Archive for January, 2013

Overdue update on our new green office building

Friday, January 18th, 2013

Sorry for the long silence on the new headquarters we’re building for our collective business, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, but we’ve been so busy building it that we completely forgot to tell you all about it. We broke ground on the recycled warehouse and mostly erected it back in 2011 (post on that coming up soon) and then broke ground on the building proper in May of 2012. The months preceding ground breaking were a flurry of design sessions, draft drafting, research, and consultation. After laying a lot of the ground work ourselves we ended up working with architect Fred Oesch, an area green architect who came highly recommended from a number of people, to bring our plans to completion. He was a great help, advising us on design elements to aid in natural lighting and ventilation, building systems for high performance and low cost, and helping us figure out what we could do ourselves and how best to do it.

The final design is a beautiful sweeping two story affair oriented invitingly to the south (how could we build a building without a grand southern exposure?) and fitting cozily into the space we prepared for it. Take a look.

The new SESE office… now the trick is getting it off the paper and onto the ground.

You can see quite a few features of the building on this drawing. The long face full of windows is the south and front side of the building, maximizing solar heat gain in the winter and letting lots of light into our working space. Our recycled warehouse is poking its nose into the picture from the right. You can see the sun porch and front airlock projecting out of the face of the building. The exterior grade doors leading from the porch to the outside and into the office proper will prevent outside and inside air mixing which should help keep us cool in the summer and warm in the winter. The mostly glass walled area should also make a cozy place to take off your snowy coat and boots or just pass the time in the winter.

From here you can also see the terraces providing outside access from the second floor, which is mostly private offices and flex room for our growing co-op to expand into (knock on wood!). The east and west terraces will be surfaced in an engineered soil and planted with sedums forming a living roof which should last indefinately and help keep our building cool in the summer by converting some solar energy into living energy rather than heat and by doing a bit of evaporative cooling to boot. Crowning the building you’ll notice the full length monitor (a sort of super cupola) that we’re including for lighting and ventilation. The windows all along this ridge will let a flood of light into the core of the second floor, naturally lighting what would otherwise be a dim northern side of the building. When we open them up in the heat of the summer, we’ll be setting up a powerful stack or chimney effect whereby hot air in the building will rise into the monitor and escape through the windows, pulling in relatively cooler air from the ground floor to replace it. When the days get hot enough that the stack effect stalls out we’ll be mounting a few whole building exhaust fans in the monitor to take up the slack. Out of our commitment to live lightly on the land we will not and have never air conditioned our people, although we do air condition our seeds. Ventilation, shading, and the timely opening and closing of windows can keep our spaces comfortable throughout some pretty challenging weather without the high energy cost associated with air conditioning.

The first floor of the new office, the place where it will all go down.

Here you can see the layout of the first floor of the building with a few features I already mentioned. Here you can see how the southern wall (the bottom of the drawing) is peppered with windows while the northern wall opposite it is pierced very sparsely. This lets light (and heat during the winter) in on the south where it is abundant but keeps the cool dark northern wall as well insulated as possible. You’ll also notice that the rooms clustering around the northern wall are spaces not generally inhabited by people, like the mechanical room or the bathroom, or that we want to be cool and dark, like the picking room where all the packets of seed live. The principles for good seed storage are to keep the seeds cool, dry, and dark as what they want to start growing is warmth, wetness, and light. Situating the picking room along the north helps keep it cool and dim. To supplement this we will be super-insulating the walls of the room (including a straw bale wall along the whole northern exterior wall) and installing a good wrap around vapor barrier to keep our amble Virginia humidity out. These measures should minimize the amount that we need to run our air conditioner and dehumidifier to keep the room at its optimal condition.

The southern rooms are more self explanatory. The multi-purpose room is our big open space that we hope to use in a variety of ways. It should provide over flow space for working during the busy winter season, space to hold our regular community meetings, big dance parties, and hopefully to hold occasional public workshops on seed starting, seed saving, cooking with heirlooms, gardening organically. The clean office, also called the quiet office, separates computer and phone workers from the dust and loud music from of the shippers and packers occupying the dirty office (also the noisy office).

Two little harder to spot details are the wood fired boiler and the composting toilet. We’ll heat this building, as we heat all our buildings, with wood harvested from our own land or purchased locally burned in a super high efficiency boiler. Wood is a great heating fuel, especially in rural areas, as it is relatively abundant, naturally renewable, and carbon neutral. Using a high efficiency gassification boiler and an intelligently designed heating system (which we got a lot of help with from Galen Staengl, a local green mechanical engineer) can get the fire running pretty cleanly and can get the most energy out of this still precious resource. The building also features a small basement vault where we will house Virginia’s first legal owner built vault composting toilet and the dosing basin for our grey water system, designed by John Hanson of Nutricycle Systems. Composting toilets are ecologically and economically wonderful waste management systems and, as we’re in a position to easily pull it off, we would have felt remiss not to include one.

Well, that concludes the preliminary tour of the new seed office. We hope to throw up a few more posts in the coming weeks to catch you all up to the current state of the construction. Stay tuned!

Foundations: researching our options

Friday, January 18th, 2013

When I first joined the Design Team, there was so much to do that I had no idea where to start.  Being a literal sort of person, I decided to start from the ground up: the foundation.

Through this process, I learned some basics about concrete in general.  Between mining the raw materials, transporting them, and kilning them, concrete has relatively high embodied energy. For each ton of concrete produced, approximately one ton of CO2 is released.  Global demand for concrete is also colossal: 1.6 billion tons annually, with demand rising steadily as more and more countries incorporate concrete into industrial and residential construction.

Concrete Jungle

Since the concrete in our foundation looked like it was going to be one of the most environmentally impactful parts of our building, I decided to research our options in minimizing our concrete use.  I approached the issue from two different angles: 1) minimizing the amount of concrete used in our foundation, and 2) finding less impactful materials to create concrete with.  I started with the former of those.  What foundation would meet our needs, match our overarching design criteria, and still be as environmentally benign as possible?

Concrete use in Third World countries is on the rise.

Since the Seed Office is slated to be our business headquarters, and since it was looking like it may be over 5,000 sq. ft, we decided experimental foundations would be too big of a risk.  We considered the option of building the office on piers, but with our humid climate the crawlspace would likely require constant dehumidification for mold control.  We would also use lots of wood for the floor, as well as the concrete for the piers.  Our most favored heating option to date, radiant floors, would also be much less practical, and the floor would have to be highly insulated against heat loss.

We shudder at the thought of foundation failure!

A slab-on-grade foundation would double as our floor as well as a robust supporting structure with which to build upon.  It would eliminate the crawlspace, and would allow us to imbed radiant tubing directly into the floor.

Smooth sailing for people with mobility restrictions

Having the building on grade also provided an even surface to move pallets of seed over (thus eliminating our current rigamarole of schlepping 50 lb bags of seed betwixt obliquely located sheds and up and down multiple flights of stairs), and also enables aging and/or less able-bodied folks to easily move seed around, which is line with our anti-discrimination values.

On-grade design will help us move heavy loads of seeds

With inclinations of radical simplicity informing our concept of sustainability, we fantasized extensively about having an earthen floor.  The design would essentially be a  slab-on-grade, without the slab (or at least without a concrete slab):  it would still have a regular concrete footing along the perimeter and pier-like “point loads” for centrally located posts, but instead of filling everything else in with concrete, we would fashion our floor out of cob or adobe.

An example of the earthen floor we dreamed of

However appealing the earthen floor, worry that it wouldn’t withstand the magnitude of foot traffic and other unforeseeable mistreatment, especially with an imbedded radiant floor, prevented us from pursuing it.

So, in the world of sustainability trade offs,  it looked like the durability, multifunctional properties, and dependability of a slab-on-grade made it our most viable foundational option.

With an estimate of how much concrete this would amount to, we turned our attention to the composition of concrete:  were there ways to make concrete less environmentally impactful?

Further reading on concrete and the environment:

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