TAKING THE LEED
Morgan Hill Aquatics Center
Morgan Hill, Calif.
Out of all the construction projects that could incorporate principles of green building, recreation facilities seem a natural choice. After all, says David Petta, principal architect for the new Morgan Hill, Calif., Aquatics Center, users come to a recreation facility to exercise, receive therapy and otherwise improve their own health—what could be more fitting than to do it in a facility designed to minimize negative effects on the community's natural surroundings?
"It just made sense," says Petta, principal at ELS Architecture and Urban Design in Berkeley, Calif., describing the decision of the Morgan Hill design team and stakeholders to seek a silver LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating from the U.S. Green Building Council. "It really struck a chord that an outdoor facility that had to do with water and open space would want to be an environmentally sustainable facility."
Morgan Hill Recreation Supervisor Aaron Himelson agrees, pointing out that environmental concerns are a natural fit in a rural community where the average age is 34 and which is seeing an influx of young professionals who are attracted in part by the city of Morgan Hill's rules against sprawling over-development. These new residents are mixing with the existing agricultural community, which has its own strong appreciation of the natural surroundings on which its livelihood depends.
"I think the fact that we're environmentally friendly is a very important thing to this community," Himelson says. The Morgan Hill Aquatics Center is currently on schedule to be the first outdoor aquatic facility to receive LEED certification, and anyone familiar with the LEED process knows that it can be an arduous one. Designed to influence construction projects toward adopting greener design principles and construction techniques, LEED is a set of voluntary national standards for sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, use of local and/or recycled materials, and indoor environmental quality. Obtaining LEED certification involves rigorous documentation and isn't always compatible with the last-minute design changes and materials substitutions that are typical of so many projects as time and budgets run out.
But rigorous doesn't have to be unpleasant, Petta says.
"There was a lot of cooperation on this project between the design team and the city and the contractors," says Geno Yun, associate principal at ELS, who credits the demanding but satisfying process of working toward LEED certification. "The fact that everyone agreed early on that we were going to achieve this LEED rating, that gave us a common purpose that helped us rise above any day-to-day disagreements—I think it really helped cement the team."
Still, environmental sustainability can't be the only attraction in a recreation facility, particularly not one that is required by statute to recover all of its operating expenses with user fees. To this end, the Morgan Hill Aquatics Center is designed to fill a variety of community needs, from the leisure activities of parents with young children to the demanding requirements of USA Swimming, which recently held its 2005 Far Westerns Short Course Championship at Morgan Hill, a four-day event involving more than 1,200 competitors. Dramatic white windscreens allow competitive events to be separated from leisure activities, permitting the facility to remain open to the community during swim meets while shielding the pools from the parching north California winds and saving about $15,000 per year in pool heating costs.
To say the center is filling its community's wishes would be something of an understatement: Usage is exceeding expectations by at least 100 percent, and there are already plans to add a second water slide and increase the available parking.
"The facility was truly designed with the intention of being a multiuse facility, which enables us to provide programming to a lot of different interests and to do it in the right way vs. having to improvise things," Himelson says. "We can actually run all of our programming the way it's supposed to be run, and that's a real treat."