The Green Building
Change Agent: A green retrofit serves as the cornerstone for regenerating a distressed neighborhood.
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A 10,000-square-foot green building doesn’t turn heads these days, even if it is tracking LEED Platinum. But in hometown Louisville, Kentucky, The Green Building, as it is simply called, serves as a symbol of the city’s aspiring eco-leanings. Designed by Los Angeles-based (fer) Studio and developed and owned by Gill Holland and his wife Augusta, The Green Building has not only spawned the redevelopment of the run-down East Market area of Louisville into a “locally grown” strolling arts district, but it has also resulted in a new name for the district—NuLu—“New Louisville.”
Holland purchased the 115-year-old former dry goods store in 2006 intending to upgrade it for mixed use. His green aspirations were stimulated “when visiting Iceland which runs off geothermal and seeing the grass-covered Viking-type houses in the Norwegian countryside,” he remarks. A longstanding friendship with (fer) Studio’s Douglas Pierson, AIA, led Holland to bring the firm on as architects. Pierson and his partner Christopher Mercier, AIA, had met at Frank Gehry Associates and subsequently founded their own firm.
It was four years ago when the client and architect agreed that the building would be LEED certified, and most of the team had never applied for certification. “It was like working in the dark ages then,” says architect and LEED consultant Kim Glass. “Many companies claimed to be green, but they gave vague or little real information on material content,” she continued. Builder Tim Peters of Peters Construction was part of that learning curve feeling “you can teach an old dog new tricks.” The project served as a catalyst for a sea change in the Louisville contracting community and now many, including Peters and Glass, serve an expanding green building industry.
On the ground floor of the building, a long circulation corridor extends front-to-back, drawing visitors inward to a dramatic three-story atrium lobby at the center of the building, which provides access to the upstairs, an art gallery, and an indoor/outdoor gathering space at the back. “Design-wise the lobby is very democratic—anyone can see it and access it,” says Pierson. Also three stories high, the circulation spine brings light and views inside with floor-to-ceiling glazed volumes, revealing the rough underpinnings of the original structure.
The building was substantially gutted and renovated, but the main masonry structural shell, “once covered up for a century” says Pierson, remains intact. Much of the original wood was removed and corn-blasted (pulverized corn was put into sand-blasting equipment and the joists were pummeled). “The corn blasting was as effective as sand blasting and the look was better,” commented Peters. Holland was amazed at the rustic joists and joked that “George Washington was around when that tree started growing.” The architects juxtaposed the old with a new modern core such that “the contemporary nature of the interventions is revealed as a procession,” explains Mercier. This journey through time is completed with clerestory windows at the top, “becoming the opposite of the historic facade at the front,” he continues. Bifurcating the existing roof into two planes sloped in opposing directions created a scissor-shape. “The existing roof slopes down and the new roof sloping up creates a new rear facade curtain wall that cascades down to a green roof,” says Mercier.
The architects found design decisions resulted in unexpected sustainability opportunities. For example, the lobby was set in the middle of the building to provide for the street-side restaurant. But because it occupies the core of the building, it could double as a heat sink—energy performance occurred as a result of design. Once that codependent pattern was established, other strategies fell into place. “The lobby became the nerve center for collection and distribution of the energy systems. Its integral mechanical room directly below became the convergence of energy storage, geothermal, energy recovery, and radiant heat,” Pierson explains.
Green interventions are plentiful and include natural lighting and ventilation, eco-friendly materials, 81 PV panels, an ice storage system, and 12 geothermal wells. Shaded by PV panels, the indoor/outdoor space features a green wall. The project has had enough points approved to achieve LEED Platinum but final certification awaits resolution on six additional points.
Development, including a green farmer’s market, continues in NuLu. Holland owns or is part owner of 16 existing buildings, which are either being renovated or will be. For him, the building is a long-term investment. “The geothermal will pay off in 5 to 6 years and the solar has a 14-year payback. I’m all about the economics of green,” he says. With the owners planning to occupy the building for the rest of their lives, that logic works.