A3C: Greener Than Thou

Green is the new black when it comes to construction. It seems that developers are tripping over each other to label their projects as the most environmentally friendly thing since the Sierra Club. Unfortunately, many are more interested in marketing than real-world impact.


There are some buildings, however, that really live up to their environmental boasts and in Michigan one of the best examples is Ann Arbor Architects Collaborative's (A3C) headquarters in downtown Treetown. The architecture firm, known for its sustainable designs, is putting the finishing touches on a massive renovation that makes the building almost as environmentally friendly as if it wasn't even there.


"We basically said we're going to walk the talk," explains Dan Jacobs, principal of A3C. "That way when one of our customers is exploring the idea of geothermal and they ask, 'Have you done it Dan?' I can say we put our money where our mouth is."


And installing a geothermal heating and cooling system isn't even the biggest addition to the venerable building. Recycled materials are used throughout the structure, which includes a green roof, heavy insulation, sky lights, solar chimneys and a rainwater catching system. The firm is also planning into install solar panels and a few wind turbines for good measure.

And then there are the environmentally-friendly details that most developers overlook. How many 'sustainable' building projects can you think of have demolished a pre-existing structure, only to generate countless tons of waste. As part of its renovation, A3C is not only retrofitting an older building (the ultimate in construction conservation) but also recycling as much of its debris as possible. Furthermore it's building up the lot line in a downtown core that's friendly to pedestrians and bicyclists.


This attention to detail helps burnish A3C's green credentials and accentuate it's almost non-existent carbon footprint. Is it any wonder the firm is going for gold LEED certification, won Ann Arbor's inaugural Energy Challenge Awards and is well on the way to meeting the city's Energy Challenge.


"I can't compare it to anything here because we don't have anything else like it in Ann Arbor," says Andrew Brix, spokesman for the Ann Arbor Energy Office. "It's truly unique. And they did it with an existing building. That makes it so much more environmentally friendly."


Location, location, location


There is a school of thought that says where an environmentally friendly building is built is just as important as how it's built. The idea is that building an office in a formerly rural land --no matter what its LEED rating is-- only
contributes to urban sprawl and encourage people to drive more, negating the virtues of the structure's sustainable features.


For instance, a new building in Sprawlburg Township that forces its workers to drive long distances not only to get to work, but to go to lunch and run errands is not nearly as environmentally friendly as reusing an existing building in a city core that gives people the option to walk, bike or take public transportation to get around.


"It's something that's getting lost in this discussion that is growing quite popular," says Mark Nickita, principal of Archive DS architecture firm. "It's nice that (green building) is on the front page of Time. At the same time we need to keep it in perspective and not get caught up in the rhetoric."


Although Jacobs and his coworkers didn't initially set out to adhere to this line of thinking, they are enjoying the fruits of these decisions. His staff voted overwhelmingly to stay in the downtown area instead of moving out to the city's edge or beyond. A3C is also 
interested in buying into the downtown's proposed Zipcar fleet to cut its parking needs. Some employees who bicycle to work even have access to an office shower.


"We have one person who cycles seven miles into work," Jacobs says. "This way with the shower it's not so obvious who our bikers are."


The company's home is in a two-story 1920s storefront that once had a small one-story cottage in front, facing Huron Avenue. In the 1960s that cottage was torn down to complete the street wall. Since the building is sandwiched between two other buildings, A3C shares heating while taking advantage of the shade from other nearby structures.


The firm first renovated its home when it moved in in 1997, bringing in natural light through windows, reusing old walnut paneling for wood finishings and
refurbishing and relocating the building's original doors so they
only needed to purchase two new ones to be purchased. Reusing the building and everything in it helped limit landfill waste while maintaining a traditional office atmosphere.


"There is a perception a sustainable building won't look or feel like a traditional office space," Jacobs says. "We show that you can be sustainable and still maintain a traditional office space."


Big Ticket Items


A3C's building has also been retrofitted with some big-ticket green items that would make just about any tree hugger in Tree Town drool. Although
installing features like a geothermal heating and cooling system or a green roof into an existing building present all sorts of challenges, it's worth the trouble in Jacobs' eyes.


"This is a long-term investment for us," Jacobs explains.

Which means big upfront costs with the expectation that big dividends will be paid down the road. For instance, the building's new geothermal system costs much more than a regular furnace or boiler heating system, especially when demolition and retrofitting costs are included.


However, the system is expected to pay for itself within seven to eight years. Maybe even sooner as the price of fuel continues to rise. Not bad for a system that has a lifetime expectancy of at least 50 years.


Geothermal can accomplish this because it uses the constant heat of the earth to heat or cool a building. A3C drilled four, 400-foot-deep wells in the alley behind its building to draw constant temperature. Once the cost of drilling those wells and retrofitting the system is paid off, the firm only needs to pay the cost to run the heat pump and maintenance.


"The maintenance for it is appreciably less than a traditional forced air system," Jacobs says. "For us it was a no brainer."


As was completely redoing the building's roof, which is now decked out in skylights, insulation, solar chimneys and one day soon, green vegetation. Solar chimneys allow for a constant flow of air through the building, bringing fresh air in and hot air out.


The building also showcases three types of insulation in its walls that are visible through glass panels. The firm's employees record how well they work and then use them as a live demonstration for customers. That way they can determine first hand if the recycled shredded bluejeans insulation works as well as the blown in cellulose.


Two long rows of skylights help bring in large quantities of natural light at the back of the building where most of the employees work. Exposed beams and the joists beneath them act as de facto Venetian blinds for the natural light, a commodity in high demand from staff (and management looking to cut electricity


"The only way to work in our office space was with the lights on," Jacobs says. "Today we work without the lights on."


The 3,250 plants (22-different types) that are about to be planted on the building's roof soak up most of the rest of the sunlight. This green roof is split into a separate sections so A3C can demonstrate to its customers how the process works from a conference room overlooking the small urban meadow.


One section is a single strip of vegetation, not unlike a yard. Another is in a tray system where one side lives off direct rainfall while the other is fed by an irrigation system that utilizes rainwater runoff stored in huge tanks just below the roof (and within sight of the employees' workstations). Each section of green roof is also a different thickness, allowing A3C to monitor how well each provides insulation.

All of these features will be completed within a few weeks. Later this year, the company plans to install solar panels on roof of the small conference center that overlooks the green roof at the back of the building. It's also trying to get permission from the local historical district to put small wind turbines on the building's face to capture wind generated by passing traffic.


"It may still happen," Jacobs says. "We might try turning it into something that looks like a barber poll because of the historical district."


Little Things


The big features go a long way toward making A3C's home a model for sustainability, but its the little details that close the deal. And those details can be seen in every corner of the building, from the ground up.


The flooring is eco-friendly. The carpeting is made from recycled bottles and carpet remnants. The hardwood floors are either bamboo or cork, both considered the high-end of green wood floor materials. Bathroom tiles come from recycled materials and even some rubberized portions of floors were once discarded tires.


The interior paint and ceiling tiles are made of materials that don't give off toxic gases. Countertops are made of linoleum instead of vinyl and the bulletin boards are made a corn fiber. Even the wallpaper is made of recycled materials.


And the attention to detail doesn't stop there. Each toilet in the building has two flushing options to conserve water. One for heavy loads that uses only 1.1 gallons of water. The other for liquids-only, using a scant 0.8 gallons. Compare that to your typical household toilet flush which uses a whopping 1.6 gallons of water.


And as if that weren't enough, A3C's bathroom sinks use motion sensors to turn on. Even the electricity used for those sensors comes from a small turbine in the plumbing that "creates a generator effect," Jacobs says.


In the final tally, the architects have created a workplace that requires almost half the energy of a normal building its size. Once the alternative energy generators (solar panels and wind turbines) are in place it will be very close to carbon neutral.

"We're as close to getting to 0 percent as we can," Jacobs says.

Considering its location and history, that's a green credential worth being proud of.

Jon Zemke is a former longtime Ann Arbor resident and Detroit-based freelance writer. He is also the News Editor of Concentrate and metromode.


Rendering of the Roof of A3C-Ann Arbor

Part of the Geothermal System-A3C

Daniel Jacobs-Principal of A3C-Stairwell at A3C

The Green Roof of A3C Nearing Completion-Ann Arbor

Examples of the Insulation for Study-A3C Wall

Skylights-Roof of A3C

Solar Trap-Roof of A3C

All Photos by Dave Lewinski

Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer.  He has not been able to touch his own tows since he was 10.

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