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

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation's building features a variety of different green technologies, from waterless toilets to cork floors.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 25, 2011

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.

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?

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