At EPA Construction Site, Even the Rocks Get Recycled

Hard hats among the hardwoods: The $232 million complex in North Carolina is a model for the 'green' building movement.

A monstrous machine sits on the crest of a red clay hill, sucking in limbs and roots and branches and spitting out chips of mulch.

It's a strange piece of equipment to see at a construction site. But it is just one example of how the million-square-foot structure planned for this piece of land near Durham, N.C., is not your average building job.

Typically, debris from downed trees would be burned as the land was cleared, not transformed into ground cover. The rocks dug up during the process of leveling the ground would normally be hauled off to a landfill - not crushed into pebbles to use on surrounding roads. And generally, concrete would be fetched from the nearest plant, some six miles down the road, rather than mixed on location to cut auto emissions.

But not here. This is the future home of the Environmental Protection Agency's largest-ever building, and the organization has pledged to do everything it can to, well, protect the environment.

That accounts for the giant oval of pines and hardwoods roped off in the middle of the site. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designers and engineers decided to work around the towering trees rather than cut them down and plant new ones once the building was complete. In addition, contractors have vowed to recycle every piece of lumber, metal, or stone they possibly can - as well as all soda cans emptied by construction workers on the job.

The concerns about the environment don't stop with the construction phase, either. The building has been designed to be energy efficient and to provide the best air quality possible for employees.

Even the tiniest details have been considered. For example, the ceiling tiles will be among the last items put in place. This is because they can absorb paint and cleaning material chemicals, then release them into the air for years to come.

"We don't have a whole lot of gimmicks on this project," says Chris Long, the EPA's project manager. "Mostly what we have done is asked the question over and over, 'How do we have the least impact on the environment?' "

The EPA is not alone in its effort to work with the environment, rather than against it. A movement called "green" building has been sprouting across the country during the past decade. It has spawned architects who specialize in green design and industries that provide environmentally friendly building materials and appliances.

But what sets this building apart is its sheer size.

The structure will take nearly four years to complete and will be set on a "campus" of more than 500 acres. The total complex includes six "areas," half of which will be lab and lab offices for the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Research and Development and its Office of Air Quality Planning Standards. Some 2,000 employees are expected to work in the new building. Total price tag: $232 million.

Making waves

And though groundbreaking for the project occurred just two months ago, the mammoth project is already making waves in the architecture community. The nation's first manual on waste specifications - detailing such information as how much energy it takes from start to finish to produce brick versus cinder block - was produced as a byproduct of the EPA project. Five hundred copies have since been sold to firms across the country.

In addition, the new EPA structure has been chosen as one of four buildings worldwide from which the first-ever standards on environmental architecture will be set.

"We're really at a turning point in the green building movement," says Gail Lindsey, chairwoman of the American Institute of Architect's committee on the environment and an architect with Design Harmony Inc. in Raleigh, N.C. "This EPA building is a very important building in looking at rating systems."

Early naysayers

But the building project is not without its critics. North Carolina's Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R) opposed the structure as a boondoggle early on, though he now supports it. And Congress only approved spending for the building - which has been on the EPA's books for two decades - after two additional facilities were scrapped.

To most, however, the building is a promising step for an emerging field - and a way for the EPA to put its money where its mouth is.

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