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Small University Constructs Highest-Rated LEED Building

By Jenny Jones

Design and construction teams collaborate closely to realize the highest-rated LEED-certified building in the Western hemisphere.

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Saint Martin's University’s Cebula Hall has achieved the highest rating, platinum, in the LEED program of any building in the Western hemisphere. Lara Swimmer

November 19, 2013—Saint Martin's University is a small Catholic university located in the city of Lacey, Washington. With fewer than 2,000 students, the university is not the type of place one expects to make international news. But the school is doing just that thanks to its latest building project—which was recently named the highest-rated LEED-certified building in the Western hemisphere.

The U.S. Green Building Council announced in October that the school's newly constructed engineering building has earned a platinum-level certification from its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. But the building didn't just meet the requirements of the council's top sustainability tier, it scored 97 out of a possible 110 points—securing the highest rating to date of any newly constructed building in the hemisphere and the third-highest of any newly constructed building worldwide.

Formally named the Fr. Richard Cebula, O.S.B. Hall, but locally referred to as Cebula Hall, the structure houses the university's Hal and Inge Marcus School of Engineering. University officials knew they wanted the building to achieve LEED platinum, so they strategized to ensure it wouldn't miss the mark. "We would have these meetings, and we would talk about ways in which we could get as many points as possible," says Zella Kahn-Jetter, Ph.D., P.E., a professor of mechanical engineering and the dean of the school of engineering. "We made a conscientious effort to get every single point that we could."

To achieve its goal, the university hired McGranahan Architects, a design firm based in Tacoma, Washington, with which it had worked on a previous project. It also hired Sunset Air Inc., a Lacey-based mechanical engineering firm, to design the sustainable systems and ensure that the project adhered to LEED standards throughout design and construction, and PCS Structural Solutions, a firm with offices in Tacoma and Seattle, to provide structural engineering for the project. Other project members were Forma Construction, a construction contracting firm based in Olympia, Washington; SCJ Alliance, a project planning firm also based in Olympia; and Robert W. Droll, Landscape Architect, based in Lacey, Washington.

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Cebula Hall is equipped with many sustainable systems, includingsunscreens to reduce solar gain and solar panels for electricity generation. Lara Swimmer

Among the building's most significant energy-saving features are a 15,000 sq ft geothermal loop field and a highly efficient heat-recovery unit that moves heat from the outgoing exhaust air into the incoming fresh air. Other sustainable systems include low-flow plumbing fixtures that reduce water consumption by more than 50 percent, and a rain garden that will be used to irrigate the exterior landscaping. The building also has 3,000 sq ft of rooftop solar panels, which generate electricity and serve as a learning tool for students. As a result of these and other sustainable features, "this building uses 73 percent less energy than a standard building," said Joseph Bettridge, P.E., the vice president and director of engineering for Sunset Air, in response to written questions posed by Civil Engineeringonline.

Constructed at a cost of $225 per square foot, the new building is located on the site of a former tennis court and near a forested area, forming the final side to a new quadrangle on the university's campus. At roughly 27,000 sq ft, the building has three levels of classrooms, laboratories, and faculty offices, and each level has many windows that allow natural light to flood the interior spaces, reducing the need for artificial lighting. The building is clad in brick and metal panels. "The brick symbolizes the tradition of the existing campus setting, and the metal forms are meant to be a more contemporary expression representing engineering and combined to marry the ideas of tradition and progressiveness," says Marc Gleason, AIA, a principal of McGranahan Architects.

In addition to the sustainable systems, another unusual feature of the building is its structural framing. As the result of a cost-benefit analysis, the design and construction team decided to frame the building in wood rather than steel. Nearly all of the timber used in the project had been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, meaning it was procured in an environmentally sustainable way. "We were trying to get a LEED building and trying to keep the cost reasonable," says Jack Pinkard, P.E., S.E., M.ASCE, a principal of PCS Structural Solutions. "It made sense [to use wood] once we all bought into the idea that we could save money this way."

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Students can access some of the solar panels to perform experiments. Dane Gregory Meyer

But timber presented challenges that would have been easier to overcome with steel. For instance, wood made it difficult to accommodate the mechanical units that were installed above every room because the 34 in. deep open-web joists had to be spaced just 2 ft apart on center. Engineers resolved the issue by finding a place in every room where they could extend the joists to 8 ft on center, making way for the mechanical units. "If it had been a steel building, we would have had that eight foot spacing for the beams, and the mechanical units would have fit up there nicely," Pinkard says. "We needed to be really coordinated with the mechanical engineers on where those units would be." The team used building information modeling to keep the project organized. 

The project's location in a high seismic zone also presented challenges. Full-height timber shear walls were incorporated throughout the building to control those forces without driving up the project cost. "If this had been a steel building, we probably could have found some advantageous places to put brace frames and so forth, but to keep the cost down and keep from introducing a lot of heavy masonry, we really felt like we needed to stick with wood-framed shear walls," Pinkard says. To prevent overturning, the shear walls are equipped with tie downs—rods anchored into the foundation that extend the full height of the walls and attach to each floor by way of coupler nuts.

The university wanted the building to be more than just a place for classes; they also wanted it to be a teaching tool. To that end, some of the building's structural and mechanical elements are exposed so students can see, for instance, what a compression beam or duct looks like. "You can see things in a textbook, you can describe things, and you can draw things, but to actually see things ... in real life and how they integrate in a real project [is more meaningful]," Kahn-Jetter says. "We thought it would be a good idea for the students to be able to learn from that."

Integrating the exposed elements required a great deal of coordination to ensure they were located in places where the students could see them and in some cases perform experiments on them. For instance, one of the primary beams in one of the upper floor's main corridors was left exposed so that students could put strain gages on it and then have other students stand over it to see how the load changes, Pinkard explains. Questions were also raised about whether the exposed elements should be manipulated to look nicer than they would normally. "We chose to just let them be what they were—grimy bolts, rods, fasteners, and so forth," Gleason says. "They really serve as a great teaching tool."

As a finishing touch, most of the furniture within the building is made of recycled materials, including chairs made of 111 recycled Coke bottles, Kahn-Jetter says. The total cost of the project, including furnishings and equipment, was approximately $7.4 million, and all of the money was raised through private donations. "We didn't take any money from our endowment or from tuition," Kahn-Jetter explains. "We all felt that it was important to make a statement that we could do this at a really good cost and make the building a platinum building." She attributes the building's relatively low cost to effective project management and the fact that the recession created a competitive market.

While the project has brought prestige to the small university, achieving such a high level of LEED has an even deeper meaning given that Saint Martin's was established in the Benedictine tradition, which stresses the importance of environmental stewardship, Kahn-Jetter says. The project has allowed the university to demonstrate its commitment to protecting the natural world. "In terms of what it means to be a Benedictine university and what it means to be a steward of the environment, it really became paramount that we achieve this," she says. "It's a huge statement. We're a small university, and we did it."


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