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April 3, 2024

Green horizon by design • Northwest Indiana Business Magazine

Regional architects lead charge in sustainable building practices

Tom Vavrek

As climate change becomes more urgent, so does the challenge to create sustainable buildings.

Tom Vavrek, owner of Vavrek Architects Inc. in Whiting, has seen the field of architecture change as people become more aware of the need for sustainability.

“The discussion of sustainable architecture started when I was in school nearly 30 years ago; however, back then it was considered more of a niche,” Vavrek said. “Today, with concerns over the climate crisis, sustainable design has become a mainstream issue.”

Greg Monberg, the director of architecture for Wightman, said buildings designed before World War II were more sustainable because air conditioning wasn’t widely available then. Electricity also played a part in the movement away from more natural lighting and ventilation.

Greg Monberg
Greg Monberg

“The energy prices of the 1970s started a movement towards sustainability and energy efficiency,” he said.

Since then, he said, standards for energy efficiency and sustainability have pushed designers to think of more efficient ways of building.

According to the World Green Building Council, 47% of building professionals expected the majority of their projects would be sustainable by 2021.

Sustainable architecture will play a pivotal role in reshaping the built environment in communities across the Region.

Buildings are responsible for 40% of the total energy use in the United States, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. They account for 75% of the nation’s electricity consumption and 35% of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions.

Ryan Anderson
Ryan Anderson

“Based on this, any impactful improvement we can make as an industry will greatly affect total emissions released into our environment,” said Ryan Anderson, architect at Shive-Hattery, a Midwest-based architecture firm.

Climate change is impacting states across the country differently due to variations in geography, climate and industry. The Hoosier state is no different. Its history, steeped in agriculture and manufacturing, has its own set of challenges.

“Sustainability is something very few people thought about when Northwest Indiana was being industrialized over a hundred years ago,” Vavrek said. “In some ways, we continue to pay the price for decisions made by those in the past and will continue to do so for many years to come.”

Sustainable design

The Mascot Hall of Fame
The Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting
was built on the site of the Standard
Oil Co. refinery from the 1890s. (Photo provided by Vavrek Architects Inc.)

Sustainable architecture involves a fundamental shift in design philosophy.

As architects work to devise buildings that are healthier for the environment and for people, they are rethinking traditional designs, materials and construction processes.

“Architects are utilizing many different methods to conserve power, water and maintain better indoor air quality,” Vavrek said. “The means to achieve this can range from the selection of low VOC (volatile organic compound) adhesives and paints to incorporating alternative energy systems.”

Vavrek’s firm designed The Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, built on the site of the Standard Oil Co. refinery from the 1890s. The building’s design includes a rain screen system, high-performance glass and broad overhangs to minimize solar heat gain, while still offering views of the lake.

“Many passive approaches can also be incorporated into the design such as studying the building orientation, the effects of landscaping to reduce solar gain and building insulation,” Vavrek said.

Other facilities, like the Veterinary Orthopedic Center in Highland, are taking those concepts a step further.

“People use too much of everything constantly. We are known for wasting,” said Dr. Claude Gendreau, veterinary surgeon and owner of the Veterinary Orthopedic Center in Highland. “We are rich in natural resources, but we still have to conserve them.”

Claude Gendreau
Dr. Claude Gendreau

His facility is LEED certified. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design is a green building rating system used worldwide. The building features materials with high recycled content and Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood. During construction, waste was reused or recycled.

The Veterinary Orthopedic Center also is an example of a net-zero facility. The concept is a cornerstone of sustainable design.

Net-zero buildings produce as much energy as they consume, creating a balance that mitigates the environmental footprint. The integration of energy-efficient designs, solar panels, wind turbines and other renewable energy systems is a defining feature of net-zero buildings.

Topped with solar panels, Gendreau’s center is all electric with no gas. Insulation, windows and high-efficiency heating and cooling systems reduce the building’s energy demand.

Veterinary Orthopedic Center
The Veterinary Orthopedic Center is part of the Cardinal Campus, a LEED for Neighborhood Development certified plan. (Provided by the Veterinary Orthopedic Center)

“I have been concerned about climate change for 20 years,” Gendreau said. “I am a believer that we need to conserve our resources. Our behavior is really causing damage.”

Gendreau worked with the architectural firm Farr & Associates in Chicago to design the building. The building is part of the Cardinal Campus, a carbon-free office park — the first of its kind in Northwest Indiana.

“We wanted to be good citizens of the world and set an example,” Gendreau said. “It makes me feel good that I did this, and I would do it again.”

Monberg said Wightman also believes in being a good steward of the people who will work in their buildings.

“Our focus, more than ever, has been on the health and wellness of the people who live, work and learn inside the buildings we design,” he said.

Construction waste

While architects of buildings in the Region moving beyond conventional designs to incorporate eco-friendly elements into their creations, they also are thinking more about the waste that comes with construction.

“The building industry is a major consumer of natural resources, and when incorporating sustainable design principles, it promotes efficient use of our finite natural resources, such as water, timber, minerals and fossil fuels,” Anderson said.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, an estimated 600 million tons of construction waste are generated every year in the U.S. Wood, brick, steel and concrete are piling up in landfills.

To combat the building industry’s environmental impact, architects are reducing, reusing and recycling. Recycled and upcycled materials are finding their way into architectural projects. Old buildings are finding new uses. Shive-Hattery’s South Bend office recently repurposed a vacant medical office in South Bend into an apartment complex.

St. Paul Church
The bioswale at St. Paul Church in Valparaiso meanders down the hillside, keeping pollutants out of the nearby creek. (Photo provided by Rob Szrom)

Traditional construction methods involve significant carbon emissions, resource depletion and waste.

Architects, increasingly mindful of the environmental impact of construction materials and methods, are exploring alternative construction techniques.

In one recent project, Shive-Hattery used locally sourced, recycled materials, instead of new materials. Their choice to shop local cut down on transportation-related pollution.

“Responsible material selection aided in reducing the project’s overall carbon impact and footprint,” Anderson said.

Another construction innovation is the use of 3D printing technology. This technique allows for the precise layering of materials. It minimizes waste and enables the use of recycled or sustainable materials.

Some construction firms, like Tonn and Blank Construction in Michigan City, have embraced modular construction methods. They build components off-site before transporting and assembling them on-site. Tonn and Blank recently assembled bathrooms and exam rooms this way before installing them in the new Franciscan Health Crown Point hospital. Modular construction saves time and minimizes disruption to the surrounding environment.

Architects are also exploring innovative approaches to water usage. One technique involves constructing buildings on beds of gravel to absorb water and reduce the risk of flooding.

Rainwater harvesting, greywater recycling and efficient irrigation systems are becoming standard features in sustainable buildings. These systems help conserve water and reduce the footprint of the built environment.

Rob Szrom
Rob Szrom

Eco-friendly fixes can sometimes resolve water problems caused by construction.

Rob and Paula Szrom are the founders of Valparaiso-based Lakeshore Landscaping. A Purdue-educated landscape architect, Rob Szrom came up with a green solution to a problem at St. Paul Church in Valparaiso. The church’s parking lot was draining to one side. It emptied into Beauty Creek, eroding the hillside and creating a gouge the size of a car. Szrom solved the problem with a bioswale. Similar to rain gardens, bioswales collect stormwater runoff and filter pollution.

“We didn’t just say let’s help the environment,” Szrom said. “We solved an erosion problem. We solved an ecological problem. We used common sense and created a great rain garden, planting small-scale trees rather than small plants.”

Living architecture

University of Notre Dames’ Joyce Center
The University of Notre Dames’ Joyce Center arena has 32,000 trays of plants with 25 plant species. (Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame)

Another trend is the increasing popularity of green roofs and walls. Architects are transforming rooftops into lush gardens and incorporating vertical gardens on building facades. These sustainable landscaping practices blur the boundaries between built and natural environments.

The University of Notre Dame is home to the largest green roof in Indiana. Sitting atop the university’s Joyce Center arena are 32,000 trays of plants with 25 plant species. The university has six buildings with rooftop greenscapes.

“Green roofs use a special planting called sedum, which is a very hardy and drought-resistant plant/flower,” said Tony Polotto, senior director of construction and quality assurance at the university. “Each roof system is creatively designed by a landscape architect with a blend of sedum to create patterns and visual interest unique to the installation.”

A green roof improves the building’s energy efficiency because it acts as an insulation barrier. The vegetation helps divert water from the storm sewer by absorbing rainwater. It cools and prolongs the roof’s longevity because the plants soak up the heat. It also reduces the heat island effect, when buildings and roads absorb and re-emit the sun’s heat, creating higher temperatures in the area.

Tony Polotto (Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame)
Tony Polotto

“In our opinion, a collateral benefit of this type of system is also the beauty it adds to the campus landscape,” Polotto said.

Purdue University Northwest is using one of their rooftops for honeybees. The university has four honeybee yards on its three campuses. The hives are part of an environmental initiative launched in 2020.

“The bees serve as vital pollinators, contributing to increased crop production in and around our three campuses,” said John Bachmann, senior grounds and landscaping manager at the university. “Additionally, the honey harvested from these hives is a testament to the rich biodiversity of the Midwest, known for its diverse array of wildflowers, trees and other flora.”

PNW bee hives
Workers manage the honeybees from Purdue Northwest’s apiaries on the roof of the Nils K. Nelson Bioscience Innovation Building. (Photo provided by Purdue University Northwest)

Students from the honors college and student government helped paint the hives. They also bottle and label the honey each year.

“Efforts such as the honeybee initiative not only promote urban farming and increased pollination levels but also provide invaluable opportunities for education and research,” Bachmann said.

Whether carpeting the top of a building with a green roof or installing groupings of native plant species, landscape architects consider cost, maintenance and location to ensure success.

“Sustainability needs common sense,” Szrom said. “It’s about the right spot and the right expectations. Trees just get better every year if you plant the right tree in the right spot.”

Challenges, opportunities

Although the adoption of sustainable building practices is on the rise, architects face challenges. Green buildings are often more expensive upfront. Clients are treading in unfamiliar territory. However, these challenges present opportunities for innovation and collaboration.

For example, Monberg said Wightman is working on a school project in Kalamazoo, Michigan, that “sequesters hundreds of thousands of pounds of carbon in the roof construction.”

“It is also designed thoughtfully to integrate daylighting throughout the core academic areas,” he said.

Acumen Research and Consulting reported that $290 billion was spent worldwide in the green construction market in 2021 and is expected to top $774 billion by 2030.

Architects, as visionaries of the urban landscape, are working to integrate sustainable design, construction and landscaping practices to shape a more resilient and harmonious future.

That same philosophy guided the construction of the LEED Gold certified Pokagon Community Center in Dowagiac, Michigan.

“The community center was developed in a culturally and environmentally sensitive way and in harmony with the (Pokagon Band of Potawatomi)’s heritage and mission statement: promoting culture education and self-sufficiency for our citizens while preserving Mother Earth,” he said.

This kind of thoughtfulness will lead building designers to become stewards of the planet, leading the way toward a greener and more sustainable horizon.

“Sustainability provides a means of accountability for the world we live in,” Vavrek said.

Read more stories from the current issue of Northwest Indiana Business Magazine.

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