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September 2007

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


How Green is My Courthouse?

What makes a courthouse green? Is it the bike rack out front or the building occupant’s recycling program inside? Actually, both are part of a green courthouse, but they only scratch the surface.

The General Services Administration, builder of federal courthouses, requires that all new construction projects and substantial renovations be certified through the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) Green Building Rating System of the U.S. Green Building Council. To be LEED certified, projects must meet certain prerequisites and are awarded points for meeting additional requirements. The more points, the higher the projects are rated, from the minimum Certified rating up to Silver, Gold, or Platinum. Currently, the Byron G. Rogers U.S. Courthouse in Denver, Colorado, and the Wayne L. Morse U.S. Courthouse in Eugene, Oregon, are rated LEED Gold. The Howard M. Metzenbaum U.S. Courthouse in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Frank J. Battisti and Nathaniel R. Jones Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Youngstown, Ohio, are LEED Certified.

“For a courthouse to be LEED certified,” explains GSA’s Don Horn, “it means taking a very comprehensive—a holistic view—of the building and reducing the building’s environmental impact.” Horn, an architect, is part of GSA’s Build Green team, and trains GSA and other agency employees nationwide in sustainable design.

For Horn, going green in the courthouse begins with a building’s site orientation. “Proper orientation of the building makes good use of natural light and shade, and can save 30 percent on a building’s energy costs,” he says. “Also, a location near mass transit and within an area of building density makes use of existing utilities—water, sewer, and the power grid—reducing sprawl and strengthening urban cores.” A green courthouse also may take advantage of locally manufactured materials, incorporate low-maintenance landscaping, and go green in its housekeeping.

The new Wayne L. Morse U.S. Courthouse in Eugene, Oregon, is within a half-mile of a public rail station and a quarter-mile of two established bus routes. Thirty-one percent of the courthouse’s total building materials (by cost) were manufactured within 500 miles of the project site. Using regionally-produced materials helps the local economy and cuts transportation costs.

Sixty percent of the area around the courthouse has been planted with native or adaptive species that require little to no water or maintenance. Half of the on-site parking is underground. “Impervious surfaces, such as open parking lots, allow rainwater to run off, taking oil and chemical residues into the watershed,” explains Horn. The Eugene courthouse project reduced the storm water runoff rate by 31 percent from predevelopment conditions.

“You know that new furniture smell?” Horn asks. “It really shouldn’t smell like that inside a building. We work for low emissions or to eliminate emissions completely.” Inside the Wayne L. Morse Courthouse, as in most LEED-rated courthouses, low-emitting adhesives, sealants, paints, and carpets are used. Under LEED energy standards, the courthouse is 38 percent more energy efficient than baseline buildings following basic energy efficiency standards. Energy efficiency measures incorporated into the building design include high efficiency lighting with day-lighting controls, under-floor air distribution with radiant heating, and high efficiency chillers and condensing boilers.

It’s not just new buildings that are going green. In Denver, Colorado, the Byron G. Rogers U.S. Courthouse earned a LEED Gold rating for the renovation of its 1960s-era building. The court encourages use of nearby public transportation, placed half of its parking underground, has planted over half of its open spaces, and uses 100 percent green power, earning a top Energy Star rating. Even housekeeping hasn’t been overlooked. “Green housekeeping,” Horn explains, “is not using toxic cleaners so you’re not introducing hazardous chemicals into the air people breathe. Because most pollutants are tracked in on people’s feet, keeping pollutants out can be as easy as using walk-off mats at the door.” Green housekeeping at the Byron Rogers courthouse means isolating large volume copiers and printers, and using disposable paper products (with 100% recycled content and manufactured without the additional use of chlorine or chlorine compounds) and low environmental impact cleaning fluid.

The Howard M. Metzenbaum U.S. Courthouse in Cleveland, Ohio, is one of the first historic projects in Ohio to receive LEED certification. More than 55 percent of the materials stripped from the Metzenbaum Courthouse during renovation—more than 5,400 tons of materials—were diverted from landfill and recycled. Existing glazed brick in the atrium was salvaged for re-use. An ornamental plaster ceiling was discovered and refurbished, along with two existing elevators, hardware, wood trim, ornamental grilles, and historic chandeliers in the main lobby and courtrooms. New materials that incorporated recycled materials were specified for use in the project.

In Denver, the Alfred A. Arraj U.S. Courthouse, built in 2002, is a candidate for a LEED Gold rating. Judge Lewis T. Babcock (D. Colo.) has been part of the planning and construction of the courthouse from the beginning. LEED certification always has been a goal. The courthouse is near good public transportation, low emission interior finishes were selected, wood finishes came from sustainable sources, and even the steel used in the construction was recycled.

Architecture also was part of the green equation. “Because we designed-in extra height between floors, we were able to introduce natural light into 75 percent of the building,” says Babcock. Natural light brightens public corridors oriented along a southeast axis, and light shelves or louvers bounce daylight into chambers, administrative space, and courtrooms. “Bringing in natural light not only reduces energy drain,” says Babcock, “it increases human comfort. With that in mind, all our jury deliberation suites are on the exterior of the building where they can have natural light.” The added height between floors also allowed an under-floor ventilation system from which air rises naturally to be cleaned and recycled. Courtroom floors are capped with cork, a renewable resource, and all lavatories are low water consumption. Roof-mounted photovoltaic panels were designed to contribute up to 6 percent of the building’s energy needs. The plaza and walkways around the building are native sandstone set into sand, so runoff water is absorbed. Native plants have been used wherever possible.

“It is a healthy building,” says Babcock. “Making it green was a real challenge because courthouses are unique buildings. And while it’s hard to quantify the human impact of going green, I’d like to think that it’s also cost effective over the life of the courthouse.”