- Project Name
- Environmental Nature Center and Preschool
- Project Types
- Project Scope
- New Construction
- 2020 AIA COTE Top Ten
- Shared by
- Project Status
Expanded Coverage of the 2020 COTE Top 10 Awards appeared in the October 2020 issue of ARCHITECT.
Completed nearly a decade apart by the same team, two buildings on a shared site provide a master class in the evolution of contemporary sustainable design.
What were some of the design goals for this campus, including the Environmental Nature Center, completed in 2008, and the associated preschool, completed in 2016?
Rick D’Amato, FaIA, principal: The design for the ENC was about nature being on display. The design for the preschool became about how to start to become part of nature, rather than just looking at it. So, we took two different approaches, but that hands-on approach is what drove the preschool.
A lot changed in the eight years between completing the two projects. Had your design process changed as well?
The original goal of the preschool was to take what we learned in the Nature Center and not only amplify those strategies, but showcase what we had learned in the intervening time. The preschool started out a lot more aggressive in its approach to materials and systems, but the overriding factor in both projects was budget. For the ENC, we started with more aggressive targets as well, but we kept having to pare down and hold back. We might get a little extra money from a donor and then we’d able to put something back in. When we started the preschool, we understood that and designed for the project to be able to morph, change, adapt, and grow as we got more money, or as things changed on site.
What is the most innovative sustainable aspect of these projects?
The goal for the ENC, and the target for the preschool, was to be completely naturally ventilated. Today, that’s been done a lot. But in 2008, it was so unheard of that we couldn’t get LEED certification for the building because so much of the certification process was based on MEP. We had to talk to them and change their certification requirements; it became the first time a building had been certified without a mechanical system, and at LEED Platinum. With the preschool, the most innovative thing is that learning doesn’t happen in four walls. Rain or shine, those kids are outside every day, and the classroom is really an adjunct to the outside space, whereas, in a typical school, it’s reversed.
Are there lessons from the net-positive ENC that drove the energy strategy for the preschool?
Well, you can’t learn much more effective strategies than having your building be completely nonreliant on mechanical systems. But when we started doing the preschool, the thing that influenced us was the evolution of products and materials. I remember the photovoltaic array on the ENC just being so big and cumbersome—although, at the time, it was the ultimate. Whereas on the preschool, almost a decade later, it was much smaller and cheaper. Everything we did on the preschool from an energy standpoint seemed easier. In the preschool, we had to have some sort of heating and cooling. We chose a radiant system, which is the most energy-efficient and cost-effective way of heating a room. But it’s still a very simple setup because we knew it would likely never get used. The classrooms all have giant sliding glass doors, and there are still ways to move air around the space. There is every opportunity for them to never turn on any HVAC. That was the biggest lesson learned—how much you don’t actually need those systems.
Has a post-occupancy evaluation, including surveys of occupant comfort, been performed? Yes. A preliminary post-occupancy survey of occupants was conducted with a 67% response rate. Highlights of survey findings were shared with the owner and designers, including that 100% of respondents were satisfied or very satisfied with the natural ventilation and indoor air quality afforded by operable windows and sliding glass window-walls, which provide seamless connection between indoor and outdoor learning environments. Overall, 94% were satisfied or very satisfied with personal workspaces and the ability to control internal temperatures. Lower satisfaction ratings were reported for acoustics in terms of noise levels (71%) and sound privacy (64%), for which adaptive strategies will be explored as the preschool continues its first year of operation.
Which of the following post-occupancy steps were taken? Contacted the owner/occupant to see how things are going; obtained utility bill to determine actual performance; surveyed building occupants on satisfaction; shared collected data with those occupants; conducted a post-occupancy energy analysis; developed and shared strategies to improve the building’s performance; taught occupants and operators how to improve building performance.
Were lessons learned through post-occupancy used to improve subsequent projects? Yes. The original ENC became an informative tool for the design of similar types of future projects as well as the design of the more recent prechool project.
Because the ENC is a naturally ventilated building with no heating or cooling systems, the interior was directly affected by the changing exterior environment. With a close proximity to the Newport Beach Back Bay, moisture content in the air became a major contributor to the performance of the interior finishes.
While some behaved properly, others were compromised by the nightly influx of moist air through the building’s venting systems. These products were removed from our internal design materials green list, and others that were vetted and researched within similar conditions were substituted.
Interior joints, connections, and transitions were also affected by the moisture content of the air and redesigned for the subsequent preschool project.
For a full list of metrics, visit aia.org.
This project is a winner of a 2020 AIA COTE Top Ten Award.
From the AIA:
In 2008, the firm designed the 8,535-square-foot Environmental Nature Center (ENC), which focuses on providing quality education through hands-on experience with nature. Through simple and cost-effective design strategies, the center was certified as the first LEED Platinum building in Orange County, California, and has operated at net zero since it opened, serving the community as an educational tool for sustainability.
In 2019, the 10,380-square-foot preschool was added, supporting the ENC’s mission to deliver quality, nature-based education for children ages 2 ½ to 5. Developed in conjunctions with educators, the community, and ENC leaders, the preschool complements the existing facility while seamlessly blending indoor and outdoor spaces, providing children with an intuitive understanding of nature and the natural world.
Developed through a holistic design approach, using the firm’s integrated team of architects, engineers, landscape architects, and interior designers, the projects create over four acres of dedicated open space within a suburban community. Taking advantage of the coastal climate, the buildings are oriented to allow for natural ventilation, significantly reducing initial and long-term costs. Neither building uses a mechanical cooling system. Low-energy ceiling fans and the building form enhance air movement when needed. Radiant floor heating provides low-energy, mild heating as required. Active and passive sustainable approaches were key in minimizing the energy demand for the preschool. The south-facing roof of the preschool accommodates a 32 kW array of photovoltaic panels, which are designed to provide 105 percent of the net energy for the preschool’s electrical needs.
ENC Nature Preschool is pursuing LEED NC Platinum certification and the Living Building Challenge’s Petal Certification, which will make it one of the first projects in the region to achieve this level of sustainability and healthy environments. With a focus on passive, efficient design, the ENC campus is serving as a living laboratory and educational tool for smart green design and conservation.