A small educational center in Virginia has won top honors for its environmental performance from the American Institute of Architects (AIA). The recognition is a landmark for regenerative design — the growing movement that calls for green buildings to improve the environment.

At its annual meeting in Orlando, Florida, the AIA's Committee on the Environment cited the Brock Environmental Center for its "exceptional post-occupancy performance."

The center, on Chesapeake Bay in Virginia Beach, Virginia, is a certified "Living Building." With highly efficient passive solar features, two wind turbines and a roof covered with solar panels, the center generates 80 percent more renewable energy than it uses. It also collects and processes its own water, contains no chemicals from a toxic "Red List" and was "net waste positive" — meaning it reused more materials in construction than it sent to the landfill.

Among other projects named to the AIA-COTE "Top Ten" list were an elementary school in Arlington, Virginia, that "sets a new standard for public schools to achieve net zero energy in a challenging climate;" a garage and utility shed in Manhattan that "raises the bar for a municipal sanitation building;" and a hospital in Singapore that gives every patient an operable window.

But the 10,518-square-foot Brock Center — which is owned by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) and was designed by the megafirm SmithGroup JJR — was the only project deemed worthy of the "Top Ten Plus" citation.

"CBF aspired to manifest true sustainability, creating a landmark that transcends notions of 'doing less harm' towards a reality where architecture can create a positive, regenerative impact on both the environment and society," AIA said in a statement accompanying the award.

A model green building

The Brock Environmental Center The Brock Environmental Center was designed to be as green and as sustainable as possible. (Photo courtesy of the city of Virginia Beach)

Not surprisingly, both the foundation and SmithGroup JJR have long track records when it comes to deep-green buildings. Like owners and architects connected to the other winning buildings, they've built up institutional knowledge that helped take the Brock Center to the next level. SmithGroup designed Philip Merrill Environmental Center in Annapolis, Maryland, for the Chesapeake Foundation. In 2001, it became the world's first LEED Platinum Building.

Brock Center also achieved LEED Platinum, and last year it gained certification under the even more rigorous Living Building Challenge (LBC). To reach that level of certification, buildings are required to attain net-zero energy, waste and water, and the Brock Center met those goals with flying colors: Projected to reach an astoundingly low energy unity intensity (EIU) of 15.5, it performed from April 2015 to April 2016 at an EUI of 14.12. (EUI is determined by dividing the building's consumed energy over a year by its floor area.)

Intensive passive-solar features and a mix of sophisticated HVAC equipment were key to lowering energy demand. For instance, the building's longest dimension runs east-west, a standard of passive design. That way, it isn't inundated by solar heat at the beginning and the end of each day. But the Brock Center adds a literal twist: It curls to face just a bit east at the eastern end, because computer models showed that would give the winter sun a jump on warming the building.

"The Brock Center's performance pushed the boundaries on what is possible. Regenerative, net-positive design is more than an aspiration — it has been achieved," SmithGroupJJR project manager Greg Mella said.

A building for the bay

Aside from measurable performance, the building, which sits right next to the bay, was designed to express the foundation's mission: to collaborate with other organizations, agencies and people to protect the bay, a threatened resource with a watershed that spans five states and the District of Columbia.

The distinctive curved roof evokes ocean waves, windswept dunes, even clamshells, while the roof's zinc shingles sparkle in sunlight like fish scales. Other features, including an open-air "dogtrot" and a system of pier-like ramps that lead up to the main floor, give the building a strong sense of place.

Many of those locally oriented design features also help environmentally: Water-resistant cypress siding was harvested from nearby "sinker logs." The ramp was necessary to elevate the building to protect it from storm surges, which are projected to reach higher ground because of climate change. And that curved roof to the west minimizes heat gain from the afternoon sun.

Even though building a project designed to help heal the planet can be inspirational, those involved in Brock Center admit it was no cakewalk.

Chris Brandt, executive vice president of the center's builder, Hourigan Construction, put it this way: "We had the opportunity to push the envelope on innovative and creative methods. There were so many certification levels that needed to be met that it was a job in itself to keep track of them all."

Ken Edelstein is editor of the Kendeda Fund's Living Building Chronicle, which is following construction of the Living Building at Georgia Tech, and reporting about regenerative design and construction across the Southeast.