CBF Goes Off the Power and Water Grid. Will You?

Last November, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) "unplugged" the new Brock Environmental Center from the power grid as part of the center's grand opening festivities in Virginia Beach. It was admittedly a purely symbolic gesture -- the building remains hooked to the local electric utility.

But we wanted to declare to the world our intention to operate this cutting-edge center using only onsite renewable energy.

Last month, CBF retired the symbolic plug and actually began walking the talk at the Brock Center. On April 1, we cranked the center's electric meter back to zero and began a year-long effort to demonstrate that the building's solar panels and wind turbines can produce all the electricity the building needs for a solid year.

Certainly when it is cloudy, with no wind, the center likely will have to draw some power from the local grid. But on sunny, breezy days- - and there are lots of them in Virginia Beach -- the center will produce more electricity than it needs, sending the excess juice back to the grid. The goal at the end of the 12 months: net-zero energy.

We're also aiming to make the Brock Center net-zero water. The center employs two 1,700-gallon cisterns to collect rainwater. It is cleaned and stored on site for all the center's drinking, washing, and cooking needs. The Brock Center is the first commercial building in the continental United States permitted to treat and use rainwater as drinking water. As with energy, CBF's goal is to demonstrate that we can be water-independent.

"We started the year-long clock at 12:01 a.m. April 1," said CBF's Hampton Roads Director Christy Everett. "We intend to operate the center for the next 12 months using no more power than what the sun and wind generate and no more water than what rain provides. That will be an enormous challenge, and we know we may encounter some glitches along the way. We're attempting something that few others have ever done."

I invite everyone to join CBF on this journey to zero impact. You can follow the progress of the first year challenge by visiting the Brock Center's online "dashboard," a real-time gauge of the building's energy and water use. The dashboard can be seen at cbf.org/brockdashboard.

What the dashboard won't show you are the many other features that make me believe the Brock Center is the greenest and smartest building in the world. Just some of them include:

  • No-flush, composting toilets that eliminate water use and produce no sewage waste.
  • Gray water from the center's sinks and showers that goes into special bio-retention gardens to be absorbed by native plants.
  • Rain gardens, sandy soils, and permeable surfaces that produce zero polluted runoff, eliminating harm to the nearby Lynnhaven River and Chesapeake Bay.
  • Geothermal wells, southern exposures, and windows and doors that open wide to catch Bay breezes and help heat and cool the building naturally.
  • Super-efficient insulation and energy-conserving lights and appliances that help the Brock Center use 80 percent less energy than office buildings of comparable size.
  • Toxic-free building materials that result in a clean, healthy work environment.

Finally, we have used recycled and salvaged materials throughout the center. The wood from old bleachers, the flooring from an old school gym, the sinks and cabinets and desktops retrieved from office buildings slated for demolition are all given a new lease on life rather than being thrown away, wherever "away" is.

We want the Brock Center to achieve Living Building Challenge certification, a set of super-tough environmental criteria developed by the International Living Future Institute. Only a handful of buildings around the world have successfully done so.

We also have a larger, more visionary goal for the Brock Environmental Center. We hope the center can become an international model for sustainable building, a practical demonstration that we can live and work in true harmony with nature. Zero environmental impact is possible, and it's do-able, right now, even in especially sensitive regions like the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

If we can demonstrate that buildings like the Brock Environmental Center can help save the Bay, perhaps others around the nation and the world will also be inspired to take the Living Building Challenge... and help save the planet.