A Tipping Point for Good

The following first appeared in Truth Out.

The Brock Environmental Center, located at Pleasure House Point in Virginia Beach, VA

We've known for a long time that the Earth is warming, but it could be worse than we thought. A recent report from the World Meteorological Organization concludes that carbon pollution and the buildup of greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere are increasing much faster than projected. And this pollution is putting communities across the country at a higher risk of droughts, intense storms, floods, and other problems brought on by global warming.

In the Chesapeake Bay region, we're on the front lines of climate change. Streets in Norfolk, Virginia, home to nearly a quarter of a million people and the world's largest naval base, routinely flood during heavy rains. Wind-and wave-pushed storm surges make the flooding even worse. And scientists estimate sea levels in Norfolk will rise another foot and a half within the next 50 years.

Virginians are scrambling to prepare the region for these changes. The governor convened a special commission to recommend action; the military is looking hard at the future of its Hampton Roads bases—and local governments, businesses, and citizens are bracing for the worst.

But at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, we're not blinking; we're creating a tipping point for the good by helping to develop solutions that could be a model for coastal regions across the country and the world where climate change threatens our livelihood and our future.

In November 2014, we'll open the doors to the new Brock Environmental Center—a 10,000 square-foot environmental education and community center in Virginia Beach, VA. By adapting existing technologies and utilizing old-school building techniques, we're building an energy efficient and environmentally smart building that will reduce damaging carbon pollution and adapt to rising sea-levels and a changing climate.

The solution starts with energy independence. To achieve that goal, the Brock Environmental Center is designed to use 80 percent less energy than typical buildings. The building will generate clean renewable energy from two wind turbines and rooftop solar.

Our designers curved the building and positioned it to maximize natural sunlight and maritime winds. The building features a "dog trot," an open deck in the middle of the building that promotes natural ventilation by allowing cool air to flow in and heat to flow out. It's an old trick used by Colonial builders in the South before the era of air conditioning. The highly insulated building significantly reduces the need for heating and air conditioning.

Together with the center's ultra-tight walls, windows, and doors, extra insulation and energy efficiencies, the Brock Center will truly be energy independent.

The building will also be water independent. Rainwater will be harvested from the roof and treated, allowing us to use our own water for drinking, sinks and showers, and other needs. Any excess rain water will flow into nearby rain gardens. "Gray water" will be used for native grasses, flowers, and shrubs. Even the center's bathrooms will use waterless toilets that compost waste in waterproof bins until the harmless compost can be spread on the grounds.

Anticipating more regional flooding, we have raised the building on pylons about 13 feet above current sea level and above any expected flooding in the coming decades.

Most importantly, we deliberately left the landscaping around the building as natural as possible in marsh, sand, shrubs, and trees. There are no paved parking lots; staff and visitors will park on nearby streets and walk to the center on a natural path through the woods. Any code-required handicap and emergency accesses will use permeable pavers that let water soak in rather than run off.

All of this natural, "soft" landscaping makes the Brock Center serve as a giant sponge, absorbing rainfall and storm surges and allowing flood waters to spread and recede naturally without harm to the center or nearby neighborhoods.

Researchers, students, designers, and architects will come to the Brock Environmental Center to learn about the Chesapeake Bay and environmentally smart building techniques to reduce carbon pollution and prepare our communities for climate change. As people take these techniques back to their communities around the country and the world, it will help create a tipping point for the good.

—Will Baker, CBF President

Watch this video, discussing the genesis of the Brock Environmental Center project and how it is a model for combating climate change and future coastal buildings. 

Gym Floor Finds New Life at CBF's Brock Center

Removing the flooring from Campostella Elementary School in Norfolk. Photo courtesy of Chuck Epes/CBF Staff.

I doubt my CBF colleagues will shoot hoops or jump rope when they move into the new Brock Environmental Center, set to open later this fall in Virginia Beach.

But I wouldn't blame them for wearing sneakers to work and occasionally running through the building like it was, well, a gym. That's because much of the center's flooring is made from planks salvaged from the gymnasium floor of the former Campostella Elementary School in Norfolk.

Amanda Fulton of Fulton's Finest Flooring installs the planks from the old gym floor at CBF's new Brock Environmental Center. Photo courtesy of Chuck Epes/CBF Staff.

And while the maple hardwood will no longer host basketball and volleyball games, it will make a perfectly beautiful and durable floor for the Brock Center, CBF's new environmental education and community Center overlooking the Lynnhaven River.

When it opens in November, the Brock Center will become home for CBF's Hampton Roads staff, Lynnhaven River NOW, and CBF's Hampton Roads environmental education program serving Tidewater students and teachers.

But it will also be one of the most energy-efficient, water-conserving, environmentally smart buildings in the world. CBF intends the center to meet the strictest LEED Platinum and Living Building Challenge environmental standards. Among others, those standards include maximizing the use of recycled and reusable materials to save natural resources, energy, and costs.

Enter the old gym floor. When CBF, builder Hourigan Construction, and architect SmithGroupJJR learned that the former elementary school was about to be demolished, they asked Fulton's Finest Flooring of Virginia Beach to salvage the hardwood before the wrecking ball arrived and take it to the Brock Center construction site. 

"We were under the gun to get it before the school was demolished," says Amanda Fulton, owner of Fulton's Finest Flooring. "We got in there, salvaged the floor, and got out in a week."     

Ripping up, then re-installing an old gym floor was a first for the company, and a bit of a hassle, Fulton acknowledged recently as she and a crew carefully sawed, glued, and nailed the 1.5-inch planks into the Brock Center. In fact, plenty of work on the floor still lay ahead. After the planks are installed, they must be left a few weeks to acclimate to the new building's air and humidity. They then must be sanded to remove old paint and gym markings, stained, and sealed with an environmentally friendly coating.

Still, Fulton said she'd do it all again, "for all the right reasons."

"One day my daughter will go on a Chesapeake Bay Foundation field trip here and learn about energy conservation and water conservation. I love this building."

Chuck Epes, CBF's Assistant Director of Media Relations

There's still time to be a part of what will be the greenest building in Virginia and an international model for sustainable building! Click here to learn more.

Old maple hardwood from the school gym going into the new Brock Environmental Center. Photo courtesy of Chuck Epes/CBF Staff.