PRESCOTT - Since the early 1970s, Prescott-based architects Matt Ackerman and Jeffrey Zucker have prided themselves on designing environmentally friendly buildings - long before the practice gained nationwide popularity during this decade.
The duo, which operates Catalyst Architecture, LLC inside an historic building at 123 E. Goodwin St., served as the design team for the unique 1-year-old Highlands Center for Natural History - nestled in a pocket of ponderosa pines within the Prescott National Forest off Walker Road.
In early February, the center received a Gold certification from the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, program.
Ackerman and Zucker, the lone architectural firm principals in Yavapai County who are LEED accredited, designed the Highlands Center to follow this program, which has become the national standard for what makes a building "green."
Ackerman said many people do not know that half of all greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings consuming energy.
"LEED is a holistic approach that deals with human health and a healthier environment,"
Ackerman said. "We would like to see everyone build more environmentally conscious. You don't need LEED to have an energy efficient building, but building with common sense is important."
The Gold ranking is LEED's second highest level of accreditation, directly behind Platinum - a classification reserved for the premium in environmentally sensitive buildings - and ahead of its Basic and Silver levels.
The Highlands Center's 4,250-square-foot James Environmental Learning Center is the first LEED-Gold certified building in the county and one of just 11 statewide.
Of that number, only three structures in the state have a better LEED rating than the Highlands Center. The BioDesign Research Center at Arizona State University in Tempe and two buildings at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff have achieved Platinum status.
When rating a building, LEED follows a points system that measures a commercial, residential or educational building's structural performance based on sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources used, indoor environmental quality and innovation in design.
The goal of the program is to help architects and builders improve a building's performance by:
Lowering operating costs.
Reducing waste sent to landfills.
Conserving energy and water.
Increasing occupants' health and safety.
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
During the process for the Highlands Center achieving Gold status, Prescott architect Patti Olson collected and filed LEED's requisite documentation from all consultants who helped with the project.
Ackerman then scanned those documents into a computer and submitted them to LEED over the Internet to prove his team abided by the council's guidelines.
"While the LEED documentation process itself can be time-consuming, many of the concepts that the LEED Green Building System addresses just make good sense," Zucker said.
One of the most unique characteristics of the Highlands Center is that it is not connected to the electrical grid.
Natural daylight and ventilation, along with a well designed and properly oriented building envelope - the separation between a building's interior and exterior environments - allow for a passive supply of almost 70 percent of the building's heating and cooling needs.
To earn its Gold rating, the project employed, among other specifications, a 7-kilowatt photovoltaic array on its south facing roof slope.
The photovoltaic array can generate an electrical current or voltage when exposed to visible light or other electromagnetic radiation.
In addition, the James Learning Center's clerestory windows on the upper portion of its walls provide the building's natural daylight and ventilation.
The building's stained concrete floors; south-facing interior stone wall which stores thermal heat; high-performance glazing and insulation systems; water-saving plumbing fixtures; energy-efficient mechanical equipment, appliances and lighting features; and non-toxic paints, sealants and adhesives also contributed to the rating.
On its exterior, the building's operators gained LEED credits for growing water-efficient plants, reusing rainwater for irrigation and employing a storm water management plan.
Ackerman said 25 states, more than 100 cities and counties, and more than a dozen federal agencies have committed to some level of LEED certification for their new buildings.
He added that LEED builders typically see an 8 to 10 percent increase in construction costs, but the savings in energy expenses over time helps compensate for this.
"We try to expand people's ideas of operating and maintenance costs, and their savings down the line," Ackerman said. "We try to educate the quick-turnaround developers that they can recoup their investment. People who own their building for a few years will see the benefits."
Phoenix and Tucson have approved resolutions requiring LEED certification for all new municipal structures. The City of Scottsdale has taken this a step further, requiring all of its new municipal buildings to achieve a minimum level of LEED-Gold certification.
In 2006, Gov. Janet Napolitano issued an executive order stating that all new state buildings must achieve a minimum level of LEED-Silver.
Presently, hospitals, universities, government agencies, school districts and corporations have shown the most interest in LEED. For example, Yavapai College's Agribusiness and Science Technology Center on Old Home Manor Drive in Chino Valley gained recognition as the first LEED building in the tri-city area back in 2004. It has a Silver rating.
"So much building is developer driven: 'How fast can we do it?'"
Ackerman said. "This kind of building requires thought and care."
The LEED program gained credibility, Ackerman said, because of its rigorous third-party independent review process. The U.S. Green Building Council has chapters across the country.
Ackerman said he and others employed with the City of Prescott are planning to start a chapter in the tri-city area soon.