improve air quality, provide more control for the occupants, and create a more integrated community.
What were the most notable strategies used to earn LEED credits?
Integrating the Old and the New
There were several situations in this project where we blended the original parts of the building with new technologies or knowledge. For example, the property already had a cistern - but it was buried and they hadn't used it for years. Part of the renovation was adding a cooling tower, so we decided to use the cistern to feed into it. This saved tons of water per year, and all we had to do was add two pumps, which was minimal. Mixing the old with the new provided us with an elegant solution.
We came away with a realization of the wisdom they had back in 1932 when they built the original structure. You hear a lot that "the greenest building is the one that is already built." In most cases, they are talking about embodied energy but in this case, it was more sophisticated than that. In terms of sustainable design, learning to respect that wisdom was the most instructive part of the process.
Working Closely with the Building Owners to Set Expectations
Something interesting that evolved with this process was that Ernie Sota (the project contractor) helped us build mock-ups of things that the sisters could physically look at. For example, we wanted to do daylighting trim, where the top 25 percent of a wall would be painted white like the ceiling. This was a big expense and the sisters originally perceived it as decorative and didn't see the value. So Ernie Sota made two rooms next to each other as mock-ups where the sisters could come in during pre-construction and look at all the options and tell us what they did and didn't like. When they were able to compare a room with daylighting trim to one without it, they could then understand the difference and the value.
It's not common to go to those lengths to educate a building owner, but it was a goal of our team for the client to understand what they were getting into and ensure we made the right choices. At that time, we didn't have the ability to do computer mock-ups like we do now, so even though it took extra time and investment, it was well worth it. It felt like our responsibility to have them come out of a meeting and really understand what they were getting. Sometimes this would even help to solve a conflict between the architects and engineers.
Two features I'm particularly fond of are the meadow and our reuse of materials. At the start of the project, the sisters had three full-time grass mowers on staff, there were no pollution regulations on lawn mowers, and they had a declining population and finances. So now they keep a perimeter and front door area mowed, but the rest is meadow. It's a really beautiful feature and many community members love it.
Photo by Alexander Denmarsh
In terms of reusing materials, we had to gut the building and there was no way around that. The existing building plan was not workable for the needs of the sisters, many of whom used walkers or wheelchairs. Meanwhile, the building systems had not been upgraded since the 1930s, there were no individual temperature controls, and existing partitions contained asbestos. However, after 72 years, they still had beautiful doors and heart pine trim everywhere, and almost an acre of hardwood flooring! We couldn't stand the thought of throwing that all away. Most conventional architectural wisdom suggests keeping new things looking new and old things looking old. But we challenged that. Ernie Sota worked with Clearview Project Services to make a "tent city" on site to protect and house the materials while being refurbished. The challenge was that they had to surgically extract the original materials; catalogue and store them; then clean, refurbish, and repair each piece. This took much more effort than it would have to simply demolish the interior and buy all new pieces. I think it worked out well. The building kept its original character even though the space was very different to meet their needs. We broke a lot of architectural rules but I'm very proud of our decisions.
How would you link what you learned from this project to the emphasis on the human experience and LEED?
I would link it to human health. The sisters had originally been living in two buildings - the main house and the infirmary. Those living in the infirmary had their own chapel and dining room, so when an elderly or ill sister left for the infirmary, there was always a fear that she wouldn't come back to the mother house. The sisters wanted to combine the two living quarters so the ill and elderly sisters wouldn't be isolated from the rest of the community. So the project team incorporated a few living quarters in the renovated building near main congregating spaces so the ill and elderly sisters could remain involved. And additionally, the air in the newly renovated building was healthier for everyone to breathe.
Photo by Alexander Denmarsh
What one thing saved you or the project team the most time, money, or helped avoid an obstacle during the LEED process? What one thing cost you the most?
It was really the integrated team approach that saved time and money. This is the only project I have ever worked on that came in UNDER budget. We could sit down with everyone and say: "let's move the electrical room to the back and save wiring and money." Working with a close-knit project team, we were able to question the norms or the way things have always been done. When someone from another discipline is asking you questions, you see things from a different perspective which supports different solutions.
While there were definite benefits to applying LEED to the project, the documentation took a long time because it was new to all of us. And in particular, while the commissioning process adds value for the Owner, the paperwork took longer than anticipated. In some cases, documenting LEED credits can take longer than actually doing the work to achieve those credits. But you need a third-party system such as LEED to verify that you've done these things.
Photo by Alexander Denmarsh
If I could do it all over again, I would have placed more focus on the building envelope rather than the engineering of the building. If we had done some blower door tests (a method for measuring the air tightness of a building and to help locate air leakages in its envelope), we would have detailed our sections. I would have approached the mechanical systems and design of the envelope very differently. Looking back, we really have learned a few things in the years since we completed this project!
Carbon dioxide sensors and occupancy sensors (which help identify when a room needs to operate at full capacity, when CO2 needs to be removed from a space, and when oxygen/ventilation needs to be infused) were helpful in saving operational costs. For example, large spaces like the chapel and performing arts room weren't used frequently, but they could fit high capacities of people. These spaces place high demands on ventilation when in use, but when unoccupied the system needs are reduced or turned off.
Also, even though the reclamation of the doors, trim, and floors took a lot of time and effort, that resulted in a huge savings of money. In total, more than half a million dollars was saved because we salvaged and reused those items rather than buying new. The biggest savings by far in this category was the reuse of the doors and tansoms, which alone saved us $400,000.
The door reuse was challenging from a time standpoint, but it saved us money. It was extremely difficult to figure out how to reuse the doors, but finally we came up with a strategy to approach it by each floor of the building. We created a process rather than simply assigning a certain door to a certain opening.
Photo by Alexander Denmarsh
An interesting problem that we faced back in 2001 was carpet selection. We were looking for carpet with a high recycled content. It was difficult to find something that would work and it was a long process to get custom carpet for all the spaces. We ended up working with the manufacturers on this process. Fortunately, the carpet industry has come a long way since then.
Reflecting on this, there are two things I would have done differently. I would have focused more on the building envelope and how much we could insulate. We felt constrained by the space available to us, so we limited ourselves to 3.5 inch studs and 3.5 inches of insulation. But looking back, I think I would have bought an extra two inches of insulation around the perimeter because I think we could have done that, even though we were worried about the space.
Also, we had some challenges around our energy model (an energy model helps determine energy demand and opportunities for efficiency). We didn't have a lot of experience in being able to interpret energy models, and I think if we did, we would have used that model differently. You can't use an energy model to its full potential unless your modeler and team have the experience to interpret it.
Do you have any recommendations for other faith-based organizations that might be interested in pursuing a LEED certified project?
I would certainly recommend pursing LEED to anyone who is thinking of either renovating or building a new building. One benefit has been a lower gas bill because we have 15 solar thermal panels on our roof for heating our water. But in my opinion, I would say the greatest advantage is the cleanliness of the air in the building. And we began implementing green cleaning as well. We use vinegar and water for almost everything now - and that benefits our air quality plus it saves money on cleaning agents. I would encourage anyone to at least look into it. It is to their own benefit.
What was the value of applying LEED to this project?
At the time of the project, there was great value in using LEED to get the message out. We were able to teach people about environmental issues and have those issues catalogued in one place. Also, LEED was a good go-to resource for how to address certain issues around buildings and the environment.
Once the sisters were talking about LEED, it really transformed their community. They've implemented green cleaning, the school is using vermicomposting, they buy their meat from local farmers, and even have a sustainability-focused summer camp. I remember walking into the building a few years later and the head of nursing asked: "What did you do to our building? It is flu season and I usually have 12 sisters in here. I only had one this year!" We had introduced fresh air, and we also had low- or no-emitting materials in the building. That really changed their ability to breathe in the building and that's when I found out that what I'd been saying about green building was really working!
Photo by Alexander Denmarsh
Additionally, the school's enrollment went from 205 to 240, and this building became a place where people wanted to send their kids. The school is even looking to expand now.
I would say that the best outcome of the project was how it transformed the sisters. Even though they were already committed to the environment through their Patron Saint, they hadn't fully understood the connection before. Our team was very committed to environmental design. When explaining this to the sisters over the course of the project, it transformed their view and their role in working to be good stewards of the environment. They became advocates for what they called "the gospel of green" - and this became part of their mission. As great as the building is, the advocacy that they adopted became a great benefit, too. Because they made this whole-hearted transformation, they became advocates on the project and were very involved in all the decisions. They wanted to know the environmental impact of each decision and their focus helped keep us focused and more committed.
There was a definite change. Incorporating the beauty of the outdoors and the benefit to the environment were big benefits. The meadow and the beautiful grounds are great for walking, and the school's cross-country team runs through the meadow. Inside, anyone who comes into the building says how clean the air is. I know that there was a decrease in sick days for students, and I can tell you my own example. I had been on oxygen for three and a half years prior to the renovation. Six months after we moved into the new building I was re-evaluated, and I have been off of oxygen for 10 years now. The clean air in the building certainly helped. We had no idea when we started this that we were going to go green but I think it's been great and we'll always be grateful to Laura, Ernie, and the rest of the team for leading us into this.
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