INTERVIEW WITH THE ARCHITECTS: First State-Funded LEEDv4 Platinum School

James Carr architecture + design interviews HMFH Inc., the architects of the first
LEED Platinum public school in Massachusetts: Saugus Middle High School.

James Carr architecture+design were the LEED consultants on this groundbreaking project.

Tina Stanislaski, AIA, LEED AP BD+C
Principal at HMFH Inc. and Lead Project Architect

Gary Brock, AIA, LEED AP BD+C
Associate at HMFH Inc. and Project Architect

James Carr, architecture + design:  Are you feeling happy [about the Platinum Certification]?

Gary Brock: It’s always happy to do something others haven’t accomplished. It’s like you’re running a race and you didn’t expect to be at the front of the pack. You look back and it’s like, “where is everyone?”.

James Carr, architecture + design:  Do you remember the first time you thought about the importance of green buildings in your community (and the world beyond)?

Gary Brock: For me, it was in undergraduate school.  The degree program was called Bachelor of Environmental Design, so it was still the legacy of the 70’s. It was still an architecture program but it still had that name [Environmental Design]. I graduated in ’90.
I became aware of environmental issues during college. Part of it was just exploring architecture and trying to understand it. Looking at projects that caught your eye as inspiration. I was putting pools/ponds on the roof of my buildings to help cool them [laughs].

[JC: Sometimes in the heat of the summer we put a water sprinkler on our roof. In this hot humid climate zone this kind of evaporative cooling has limited effect, lowering the temperature maybe only by a degree or two, but there is a huge psychological benefit to seeing water dripping off the eaves in front of the windows.]

A good school has to be more than just well-planned and beautiful

JC:  Has advocating for sustainable design changed your approach to architecture, and if so, how?

Tina Stanislaski: Yes, I think that advocating for sustainability has made my approach to architecture more holistic.
It has helped me to look at my projects in a more balanced way. A good school has to be more than just well-planned and beautiful.  It has also forced me to take a much more active role in things I may have once let me engineers take care of. 
 I’ve always been interested in ways to bring the natural environment into the building with views and physical connections, but sustainability has helped me understand more about technical aspects of site design in terms of natural resource preservation, water use reduction, stormwater management and greywater reuse. 
It has also forced me to take a more active role in mechanical systems and energy use.  For a while there was a time when I have had to push my engineers to find ways to reduce energy and look for innovative types of systems to help us use green energy and reduce carbon.  Its not always easy to steer clients in the direction to try innovative systems in their buildings.  New makes them nervous. 

GB: I think I was trying to understand it from day 1; I didn’t really know how to do it. I think the relationships with people that I worked with have evolved, and my attitudes about it have evolved a little bit too. I think your approach changes just as you mature and the world changes around you too, so you kind of adapt to that. I remember back in the days of Green Round Table, and people didn’t understand why these small groups of people were so fervent about it. It was fringe for a lot of firms and there was a small group of us that went from firm to firm and cheered it on and tried to figure out ways to make it happen.
We’re still trying to figure out ways to make it happen so that hasn’t changed.
The profession gets it a lot more than they used to, so it’s more about educating the client. Some architects are fortunate to get clients that understand it from the beginning, and other architects get clients that don’t understand it.

I feel fortunate to work for a company that has always had a strong commitment to sustainable design practices.

JC:  Having worked on some of the first Massachusetts public school projects to use LEED, what are your thoughts about how sustainable design in schools has evolved over the past 20 or so years?

TS: I feel fortunate to work for a company that has always had a strong commitment to sustainable design practices.  HMFH has always focused on creating healthy environments for learning. Responsible use of natural resources and conservation has been guiding the design at HMFH since its inception. We strive to reduce energy and water use and to build on sites already developed or even clean up brownfields sites and embrace the urban and typically challenging sites and projects.  We have gone after LEED certification when projects are completed and got LEED Gold (CRLS [another project on which James Carr architecture + design were LEED consultants]) so its really ingrained in who we are.
LEED version 4 introduced HPD’s and LPD’s for credits and it increased awareness in how products are made and how their ingredients affect the health of the occupants.  Looking at HPD’s, Declare labels and the red list has been eye opening, even terrifying!

GB: [The sustainable design field and LEED have] grown a lot and part of that is how our state funds projects and emphasizes this. I think that has helped a lot of the acceptance and regulation. Adjacent states may find projects more challenging, but a lot of that is changing too. I think the interest and passion has grown a lot.
When you’re dealing with non-profit, public entities where certain parties may only be responsible for the capital and there’s politics involved, it’s hard because you’re not dealing with one client. Some communities get it, but there’s always the budget constraints.
I think a lot of it is effort, but it’s also luck – getting a project that goes out to bid when the bidding climate is beneficial can go a long way towards achieving stuff.

All rating systems help; it doesn’t really matter if it’s LEED, CHPS, WELL, Passive House. They give validation to the effort.

JC:  What are the ultimate aims and special challenges in setting a very high goal for sustainability? Does the LEED rating system help or hinder in reaching these larger aims and overcoming these challenges?

TS: When it comes to sustainability, clients are often unsure where to begin and how to make the most effective choices. Through HMFH’s collaborative design process, we engage our clients in defining their project goals and then exploring ways to create innovative, energy-efficient, high-performance buildings that are aligned with those goals.  I think that LEED helps to ensure that you are making well rounded choices in each of the different areas.

GB: I think all rating systems help; it doesn’t really matter if it’s LEED, CHPS, WELL, Passive House. What they do give is validation to the effort. You still need that because people won’t do it unless they’re held [accountable], or people won’t know they’ve done it unless someone’s checking it.
But all these systems can get in the way too, [with their] bureaucratic aspect of checking the box. In general it’s the right thing to do but specifically for a particular project it may not be the right thing to do.  I think it’s pretty frequent that people feel there is sort of a formula to LEED or CHPS but that it is not always capturing the green essence. Designers, contractors, owners everyone gets frustrated for various reasons.
Some folks have more experience with the organizations that sponsor these rating systems, and they may have better access, better knowledge. Sometimes teams don’t know that they can ask for that sort of dispensation, or comparing one rating system to another. The State [of MA] has allowed which rating system to choose [LEED or CHPS]. One might say one is better than the other for various reasons. It’s not completely objective, there’s a lot of subjectiveness going on. It’s a grey world.

It is possible to achieve a high level of sustainability in a public project with a limited budget.

JC:  What is the significance in your mind of achieving Platinum for a state-funded school project for the first time?

TS: I think it proves that it is possible to achieve a high level of sustainability in a public project with a limited budget.  Saugus had a better budget than some communities but certainly wasn’t pushing sustainable measures on this project.  HMFH always tries to help explain what sustainability means to us and why it is important to the greater good.

GB: I think the significance is that you can do it with a normal budget. There used to be a lot of talk about how the increase in construction cost needs to be offset by the operational savings. Now the same conversation has shifted to Net Zero – can you offset capital costs with reduced operating expenses.
Now different forces are at play. Some of that is going to come from new legislation. A lot of the things that municipalities started using rating systems for was as a way to do things that weren’t legislated. There is not always payback in the simplest sense of the term.

Appreciating a sustainable building will hopefully inspire other projects in town to be just as sustainable.

JC:  How do you hope that this community [Saugus] benefits from having a LEED Platinum school?

TS: HEALTH-The building creates a healthy environment through healthy material selection, positive IAQ acoustics, daylighting, views to nature, connections to nature through the green roof garden outdoor classrooms and athletic complex.
ENERGY-We are not combustion free, and we don’t have a solar array but we use a tri generation plant to produce energy on site and reduce carbon.  This system has a Demand Response program that helps them shed load and save even more money on the electrical bills.
WATER- We reduce on site potable water use through low flow fixtures and a rainwater recycle system for irrigation and toilet flushing, we recharge the aquafer through stormwater management systems and rain gardens.
WASTE-We reduce construction waste by 90% and help to emphasize the importance of recycling and composting to reduce waste on site and in daily operations with waste stations in key areas accompanied by clear signage.

GB: As architects we hope they appreciate it and enjoy it and are proud of it, so that’s the first thing.
Appreciating it as a sustainable building will hopefully inspire other projects in town to be just as sustainable, [and] help fuel that for more.  All architects hope they teach about it, but the curriculum requirements are – prescriptive, and it’s harder to integrate the stuff into the curriculum.  Hopefully they learn about [the sustainable aspects of the building] through the green kiosk and media. There are things to appreciate that are nice aesthetically – one hopes it will percolate through.
I was happy about the compost program that we helped institute. A woman from the DPW has been an advocate for a long time and she helped us keep it moving.

JC:  How has your firm changed since you started doing LEED projects?

GB: The projects are still primarily K-12 but the firm has evolved. There’s more knowledge about doing sustainable projects. Partly because the state funds them and younger people have started working [in the firm] who learned in college too. They come here and have heard about embodied carbon, and there’s a lot more knowledge whether it’s grown here internally or comes in with new people.

We were able to reach Platinum for the cost of an average MSBA-funded public school.

JC:  What is a particular aspect of, or story from, this project that you feel most proud of, and why?

TS: Like many districts that we work with when building a public school, Saugus had a rather practical interest in sustainability around energy use reduction to reduce operational costs and I think that the design process has shown them that this project has done much more.  The fact that LEED Platinum can be achieved here as compared to someplace like Cambridge where the City has stringent and high reaching sustainability goals and is willing to add to the budget in order to achieve those goals makes me really proud.  We were able to reach Platinum for the cost of an average MSBA funded public school.

GB: There are a lot of nice things that happened with this project. Challenges, too — things that were not easy or a slam dunk. Contrary to the popular trends this isn’t a net-zero building and we didn’t try to make it a net-zero building but we DID incorporate the combined heat and power plant. And it does have a positive impact in reducing global warming emissions.
So many buildings going all-electric and I can see how often the coal plants have to come on. It’s critical that the grid infrastructure change quickly [to keep up with demand].

Just like Sisyphus and the rock… hopefully the hill is shorter!

JC:  Now that you’ve achieved this level of sustainability on a state-funded public school project, what’s next?

TS: I think we are going to look at the Living Building Challenge and see if we can continue pushing our firm to the next level. 
Two aspirational goals for my next project: net zero and combustion free as well as reduce red list materials in all products.

GB: It’s just like Sisyphus and the rock, you’re down at the bottom of the hill pushing it up for everybody. Hopefully the hill is shorter next time! [laughs]