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Aquatic Center Makes PV Splash (Oregon)

Credits: ©2010 EcoStructure Magazine

By Mimi Zeiger, EcoStructure - An indoor swimming pool. It’s hard to imagine a less likely example of sustainable design (or green architecture). It may be fun for doing the backstroke, but a natatorium is a challenging ecological conundrum. The water in the pool needs to be constantly treated, filtered, and heated, and the entire facility has to be properly lit and temperature controlled. The HVAC complications alone are enough to send the most experienced designer to the kiddie pool. But despite the odds, Portland, Ore.–based SERA Architects dove in and recently completed an aquatic center addition to the East Portland Community Center (EPCC), which was awarded a LEED Platinum certification. (Scroll to bottom for additional resources.)


East Portland Swim Center Night

The East Portland Community Center facility is an estimated 74.7% more energy efficient than ASHRAE standards for a natatorium. This amounts to 60.4% annual cost savings, or $54,000 annual savings to the Owner ©2010 Sera Architects

The city of Portland is known for its progressive approach to sustainability. In 2008, it was named the top green city in the United States by SustainLane (sustainlane.com) for its strict land-use policies, urban growth boundary, and sustainable development. And its 2001 Green Building Policy mandates that city-owned buildings follow the USGBC’s LEED rating system (with a 2005 revision mandating LEED Gold compliance), which covers not just the building envelope, but overall energy use, stormwater management, and water conservation—three issues that are integral to an aquatics center. SERA’s design adds a 22,000-square-foot aquatics facility to the existing 32,000-square-foot community center. The original structure, designed by TVA Architects, was completed in 1998, prior to the creation of the city’s sustainability guidelines. According to Kurt Schultz, who was the principal in charge for TVA during the project and now is an architect at SERA, it was one of TVA’s first community centers for Portland Parks & Recreation, and while the department wanted a swimming pool at the time, there just wasn’t enough money in the budget.

The barnlike new expansion tucks a leisure pool (complete with a brightly colored water slide and play features), a spa, and a four-lane, 25-yard lap pool under its pitched roof. “The facility serves a wide variety of people during the day, from young toddlers to older folks,” says Doug Brenner, Portland’s east services manager and former head of the Portland Parks & Recreation’s aquatics program.

The EPCC addition also includes revamped locker rooms and event spaces for the public, as well as some hefty mechanical spaces that house a cutting-edge pool filtration system. Traditionally, pool water has to be drained and filtered once or twice per week; a typical system uses 7,500 gallons each time this is done. Not only does this water have to be discharged into the sewers, the new water going into the pool to replace the drained water has to be chemically treated and heated up to temperature—a big problem if you are trying to conserve water and energy. The SERA team installed a Defender automatic regenerative media filter, which uses only 300 gallons of water once per week. “The filter proved the biggest challenge,” says SERA project manager Lisa Petterson. “The idea first came about because of the city’s infrastructure, which has combined sewers (sanitary and storm). We didn’t want to overwhelm the old pipes, [and] we found that this system could save an estimated 1.2 million gallons of potable water each year.”

“You’d notice the light, but you’d never know about the filters,” notes Brenner, referring to the daylight that pours into the natatorium. With the knowledge that maximum daylight is the first step to reducing lighting loads, the SERA team made sure to take advantage of the building’s east-west orientation. Floor-to-ceiling windows on the north and south façades open up the facility to views of the outside, while north- and south-facing clerestory windows bring in light over the surfaces of the pools. The architects worked with experts at University of Oregon’s Energy Studies in Buildings Laboratory to study the effect and impact of natural light. Using a scaled physical model, they were able to determine the size of the windows that would be just the right size to light the room. When needed, the team used energy-efficient light fixtures such as high-efficiency T8 and metal halide lamps, which are controlled by zone. Because it is difficult to change luminaires over the pool, they chose fixtures with the longest lamp life possible.

The facility is estimated to be nearly 75 percent more efficient than ASHRAE standards for a natatorium, and one of the biggest contributions to the EPCC’s energy savings is 5,500 square feet of solar panels. The building’s south-facing roof’s 21 percent slope is perfect for producing optimal amounts of solar energy; the team developed the array with Portland’s Commercial Solar Ventures. According to the architects, the 87-kW photovoltaic grid offsets 17 percent of the natatorium’s energy cost demand. Additionally, a solar thermal array provides hot water for the showers, and a heat exchanger extracts heat from the exhaust air coming out of the facility’s mechanical system and repurposes it to heat the pool water.

It also was important to the SERA team that the general public has an awareness of the building’s environmental success in rethinking how pool facilities perform. They’ve included a kiosk in the center’s lobby where members of the community can go online and see how much energy the center is producing. “It’s all part of an educational process,” explains Brenner. “We want the public to see that this is an environmentally friendly facility. Portland parks have always been a leader in sustainability, now we’re leading as aquatic industry gets up to speed.”

Mimi Zeiger writes about architecture and design from Brooklyn, N.Y.

Sustainable Features:

• Rooftop solar photovoltaic panels generate 15 percent of the community center’s energy needs and include a solar water heater used to preheat water for showers

• 100 percent of storm water retained and treated on-site

• 30 percent potable water savings from low-flow showers with metered controls, and low-flow faucets

• Innovative pool filters reduce the chlorine needed to treat the water and reduce the amount of water used by as much as one million gallons annually

• Structural materials used as finish materials throughout, reduce the material usage by 25 percent when compared to a typical building

• Heat recovered from air exhausted from the pool is used to heat the pool water

• Light monitors facing north and south maximize natural illumination and reduce energy used by electric lighting by 60 percent

• Diversion of over 95 percent of construction waste from landfill through extensive recycling

• Pool is wheelchair-friendly, with zero depth entry that allows gently sloping access to safely enter the water.


Following article is from the Oregonian, 2009
By Amy Reifenrath

A new aquatics center in East Portland is an $11 million showcase of energy efficiency and conservancy -- with a wicked spiral of a water slide.

The East Portland Community Center natatorium, which opens at 5:30 a.m. today, will serve neighborhoods filled with young families and older residents. A grand opening celebration is planned March 14.

The center's two pools got positive reviews after an informal aqua-aerobics class earlier this month.

"I absolutely love it," said Sue Cox, district aquatics coordinator. "It's bright. It's enticing. I can't wait to get people into it."

The aquatic center boasts environmentally friendly features such as a water system that will save about 1.5 million gallons annually, special panels that absorb noise, and constantly freshened air. Almost all of its construction debris was recycled, and an outdoor system of bioswales will retain and treat all stormwater runoff.

Center's green features

• 30 percent savings on potable water because of low-flow shower heads with metered controls and low-flow faucets.

• Structural materials double as finish materials throughout the building, with a 25 percent savings compared with a typical new building.

• Locally produced building materials, including recycled blocks and a 110-foot, 14-ton steel truss.

• Lockers and benches constructed of recycled materials.

• 95 percent of construction waste was diverted from the landfill.

When an 87-kilowatt solar electric system is installed and running this summer, the center at 740 S.E. 106th Ave. in the Gateway District is expected to become the first public swim center in the nation to achieve the highest certification of the Green Building Rating System -- platinum. Yet it also is an example of how once-cutting edge sustainable design and construction have become status quo for public buildings.

"This is a happy confluence of energy efficiency and design," said Lisa Petterson, project architect for SERA Architects, the Portland firm that designed the center. "But let's face it, it's what the community has been waiting for for ages."

The community center, opened in 1998, always was meant to have water features. The pool project was funded through a parks levy voters passed in 2002 and by additional funding in the city budget in 2006-07. Three years ago, city leaders ordered that new public buildings would have to meet the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system's gold certification.

The pool design does that and more. By adding the solar electric system, which should power about 15 percent of the center's needs, the project is eligible for the toughest and highest certification.

Monitor adjusts light
The first impression walking into the airy, 150,000-square-foot natatorium is a sense of space. Tall windows and skylights provide most of the daytime lighting. A monitor checks the amount of natural light on the water and adjusts if artificial light is needed.

The air is fresh, changed entirely eight times hourly. It moves slowly and constantly, so no breeze chills swimmers. To compensate for the extra energy the air freshening requires, its waste heat is recovered to heat the water.

The 4,500-square-foot leisure pool includes a current channel and a three-lane lap-swimming section. It is warmed to 86 degrees, and will be heavily used by the center's older population and children. The lap pool is about three degrees cooler. The pools can hold as many as 14 swimming classes simultaneously.

The water is constantly cycled through a four-step treatment, flowing past an ultraviolet tube that kills impurities, then through a filter. Chlorine cleans the water before it is heated again and returned to the pool.

The more heavily used leisure pool flushes through the treatment system every two hours, while the lap pool goes through every four. The special treatment system saves water and reduces the amount of chlorine needed to keep the water clean.

First of its kind?
Even before the solar panels are added, the center is 60 percent more energy efficient than required by Oregon's building code, said Richard Bosch, architect and project manager for the Bureau of Parks & Recreation. As far as officials can find, the aquatic center is the first of its kind.

"This thing was less predicated on having a prototype," Bosch said. "It's more predicated on going step by step. It was looking at all the opportunities."

Among those opportunities was teaming with Energy Trust of Oregon and Portland General Electric to install the solar electric array on the south-facing roof. The $1 million cost will be picked up by a third party through Commercial Solar Ventures, which links non-taxed organizations with corporations that can take advantage of state and federal tax credits.

The city also will install a small solar thermal system to heat water for the center's showers.


View map


  East Portland Community Aquatic Center Article PBJ 2008 (102 kb)

  East Portland Community Aquatic Center Fact Sheet (128 kb)


Sera Architects (Oregon, USA)