The Gazette covers City Hall, now a flood-damaged icon on May's Island in the Cedar River

Talking green at City Hall until they’re blue in the face

In City Hall, FEMA, Floods, Jim Prosser on February 8, 2009 at 10:50 am

They’ve been talking green at City Hall until they’re blue in the face. And they did last week, too.

In unveiling plans for renovating and/or replacing flood-damaged city buildings, the City Council and the city’s team of engineering and architectural consultants made it clear that any of the work will incorporate “green,” “sustainable” techniques.

Eric Davis, an architect for consultant Camp Dresser & McKee, Inc., used the example of the 30-year-old, flood-damaged downtown public library and how it might be brought back to life — but to a different life than before the flood.

In truth, the city had been trying to figure out a futurist, efficient way to heat and cool the place for some years prior to the flood.

Davis imagined the flood-damaged library with a roof that was part grass or other vegetation — to capture rainwater rather than sending it all into the sewer – and part white in color, which would reflect heat away from it so the building would stay cool in the summer.

The library, too, could come with “superinsulation.” Cisterns could catch rainwater and use it in toilets. There could be trees that lose their leaves close to the building to shade the building in summer and help heat it in winter. The roof also could include solar skylights that track with the sun’s path. And some of the new thermal windows would open to cool the building on some days rather than running air conditioning. There also could be a closed-loop geothermal heating and cooling system.

Davis used the example of the flood-damaged Central Fire Station. He estimated that it would cost an additional $425,000 to add green, sustainable features to the building as part of what is estimated to be a $10-million repair project. He said the upgrade would save $10,000 a year in energy costs – not counting the value that accrues to the nation in using less energy — and save 150,000 gallons of water a year.

It’s still unclear, both with the library and the fire station, if they will be renovated or replaced. Both are in the same boat: the Federal Emergency Management Agency must agree that the buildings sustained flood damage in excess of 50 percent of their value before they pay to replace the buildings. Otherwise, the buildings must be renovated, city officials have said.

It will be fascinating to watch this discussion about green and sustainable in upcoming months and in the next few years.

Both words, green and sustainable, are all the rage from the Potomac River to the Cedar River and beyond.

In discussions here, both words can be used as an argument for building new.

The City Council last week said it was starting a six-month public participation initiative to ask citizens if it should build a brand-new Community Services Center and a brand-new Community Safety Training Center. A services center would mean that city government wouldn’t return to the flood-damaged City Hall on May’s Island.

One idea is to “co-locate,” with city, county and school district locating services in the services center – which might be a building or a campus of buildings. City and county also could both use a new safety training center. The city also is talking about a community operations center, which might be a fancy name for doing some renovations at the existing public works building.

In talking about building new, there is still the fact that the city has two flood-damaged icons that will be renovated in any event. Those are City Hall and the existing federal courthouse on First Street SE, which the city will inherit once the new federal courthouse opens in 2012.

In an interview last week, City Manager Jim Prosser said that the City Council has made it clear that sustainability would be an important feature of the city’s plans moving ahead.

“We have to walk our talk in these areas,” Prosser said. “We can’t say to everybody else, ‘You should be more sustainable’ and we don’t do it. We’ve got to set the standard.”

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