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Building 'Green': A Worthy and Realistic Commitment in Grand Rapids, Mich.


January 30, 2006


Special to Passenger Transport

It is almost universally agreed that incorporating the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design principles is a worthy goal. Actually implementing those principles into a real world project, however, can be problematic.

Concerns about adding to the project timeline and scope, finding qualified architects and contractors, and budget implications can all be significant stumbling blocks in making green, or sustainable, building a reality.

Rapid Central Station--the main hub for The Rapid bus system in Grand Rapids and the first LEED certified transit facility in the country--was literally years in the making. Work began in earnest in 1998, when a site selection committee was formed. Five years and two sites later, The Rapid broke ground in early 2003.

The lengthy time frame was due to a number of factors, chief among them amassing enough federal capital earmarks to fund the $23 million project and selecting a site that was widely endorsed by the community. In hindsight, this proved to be a positive thing.

The lengthy project development phase allowed the station design to evolve into a more comprehensive, significant center. What was once planned to be a series of glorified shelters with a nearby enclosed waiting and ticketing area instead became a 560-foot covered platform with 18 bus slips next to a multi-story building that houses not only a waiting area and ticketing/information center, but office space, a conference center, a community policing station, and the local Greyhound Bus terminal.

During those five years, the green buildings movement also evolved, gaining momentum and offering real-world examples of sustainable building practices.

Early on, the board of directors and staff of The Rapid were committed to having some level of environmental sustainability incorporated into the project.

"As a key player in the regional efforts to contain urban sprawl and improve air quality, we felt it was our responsibility to build a green center," said Peter Varga, The Rapid executive director and chief executive officer.

Progressive AE, the architectural firm responsible for the project, had LEED specialists on staff and was well-qualified to guide The Rapid through the design and construction and, eventually, through the certification process itself.

From the beginning, the building was designed to maximize the project's ability to garner LEED certification points, the system for determining if and at what level a project is certified, focusing on areas such as sustainable sites, materials and resources, indoor environmental air quality, and innovation and design process.

The Rapid was also fortunate that Michigan, specifically the west Michigan region, has embraced sustainable building design: 11 percent of the nation's LEED-certified buildings are in west Michigan.

"There were other projects we could look at, including specific features to see how they functioned," said Varga. For example, a contingent from The Rapid took a trip to Ford's Rouge River Plant, outside of Detroit, to view the facility's green roof, ask questions about its maintenance, and get a gauge of success.

The group came back excited about the idea of a green roof, which is essentially a layer of live sedum growing on the flat portions of the roof. According to Varga, "the green roof reduces stormwater runoff and adds an extra layer of insulation that helps reduce the need for mechanical temperature controls." The sedum is also expected to significantly increase the useful life of the roof itself by shielding it from UV rays.

"What we saw and learned from these other sites persuaded staff and the board that we wanted to fully commit to green building principles, including qualifying for LEED certification," said Varga. "We always believed it was important. Seeing those other projects convinced us it was also possible."

Once the commitment was made, Progressive AE began outlining areas in which the project could receive LEED points. Much of it came from the construction process itself, by using recycled materials and, in turn, recycling construction waste. Emphasis was also placed on using materials that could be obtained locally or regionally to reduce the environmental impacts of lengthy transportation. Low-emitting materials such as adhesives, sealants, paints, and carpet systems were used to improve the indoor air quality by reducing contaminants.

It was easy to accumulate "Alternative Transportation" points--as the main transfer hub, Rapid Central Station is a direct ride from just about anywhere in the metro area and offers easy walking access to the core downtown. Bike racks were installed to complement the existing bus bike racks. Showers were installed in the employee area to facilitate walking or biking rather than commuting by car. Also, preferential parking was offered for carpools and vanpools.

Some of the bigger-ticket items were approved later in the building process, such as large tanks beneath the bus platform that collect and clean stormwater runoff before discharging it back into the immediate environment and a terrazzo floor using recycled glass, along with the green roof.

"We designed it in such a way that we could add things over time, when we had a better handle on actual construction costs," explained Varga. "We ended up having contingency funds available to approve these items without exceeding the total project budget."

He continued, "The costs associated with designing and building an environmentally-friendly facility were only slightly higher than they would have been to not include these green features." He said he anticipates operational cost savings associated with going green, but they are difficult to quantify. Because the facility is new construction, no baseline exists for comparison.

Without question, the decision to build green has had significant PR value for the agency within the community. "The community understands that we take our commitment to sustainability seriously," said Varga. "We developed a beautiful center that offers significant improvements, both operationally and environmentally, over our old facility. It gives us credibility when we talk about improving air quality, sustaining resources, and building a truly multi-modal transportation system. We practice what we preach."


Kalczuk, Jennifer, Manager, Communications and External Relations, The Rapid, Grand Rapids, Mich.

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