Chesapeake Bay Foundation spent extra to make its headquarters eco-friendly

While leading a tour of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s headquarters in Annapolis, Mary Tod Winchester stepped into a restroom and waved her hand across a toilet as elegantly as a game-show model on “The Price Is Right.”

It wasn’t just any commode. There was no flush handle, no knob, no pulley. At the foundation’s ultra-green workplace, there wasn’t any water in the toilets, either. As far as the organization’s leaders are concerned, it’s a waste. They’d rather compost than send more polluted water gushing into the bay they’re sworn to protect.

  • ( / MICHAEL S. WILLIAMSON/THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Sawdust and other solids travel from toilet to composting tank.
  • ( / MICHAEL S. WILLIAMSON/THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Mary Tod Winchester, a vice president of the Chespeake Bay Foundation, is silhouetted in a conference room equipped with above-the-window louvers that can help keep the room warmer in winter and cooler in summer. The louvers were made from recycled pickle barrels.
  • ( / MICHAEL S. WILLIAMSON/THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Not all of the building’s design features are high-tech: Old wine barrels are used to collect rainwater for a rooftop garden.
  • ( Todd Lindeman, Bonnie Berkowitz / ) - Details of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s exterior “green” features.

( / MICHAEL S. WILLIAMSON/THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Sawdust and other solids travel from toilet to composting tank.

When the headquarters opened 10 years ago this month, the Philip Merrill Environmental Center was immediately recognized as the nation’s greenest building for its compost toilets and assorted alternative energy features. Today, the building remains highly regarded.

With its $17 million price tag, the foundation put its money where its mouth was, showing other organizations how to be more environmentally responsible, said Winchester, the foundation’s vice president of administration and operations.

Cisterns near the roof capture rainwater, which is used to wash hands and tools. Under the gravel parking lot, geothermal wells help warm the building, along with solar panels and natural sunlight that pours through oversize windows. Motion-detection sensors turn out lights when workers leave a room.

The floors are made of pressed cork rather than wood, preserving trees. The stairs are made of bamboo, preferable because it grows like a weed.

But the eco-friendly heat and floors are hard to notice. On the other hand, everyone who gets a biological urge sees the toilets. The latrines get all the glory, the eye-popping oohs and aahs.

People peek under the seats into the wide dark tubes that tumble to three gray metal bins. A maintenance worker has the unenviable job of stirring the stuff. It mellows for months before it’s spread on the grounds as fertilizer.

If the image makes you want to hold your nose, you shouldn’t. “They don’t smell,” Winchester said of the toilets.

She paused a second.

“Well, they actually do smell. But the smell is vented out of the building so you never smell a thing,” Winchester said. During the recent tour, there was no foul restroom odor.

Why would an organization pay so much to be so green?

The building project “was an opportunity to practice what we preach here,” said Winchester. “When we told [designers] we wanted no-flush, compost toilets, they looked at us like we were crazy,” Winchester recalled.

The green concept was new to builders, as Chuck Foster, the foundation’s chief of staff, discovered when he explained the group’s alternative energy requests to a contractor working on another foundation project.

“I said that we wanted a green building. And he said, ‘Son, we’ll paint the building any color you want,’ ” Foster recalled.

A typical office building of a similar size uses 1,500 to 2,000 gallons of water a day, Winchester said. The Merrill Center uses 90.

According to the U.S. Green Building Council Web site, buildings in the United States use more than 13 percent of the nation’s potable water, about 15 trillion gallons a year. “Buildings are one of the heaviest consumers of natural resources and account for a significant portion of greenhouse gas emissions that affect climate change,” the site says. They account for 72 percent of energy consumption in the United States.

The war cry of the 43-year-old Chesapeake Bay Foundation is “Save the Bay,” which is threatened by nitrogen and phosphorous produced by human and animal waste that flows into the 64,000-square-mile watershed every time it rains.

The foundation fights pollution with advocacy, studies and lawsuits against local and federal government. As part of its mission, it teaches students to be responsible stewards of the bay and its river tributaries.

The idea to use its headquarters to showcase the use of alternative energy and teach by example arose 15 years ago, when the foundation started to grow out of its offices in downtown Annapolis.

Winchester and Foster were tapped to search for a new headquarters nearby. They turned up their noses at several properties and were turned away by the owners of other sites they coveted.

Two years later, there was a breakthrough. The owner of the 32-acre Bay Ridge Beach and Inn resort decided to sell her sprawling Tahiti-style beachfront property. Fearing that a developer might purchase the property and bring noisy crowds to their secluded neighborhoods, members of the Bay Ridge Civic Association shopped the inn to the foundation.

“It took me 10 seconds to say, ‘Oh my gracious, what an opportunity,’ ” Winchester said. “Not just because it’s on the water, but because of what we do: field trips, planting oyster gardens, restoring woods, bringing in stakeholders who could see the bay.”

They quickly discovered that it’s not easy being green.

The price tag for the headquarters was $17 million — $3 million to purchase the property and $14 million to bulldoze the crumbling resort and build the 28,000-square-foot building. The foundation paid a premium of $46 more per square foot for green measures.

Alternative energy gadgets cost more in 2000 than they do now “because the technology is cheaper, more available and more efficient,” Winchester said. Maryland media magnate Philip Merrill, who was found dead in the bay years later after an apparent suicide, donated $7 million.

Foster and Winchester claimed that the extra cost was recouped with energy savings within eight years. They spoke in the Merganser conference room, with their backs to oversize windows that looked out on the bay. Waves crashed against the brown sand beach, driven by a hard winter wind. Thin rays of sunlight slid through shale-colored clouds and lit the ice-cold water.

But it was toasty indoors because of the 300-foot deep geothermal wells that pumped the Earth’s heat indoors and warmed water for the kitchen and restrooms. Sensors measured warmth from the light shining through the windows and automatically adjusted the thermostat.

It costs $200 a day to heat and cool the building, a projected savings of $62,000 per year. Other sensors gauged the sunlight and powered off overhead lamps to conserve energy.

After Winchester said she hoped that others would duplicate the foundation’s effort, Foster put his head in his hands and said the environmentally responsible path is long and hard.

“You see this?” Foster said, natural light gleaming on his bald spot. “I had a full head of hair before this started.”