Turning Over A Green Leaf

Fairfax County's Station 40 was built with environmental protection standards in mind, inside and out.
Fairfax County's Station 40 was built with environmental protection standards in mind, inside and out. (Photos By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 21, 2006

At a glance, Fairfax County's newest fire station, along Lee Highway just east of West Ox Road, does not look like anything more than, well, a fire station.

Station 40, though, is a milestone. It is the county's first "green" government building, designed and built to be environmentally sound and energy-efficient. And a second-- also a fire station -- is underway in Lorton.

Take more than a glance. Three large ponds sit on the station's grounds, not merely controlling water runoff to the nearby highway and sewers, but filtering it before it reaches the soil and containing it in the event of heavy rain.

Windows -- and sunlight -- are everywhere, angled to absorb heat from the sun in winter and reflect it in summer. Recycled materials -- in the floors, in the cabinets -- are everywhere.

The station, just south of Fairfax Government Center, opened in June and is running smoothly, said station commander Capt. Milton L. Painter. "From a user perspective, we don't have to do anything we wouldn't normally do," he said. "Maybe clean some more glass."

Station 40, also called Fairfax Center, is just east of the Costco and Home Depot complex at 4621 Legato Rd. The next station under construction, Crosspointe on Route 123 at Hampton Road, also is "green" and should open next year.

The movement toward efficient, environmentally compatible buildings in the United States has been gaining steam since the late 1990s, in private and in government construction. "There's tremendous leadership coming particularly from the local level," said Michelle Moore, vice president of community and communications for the U.S. Green Building Council. Moore said that 11 federal agencies, 18 states and 59 cities, towns and counties have adopted green policies.

Those include Arlington and Montgomery counties. This month, Washington became the first city to require that private developers, in addition to government contractors, meet environmental standards when their buildings are 50,000 square feet or larger. Fairfax does not have a formal policy, but the Board of Supervisors has set environmental compatibility as a priority for all new projects, said county spokesman Brian Worthy.

To determine how green a building is, the Green Building Council devised a list of criteria, known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, to classify buildings on a scale from "certified" to "silver," "gold" or "platinum." Carey F. Needham, the county's chief of building design, hopes Station 40 achieves a silver rating, which would mean it has met about 60 percent of the standards.

Among those standards are reducing the "heat island effect" by deflecting heat rather than absorbing it; reducing light pollution and water use; using renewable energy sources; recycling or use recycled materials; and access to daylight and quality air.

Station 40 meets much of the criteria, said project manager Teresa G. Lepe, and construction was begun with those goals in mind, reusing materials as building progressed. The paved surfaces are concrete, which reflects heat, rather than asphalt, which holds heat. Paints used inside the station have fewer compounds that release toxic fumes.

The 24,000-square-foot station is larger than a typical, 14,000-square-foot Fairfax station, Lepe said. The hazardous materials unit, which had been crammed into a small station in Oakton, was moved to the new station for adequate equipment storage.

Several heating and ventilation systems were tested, and the one that best controls the station's temperature was installed, Lepe said. There are no thermostats -- temperature is monitored by computer and adjusted by Government Center workers.

Because it is a fire station, some environmental goals could not be met. Low-water toilets and showers could not be installed because the station is in use around the clock, every day of the year, Painter said. Additionally, proximity to mass transit is a key green component, but because the station is located where it was needed to respond to calls -- serving, roughly, the Fair Lakes area -- it is not near Metro.

The overall cost of the project -- $8.8 million -- was slightly higher because of the green aspects, including the LEED certification, Needham said, but the recovery in energy savings and decreased environmental impact will more than make up for it.

Moore said that green buildings typically cost 1.5 percent more than standard structures and that energy savings usually compensate for the higher cost within the first 10 months of operating.

The improved air quality and sunlight also have proved cost-efficient for employers, Needham said. Absenteeism drops, productivity improves and insurance premiums decline, he said, adding that these are major reasons "the private sector is on board."

The number of people in construction, manufacturing and design who were qualified to build green was not large five years ago, Needham said, and supplies were scarce. But now, the Green Building Council has certified 33,000 professionals and 550 buildings, with 5,000 more awaiting testing. And green building materials are easily available now.

"Green building is not a trend," Moore said. "It's the way the profession is evolving. The vast majority of members are private companies." But government policies, either emphasizing or requiring green building practices, he said, "have been very important to green construction moving forward."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company