UH Hilo Student Life Center a green building as good as gold

Date: Tuesday, June 5, 2007
Contact: Alyson Kakugawa-Leong, (808) 974-7642

For Immediate Release

It has long been accepted that a healthy body makes for a healthy mind. But University of Hawaii at Hilo officials believe good health is also a product of an individual’s surroundings, and they plan to illustrate that point when the new Student Life Center (SLC) opens its doors in 2008.

The 22,600-square-foot structure adjacent to the Athletic complex represents Phase I of the Student Life and Events Center (SLEC) development and will provide students with a wide range of health, fitness and recreational activities. The building’s features will include a fitness room, aerobics, martial arts, human performance testing, an Olympic-size swimming pool, an open covered deck, classrooms, lockers, and shower and weight room facilities along with a juice bar or indoor café where students can dine and congregate. More importantly, the activities will be housed in what is being described as a “healthy building,” which is poised to earn a coveted certification that no project on the Big Island has ever attained.

SLEC is being developed within the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Program. The green building rating system was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) to provide a set of standards for environmentally sustainable construction. Since its inception in 1994, LEED has grown to encompass over 6,000 projects in 28 countries covering 1 billion square feet of development area.

Developments are evaluated on a set of required prerequisites and various credits in six major areas, including sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, innovation and design.

“The objective in designing the (LEED) system was to encourage environmentally friendly systems and/or design and construction,” said SLEC Construction Manager Mike Godfrey. “It awards points on everything from the physical structure to the various practices you employ in the building’s day to day operations. The more points you accumulate the higher the certification you achieve.”

Under the rating system, buildings can qualify for four levels of certification; the categories in order of point totals are certified, silver, gold and platinum. Ironically, Hawai`i is not among the country’s leaders in green building construction. SLC will become only the second structure on the Big Island to be LEED rated, when it joins the platinum certified Hawai`i Gateway Energy Center in Kona. But UH Hilo Facilities Planning Director Lo-Li Chih says an effort is underway to make up for lost time.

“The State legislature has mandated that all new buildings be built to LEED standards that would qualify for a silver certification,” Chih said. “So everything built from here on in will have to meet that threshold.”

SLC was originally designed for silver certification. But there’s growing optimism among the construction team that it will become the island’s first building to be certified as a gold building. Earning a gold rating requires a minimum of 39 points. Just two months ago, the project’s point total stood at 36. But the construction team believes that score is now closer to 43.

“The possibility of a gold certification is a testimonial to the innovative approach of our construction team,” Chih said. “Throughout the entire project they’ve pushed themselves to think outside the box and come up with creative ways to earn additional points.”

Projects can accumulate points for everything from the building construction to environmentally friendly practices such as recycling waste, utilizing day lighting to reduce dependency on electricity, energy efficient air conditioning, and use of renewable and locally produced materials. SLEC Assistant Construction Manager Hadley Null said contrary to what some believe, the project will include few, if any, state-of-the-art technological advances.

“Most of what we are doing is simply making use of the natural options that are available to us,” Null said. “These are very basic, straight up principals and ideas on how you can make a building more environmentally friendly and energy efficient.”

Among the steps being taken is enclosing one side of the building to protect the interior from incoming heat through the windows, while opening the other side to allow light but none of the sun’s rays that would heat up the building. The roof will also be covered with a special paint designed to reflect infra-red rays and direct less heat into the building.

Potential practices are expected to include the use of de-humidifiers to cool the exercise area, increasing lighting efficiency through the use of motion sensors, and grinding up leftover drywall, which makes a very compatible amendment to the area’s volcanic based soil. The drywall conversion reflects the project’s secondary goal of utilizing the building as an educational tool to make people aware of the program and serve as an example of how to practice environmentally friendly construction.

“We’re already achieving about a 97 percent diversion rate away from the landfill, so we’re already looking good when it comes to recycling and waste diversion,” Godfrey explained. “But we believe this practice has tremendous educational value that can benefit the entire County. In fact, we’ve already begun working with recycling coordinators and various County departments to encourage them to follow suit.”

Indeed, officials plan to make extensive use of the building as an educational tool to illustrate how environmentally friendly construction can be user friendly, save energy and create a healthier environment by improving air quality through the use of non-fume-producing materials.

Granted, a LEED building is more expensive than one built by conventional means due to the certification process and cost of construction. But Godfrey believes the additional cost is well worth the investment, and could prove less expensive in the long run.

“Some of these costs will be recovered through savings from being more energy efficient. There are also intangible savings from a healthy building that may not be apparent until problems occur,” Godfrey said. “A sick building can be very expensive to fix, as we’ve discovered in cases of asbestos removal. And then there’s the impact on people’s health, which you can’t really put a price tag on.”

UH Hilo is also planning for an on-site electricity generation system that would connect to the Hawai`i Electric Light Company (HELCO) grid, which can provide a steady flow of power during a system outage that could be shared with major buildings on campus. The heat from the generators would then be used to warm the pool and heat water for the showers. Although the funding of this feature is still being requested through the State CIP budgeting process, it is indicative of the statement the construction team hopes to make.

“With this project, we hope to demonstrate that it’s possible to exceed our expectations if we are willing to push ourselves and avoid self-imposed limitations,” Null said. “By putting forth the extra effort, we can raise the bar for future projects and encourage others to set their sights a little higher.”

The project is currently on schedule with construction expected to be completed in early 2008. Its progress can be tracked and viewed on the Web cam located on the UH Hilo homepage: hilo.hawaii.edu.

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