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Solution of the Month

Best Friends: Symbiosis helps one Philadelphia office building achieve LEED Platinum.

UJMN Architects + Designers
October 2010

By David Sokol

The last time renovators operated on the Friends Center, located on 1.26 acres in downtown Philadelphia, it was 1974 and crews were putting the finishing touches on a 56,000-square-foot office building abutting the Race Street Meetinghouse. The now-154-year-old worship place was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1993; meanwhile, all throughout the 1990s, age-related problems began surfacing among the buildings on the Quaker campus, which includes a former post of Friends Central School. 

Friends Center, Philadelphia
Photo © Paul S. Bartholomew Photography
Friends Center, Philadelphia

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Friends Center Corporation was founded in 1972 as a venture of the American Friends Service Committee, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, and Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting to own and manage the campus. In the spirit of togetherness, the Board of Friends Center originally wanted to upgrade the trio of buildings; lack of funding precluded the scope of work from encompassing the old school building, now a daycare center and incubator office building for nonprofits. UJMN earned the commission to design the project in 2003. 

Inspired by its choice to reuse its buildings and by Quaker doctrine generally, the board had also opted for an ecologically responsible renovation. Again pragmatism determined the ultimate distribution of resources, with a greater green focus placed on the four-story office building’s renovation than the Meetinghouse’s restoration. “The office building houses approximately 400 people working in 22 different nonprofit groups full-time, while the Meetinghouse just has occupancy on Sundays and some nights,” explains C. Anthony Junker, AIA, a cofounder of UJMN and a member of the Quaker congregation that meets on Race Street. “The Quakers felt that, first, they had to be good stewards of the people spending whole days in the office. Also, the Meetinghouse is voluminous; there never was the expectation to do real climate control or install energy-efficient windows. The green potential wasn’t quite as great, either from a practical or financial point of view.”

Completed in September 2009, the office building boasts attention-grabbing sustainability applications like a vegetated roof, which also includes a 10-kilowatt photovoltaic array. Ninety-six percent of the existing envelope and structural components were retained, and 90 percent of construction waste was diverted from landfills. It earned LEED-Platinum certification in January.

The office building’s achievement also stands on the shoulders of the 21,781-square-foot Race Street Meetinghouse. Exemplifying the Quaker testimony of community, six 660-gallon rainwater cisterns were installed in the basement of the historic building; the vessels store approximately 20,000 gallons of rainwater each month, which is then circulated in the office building to flush its low-flow toilets. And to collect that rainwater from the Meetinghouse roof, UJMN associate Stacey Blankin notes, “We designed diverters in keeping with the historic character of the building.”

Junker says the Meetinghouse reaps some benefits of the office building’s sustainability initiatives. Drilled to depths between 650 feet and 1,500 feet below Philadelphia’s 15th Street, seven geothermal wells heat and cool both nonprofit office tenants and members of the Quaker assembly. There are eco-friendly aspects unique to the Meetinghouse, too: The team installed interior storm windows to improve thermal performance and repaired damaged windows; restored the Cherry Street Meeting Room, replacing haphazard partitions with a series of glass planes that ensure the widest distribution of daylight; reopened plastered-over interior windows in the building core; installed energy-efficient lighting; and specified interior finishes with low VOCs and high recycled content.

Although Junker says that Quakers are famously slow decision-makers, the renovation’s potential as a sustainability teaching tool galvanized the Board of Friends Center to endure a roller-coaster design and construction process. Education also propelled Junker’s fellow firm cofounder Mark Ueland, who closely shepherded the Friends Center effort. Ueland passed away a year ago this month. “The last night I saw him he talked about Friends Center,” Junker remembers, “He could hardly breathe or speak, but he communicated that he thought it could be a teaching opportunity for other projects. That was his big payoff.”

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