Heifer International Center
Circle of Life: A charity dedicated to nourishing families builds a new office as a model of harmony with nature.
Heifer international is a nonprofit organization that addresses global problems with an approach founded in sustainability. It gives livestock such as goats, cows, and chickens to families in need as a lasting source of food and income. In 2000, during a period of strong growth and with its 200-plus staff spread across five locations in Little Rock, Ark., Heifer decided to build a headquarters to accommodate 450 staff and public space for educational and outreach programs.
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Heifer moved into its 94,000-square-foot narrow, curving, four-story office building in January 2006, and its staff now works in daylit open offices with views of native landscaping, the Arkansas River, and the adjacent Clinton Presidential Library. The elegant and economical office building is applying for LEED Platinum certification.
Reese Rowland, design principal with Polk Stanley, says sustainability was a top priority from the start.
“Everything Heifer does is about sustainability,” he says. LEED certification was a goal, but “Heifer’s interest was from an educational standpoint: We teach these values around the world; we need to demonstrate them in the way we live.”
Delving into the organization and its history, the design team found a guiding metaphor in a statement attributed to Heifer founder Dan West: “In all my travels around the world, the important decisions were made where people sat in a circle, facing each other as equals.” That sentiment is reflected in a set of concentric circles that create a sense of unity among the site’s elements. Rippling outward from their center at a public entrance commons, the circles also illustrate the cycle of giving that Heifer calls “passing on the gift.” The organization passes on charitable gifts in the form of livestock to needy communities; individuals or groups that receive the animals agree to share offspring with other community members.
Before work could begin on the design, the team had to deal with the 20-acre site Heifer had purchased, a former railroad switching yard that was polluted with creosote and diesel fuel. Instead of demolishing and trucking away several old warehouses that Heifer couldn’t use, a subcontractor recommended a scheme that ultimately diverted 97 percent of the material from landfills. The refuse was processed on-site, with bricks set aside for reuse, rubble crushed for fill, and metals separated for recycling. The team had to decide whether to clean the contaminated soil or pay to have it taken to a landfill. Working closely with the city, they learned that the municipal landfill is required to bury each day’s garbage with a layer of soil. The landfill took all 4,200 truckloads of Heifer’s contaminated gravel, waiving the tipping fee, and used it instead of clean fill to bury garbage. This smart approach was “a benefit for both projects,” says Dan Baranek, the project’s civil engineer with McClelland Engineers.
The property’s proximity to the Arkansas River made the team acutely aware of the consequences of runoff. “We set a goal early to manage stormwater on-site,” says Rowland. Thus, the grounds collect and contain stormwater in a wetland (lined with a clay excavated from the parking lot), which surrounds the building and snakes through the property.
A permeable paving system in the parking lot encourages stormwater infiltration, while a 3,000-gallon tower collects rainwater from the building’s 30,000-square-foot roof. That water supplements a separate graywater storage tank fed from lavatories and condensate from ventilating units; together the systems supply water for toilets and the cooling tower, which account for 90 percent of the building’s water needs. Under a special variance from the city, restrooms have waterless urinals. Even the native-plant landscaping only required irrigation to get established.
Although only 40 percent of the headquarter’s envelope is glass, the interior feels bright, in part because of the innovative placement of the building’s three staircases. Instead of hiding them inside, they are individually articulated and wrapped in glass. Two float over the wetland. With air openings at ground level and five stories up, convection pulls cool air off the water, helping to keep the unconditioned spaces comfortable year-round. The third wraps around the water tower. “The staircases promote health and they cut down on elevator use,” says Rowland. Five balconies on each floor create additional opportunities to step outside.
From the beginning, Rowland says, they had hoped to use 35 percent less energy than a standard ASHRAE 90.1 building, but modeling showed they could save as much as 55 percent. “Optimized daylighting throughout the building was the key to that success,” says Todd Kuhn, the lead mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineer. Together with photocells and dimming controls, occupancy sensors reduce energy use from lighting and lower the cooling load. “Everyone loves the daylighting,” says Erik Swindle, Heifer’s director of facilities management. Despite modeling during the design process, some adjustments were needed, he adds. “The architect had said we didn’t need window shading,” but shading was installed on the building’s south side shortly after moving in because of glare in offices.
The commissioning process was also essential to realizing projected energy savings. A series of check valves on the HVAC system was removed after a value engineering evaluation, for example. “We moved in during the winter, and our heating and cooling systems were competing with each other,” says Swindle. “We could have spent $20,000 to $30,000 to install those valves, or we could have wasted that much energy every year,” he says, noting that the decision was easy. Another fix prescribed by commissioning helped tighten up the under-floor air distribution system. Leaks around data boxes in the access flooring unit that caused unnecessary noise and energy loss were sealed.
“Throughout the project we kept a pretty lengthy running shopping list of sustainable strategies,” says Rowland. The team ended up checking off almost everything on that list, even when doing so cost them LEED points. Instead of buying certified wood from across the country, the team bought noncertified wood from a responsibly-managed forest in the region. This local approach paid off in other areas of LEED. For instance, the team found a high percentage of building materials within 500 miles of the site by buying steel and aluminum from manufacturing facilities in Little Rock.
The building was completed for $19 million, or a modest $189-per-square-foot—important for an organization supported by individual donors who demand fiscal responsibility. A future welcome pavilion will include galleries and a shop, and an interactive learning center will model village life around the world—with livestock, of course. The open quarters required an initial adjustment period for staff, yet “once we settled in,
people started recognizing details,” says Swindle. “Everybody loves watching the plants grow, and it was great to see ducks land in the water three weeks after we moved into the building.”
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