Brooks McKinney

Nov 27th 2019

Sustainable Engineering LEEDs to Architectural Innovation


In a world where the health of the planet is increasingly a top-of-mind issue, commercial architects face a dual and somewhat daunting challenge: design buildings that (1) meet their functional requirements in an elegant, visually compelling way, while (2) implementing the latest principles of sustainable engineering; i.e. making use of energy, water and local natural resources in an efficient, sustainable fashion.

Designing a Green Future

Fortunately, architects across the country are tackling this challenge head-on, creating recreational, work and educational environments that exhibit a new brand of aesthetics in architecture and help create a strong, sustainable future for the planet.

Much of this new breed of sustainable design and construction has been motivated by a set of building standards developed in 2000 by the U.S. Green Building Council. Known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), these standards are used internationally for the design, construction and maintenance of sustainable, high-efficiency buildings and infrastructure, both commercial and residential.

Building projects can receive LEED certification in one of four categories — Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum — depending on points scored in five categories ranging from water efficiency to indoor environmental quality.

Small Changes, Big Improvement

One such LEED Platinum project is the Oregon Zoo Education Center in Portland, Oregon. Designed by Portland-based Opsis Architecture, and completed in 2016, the new complex of buildings represents a major redevelopment of an older plaza on the western edge of the Oregon Zoo. It embraces the theme “Small Things Matter,” and strives to educate its 1.6 million annual visitors about small, sustainable actions they can take on a daily basis to maintain a healthy planet.

“The Oregon Zoo Education Center was an attempt to connect with kids and adults on absolutely critical issues of habitat, wildlife and overall environment to help them feel empowered to make a difference in the fight against climate change,” said Alec Holser, a founding partner of Opsis Architecture and the lead architect for the project.

Architecturally, he explained, Opsis’ goal for the project was to help visitors experience activities inside the building and directly outside the building in a seamless way. This focus on aesthetics in architecture for example, inspired a “woven” structure of curvilinear steel and wood in the center’s Nature Exploration Station (NESt), a reference to nests woven together by animals to create shelter in the natural world. Similarly, the center’s two curved roofs reflect spiral patterns found frequently in nature.

Sustainable engineering features of the center include a solar photovoltaic array, an efficient use of natural ventilation to minimize cooling costs, and a high degree of rainwater capture for on-site irrigation. These features contribute to the center’s designation as a net-zero-energy facility; i.e. over the course of a calendar year, it generates as much power as it consumes.

In April, the American Institute of Architects awarded the Oregon Zoo Education Center a 2019 Committee of the Environment (COTE) Top 10 Award.

Giving New Wings to Production

Some facilities, such as Northrop Grumman’s Building 100 in St. Augustine, Florida, represent the blending of traditional manufacturing environments with aesthetics in architecture. The LEED Gold-certified Building 100 is one of the company’s aircraft manufacturing centers.

Opened in 2015, the facility was designed, engineered and constructed by The Austin Company, Irvine, California, to meet a rigorous list of aircraft production requirements. Equally important, however, explains Ken Stone, The Austin Company’s Building 100 project executive, were two other Northrop Grumman requirements.

“The company wanted the new facility to provide a much more “people-focused” environment for its employees and government customers,” he explained. “And they wanted it to be as sustainable as possible, following Northrop Grumman’s commitment to a green, environmentally-sensitive future.”

Putting Humans First

Aesthetics in architecture are reflected in the “human scale” of Building 100’s entrance, added Stone.

“Instead of simply incorporating the employee entrance, cafeteria and auditorium into the corner of a big box, we designed these facilities as single-story structures leading into the main manufacturing building,” said Stone. “Our idea was to soften the interface between the production center and the entrance road and parking lot. We also wanted to be respectful of the wetlands that are right there.”

Per its Gold LEED certification, Building 100 is a showcase of sustainable engineering practices including:

  • 312-kilowatt, roof-installed solar photovoltaic system that offsets much of the facility’s power requirements
  • High-efficiency air conditioning systems, and water-efficient plumbing fixtures throughout the facility
  • Translucent panels around the entire perimeter of the manufacturing high bay that allow natural light into the aircraft production areas
  • LED lighting that automatically controls its energy output to complement the amount of natural light available
  • White reflective roof and concrete (vs. asphalt) parking areas to reduce the heat island effect
  • Water retention pond that works with adjacent federal wetlands to provide irrigation to the site’s native landscaping
  • Showers and lockers for employees who bicycle to work, and electric-vehicle charging stations for those who drive non-fossil-fueled vehicles

End-to-End Innovation

Denver University’s (DU) Burwell Center for Career Achievement reflects new concepts in education and architecture. Designed by Lake | Flato Architects, San Antonio, Texas, the new student facility is currently under construction and expected to open in the fall of 2020. It aspires to be the first LEED-certified Platinum building on the DU campus and one of the first LEED version 4 Platinum-certified buildings in the State of Colorado.

The Burwell Center was conceived as a new type of academic environment: an “end-to-end” educational facility that would serve as an incoming student’s first experience at the DU campus, a site for ongoing personal and professional growth throughout a student’s college years, and a place for graduating students to connect and network with corporate recruiters and members of the DU alumni community.

“The University of Denver stakeholders wanted this new facility to express an authenticity consistent with the school’s commitment to a sustainable future for its campus and the region,” said Dan Craig, an architect with Denver-based Shears Adkins + Rockmore Architects, associate architect for the Burwell Center project.

Building Authenticity

Central to that authenticity — and a tribute to sustainable engineering — was a decision to use advanced mass timber construction instead of traditional heavy timber, steel and load-bearing masonry techniques to build the center.

Mass timber describes a family of engineered wood products that involve laminating and compressing a large number of smaller pieces of wood to create larger wood beams and other structural elements. Unlike traditional heavy timber, which involves harvesting old-growth forests and milling single pieces of lumber from large trees, mass timber beams are made from 20-year-old — new growth — trees grown in sustainable, responsibly-managed forests. According to the American Wood Council, these forests provide a steady, renewable source of wood products that continue to store carbon and offset the use of fossil fuels.

“Mass timber systems are lighter, more stable and, in many ways, structurally superior to steel,” explained Craig. “They offer opportunities to achieve building heights and spans that once required concrete, steel and masonry for structural support, which helps foster a new brand of innovation and aesthetics in architecture.”

In keeping with its pursuit of a LEED Platinum certification, the Burwell Center will include solar photovoltaic arrays on its roof; efficient, low-flow plumbing fixtures, and state-of-the-art temperature control and air-handling systems to optimize students’ experience of the building, added Craig.

Contemplating Climate Change

All of these architectural projects reflect, in their own way, the nation’s growing awareness of climate change and the need to inspire its citizens to take sustainable actions to help avert this existential crisis. Opsis’ Holser perhaps sums it up best:

“The changes we’re confronting now require a certain level of deep thinking and reflection,” he observed. “As architects, we have the opportunity to create calm, contemplative spaces where people can pause, gather their mind space, and begin to think about how small individual actions taken collectively can begin to make a difference to our future.”

If you’d like to create a sustainable, people-focused career, please visit us at