Merrill Hall University of Washington
Rebirth and Regeneration - A Horticulture School's Courtyard Atrium Breathes New Life Into a Ruined SiteThe first merrill hall, home to the center for urban horticulture at the University of Washington (UW), was destroyed in 2001 by a fire set by Environmental Liberation Front eco-activists. Their research target wasn’t housed at Merrill, but its world-class archives, library, and herbarium were decimated. The lost of that original building, designed by Jones & Jones, and much loved by the center’s staff, faculty, and community residents, made the urgency of rebuilding greater.
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The center is situated at the edge of campus, between a residential neighborhood and a nature preserve. The Merrill complex includes the Elisabeth C. Miller Library, the Hyde Herbarium, academic offices, and labs. The academic and outreach programs run by the center attract some 65,000 people a year.
Professor Tom Hinckley was director of the center at the time of the fire and throughout the rebuilding project. “As soon as we started talking about rebuilding, we were talking about sustainability,” he recalls. The staff and faculty were inspired by a video about the Chesapeake Bay Foundation headquarters, but the university initially resisted, reportedly worried that going green would set a costly precedent. The center convinced the university, but was told that it would have to raise all the money for sustainability equipment, materials, and systems.
Arborist Sue Nicol was the center’s outreach coordinator and served as its representative on the project team. “We wanted to make the tragedy of the fire into something meaningful,” Nicol says. “We felt that the best way to do that would be to make the buildings match the values of the center.”
For Craig Curtis, of Miller|Hull Architects, the idea of the facility being the edge between two conditions was inspiring. “We wanted to create a building that itself was part of the transition from urban to rural,” he says. Because of the tight budget and the desire to rebuild quickly, the program stayed the same, with a similar footprint as well.
The greenhouse, “Merrill Commons,” which opens to the lobby of the new building off of its main entrance, is a new and much-needed informal gathering space. Celebrating the entry was an important goal, since one weakness of the old facility was a somewhat undefined set of entry points. Early on it was determined that passive ventilation would be sufficient for cooling most spaces although not the library. High-efficiency condensing boilers and a water-cooled chiller were selected to keep energy use low, and administrative staff agreed to open offices for the light and air benefits. “It works well,” Nicol says, “but it couldn’t have happened without staff buy-in and training.” Sarah Reichard, who manages two labs and the herbarium and helped raised money for the project, says she has been surprised at the natural ventilation’s effectiveness. “We have high windows in the offices that stay open full-time in warm weather, and transom windows above the door. It makes a noticeable difference to have these open.”
The center is part of the College of Forestry Resources, which is supported in part by timber companies championing the Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI), so its use of wood was important. Instead of opting solely for Forest Stewardship Certification (FSC) wood, as LEED suggests, the design team decided to embrace and display the debate within the forestry community over FSC versus SFI.
The city of Seattle provided a 9.6 kW photovoltaic array as a demonstration component, which provides about 9 percent of the facility’s needed energy. The library’s meter shows energy generation in real time; occupants note the system is performing 10 percent better than expected
The building forms and the large courtyard are designed to restore hydrological flows. Indoors, low-flow fixtures were utilized where possible; predicted annual use is 51,675 gallons (compared to a baseline case of 81,738). The site includes an existing rainwater cistern to which the roof and site water are channeled. The whole site-water system links to an existing bioswale that had been in place for two decades; Merrill is the first campus building to link to it. As it turned out, the low-flow fixtures were one of the big lessons of the project. The angle of the pipes leading to the sewer system from dual flush toilets was not great enough to promote the flow with the lesser amount of water, and they wound up being replaced.
Another lesson involved the university’s decision not to specify low-flow hoods in the labs. The less-efficient models are noisy and some are being replaced. And mechanical units on the roof are louder than expected, which interferes with some events held in the courtyards. “Acoustic comfort is a big issue and I think this is something that we will be looking at more closely,” Curtis says of his firm’s future projects. “We are asking these questions much earlier and are thinking about consulting with additional people.”
Project manager Norm Menter of UW acknowledges that the building doesn’t work perfectly, but he’s not perturbed. “Adjusting parameters means that we have to retest assumptions,” he says. He credits the passion of the client for the success of the project. “The team at the center believed that a smaller footprint was possible, and necessary. They felt the building could be an asset to their program and to the educational process that they nurture—learning how urban and natural environments relate. This building is that process in real time.”
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