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RFM’s Sustainable Urban Infill Project Transforms: More than Bricks and Mortar

DSC01700Kathleen O'Brien recently returned to the former site of a derelict Sears Auto Store and now the award-winning high performance headquarters for RiceFergusMiller. This urban Infill project reveals how a sustainable built environment is about so much more than bricks and mortar.

 In 2009, James Jenkins and I met with RiceFergusMiller principals and staff to lay groundwork for sustainable goal-setting for their new office and studio. They had just purchased the old Sears Auto Center near their existing (and crowded) digs in downtown Bremerton and wanted to showcase sustainability. In addition to O'Brien & Company, Shawn Oram from Ecotope participated in the workshop, bringing a depth of building energy expertise and innovative spirit.

RFM was still in the process of cleaning up the building at the time to see what they had. As prelude to the workshop, we carefully (and I mean carefully!) wended our way through the abandoned structure that in the 80s had been an anchor for Bremerton's retail business core. Old signage gave us an inkling of what it must have been like at its peak, but it was truly a mess. However, it was hard not to get too excited. Here was an existing building in a downtown that was crying out for revitalization, with a team invested in all three aspects of sustainability — environment, economy, and social benefit. Wow!

And in particular, they had the good sense to recognize the importance of "place" in achieving sustainable goals. "We didn't want to replicate green building projects being built in more urban areas. We wanted a project that was the most sustainable it could be, and that would further the agenda, here in Bremerton," Principal Steve Rice opines. In addition to keeping a piece of Bremerton's retail heritage intact, they have proven that with a bit of willingness to experiment, what they call "high performance sustainability" is achievable even outside green building hubs. Unlike nearby Seattle where LEED buildings abound, RFM's LEED Platinum headquarters is one of a very few LEED buildings on the West Sound. LEED is the nationally recognized rating system of the US Green Building Council (GBC).

One of the major factors in how far any client is willing to go is risk. In that early workshop, we ran through an analogy of river rafting and asked the RFM team to choose which "class" of difficulty they were willing to take on, with Class 1 representing the least risk and Class 6 representing suicidal risk (really). They chose Class 3 – Difficult. This class requires expertise for maneuvering, scouts who have been there before, a good operator, and a good boat. In a recent interview and tour of the facility, I asked Steve whether the project experience rated a Class 3, and he quickly responded that it was probably more difficult than that. But like any good run after it's done, the satisfaction he and his mates are experiencing is written all over Steve's smiling face.

And he wants everyone to know about it. "This may seem weird, but for me this building is a sort of 'temple' where everyone who comes here leaves as a bit of a green disciple, because they all see it makes sense." The first floor is designed for easy reconfiguration for public events. In the 15 months since they've opened (June 2011) they've had nearly 40 community events with anywhere from 10 to 200 attendees at a pop. Whether the event is focused on green building or not, host Steve gets to say something about what they've been able to accomplish.

Which is no small thing. At a very reasonable $105/sf cost, RFM's design team reduced energy consumption from the CBEC Standard for this building type by 78%, saving $24K annually. They saved 58% in construction costs due to retaining as much of the original structure and materials. They've reduced water consumption by 70% and save over 60,000 gallons of potable water a year. And, according to Steve, they've done this with off-the-shelf components, used innovatively. They were also willing to work with local officials when water saving technologies didn't pencil out simply because of municipal billing policies, rather than just giving up on them.

DSC01703Much of what they've accomplished has been made visible by leaving elements exposed. Rather than an industrial environment however, the building has a very clean, calming aesthetic. Even the 14-foot fan circulating air above the heads of those in the lobby for practical reasons, provides flair, and for those of us in the biz, a reminder that hidden under the building's success is the circular pattern provided by an integrated project process.

Steve recalls that after that very first workshop, he and his partners realized that this was much bigger than even creating a high performance building — which is big enough. They were creating a story of transformation. Of a derelict building in a struggling downtown. What they may or may not have realized is that, in the opinion of this author, they too have been transformed — into the best type of green building evangelists there are. The kind who practices what they preach.

Kathleen O'Brien is Editor of Building Capacity Blog, and contributes monthly to the Daily Journal of Commerce's Green Building Blog. She has been in the sustainable development field for nearly three decades. She provides consulting on special projects for O'Brien & Company, the firm she founded over 20 years ago, and provides leadership training and mentoring through her legacy project: The Emerge Leadership Project. Her book The Northwest Green Home Primer, is popular with both professionals and the public. James Jenkins now works with BNBuilders.

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