First in an occasional series.
The first thing one notices upon walking into Mount Rainier's police station is the sunlight -- long, glorious shafts that stream into a central corridor through a string of skylights along the spine of the roof, then continue their blazing journey through internal windows into a row of offices on either side of the corridor, until nearly every corner of the building is flooded with natural light.
The ingenious system of illumination, which allows the city to save considerably on its electricity bill, is the most visible of dozens of energy-efficient features that make the headquarters of this small police force an extraordinary structure. Completed early last year, the Mount Rainier building is one of the few and possibly the first "green" police station in the nation.
"We were very proud to be leaders in such an innovative design," said Fred Sissine, the former mayor who was the driving force behind the decision to make the station a model of energy efficiency. "While the world's nations are still debating how to reduce pollution and greenhouse gases, we're actually doing it."
The police headquarters project was the culmination of nearly a decade of environmentally friendly construction in Mount Rainier, an economically struggling city of 8,500 that prides itself on its progressive politics. In 1994, for instance, the city installed energy-efficient windows and extra insulation in the new city hall.
But those features pale in comparison to the array of green elements incorporated into the new police station. The novel approach began with the choice of a site.
Rather than constructing a building from scratch, city leaders elected to renovate a roughly 6,000-square-foot auto repair shop on Rhode Island Avenue, the blighted main thoroughfare bisecting this inner-Beltway city.
Although it was dilapidated, the repair shop had an interesting facade with castle-like parapets along the top, Sissine said. "One of our city staffers did research and found out that the building had originally been a showroom for new autos in the 1920s and '30s. So this was a way to do some historic preservation in an area that is on the National Register of Historic Places as an example of an early 20th-century trolley car suburb."
The project's architects, Jill Schick and Howard Goldstein, preserved the Art Deco feeling of the original storefront by painting it a pinkish-gray and adding a silver bow-shaped sign with the words "Mount Rainier Police" in simple black letters. But they also introduced a post-modern twist by putting in a large bay window decorated with dark green tiles on one side and a floor-to-ceiling panel of bulletproof glass on the other.
The builders were able to salvage or recycle more than 75 percent of the waste produced during construction, and many of the new materials used have recycled content. These include wood paneling made from recycled sunflower seeds; floor tiles made from recycled automobile windshields; carpeting with recycled backing; and linoleum made from linseed oil, resin and cork. The result is a look that is part Scandinavian modern, part industrial loft chic -- with vivid blue flooring and blond wood panels and furniture alternating with gray cement block walls, steel doors and copious quantities of glass.
More than half of the materials used in the building were bought from manufacturers located within 500 miles of Mount Rainer, reducing the energy needed to transport them. In another environmentally sensitive move, instead of paving over the parking lot in back of the building, the city covered it with gravel, which allows rainwater to be absorbed into the ground rather than running into storm drains along with engine oil and other pollutants. Night sky "light pollution" was minimized by focusing all the exterior lights on the building downward.
In addition to its sky-lighted central corridor, the police station has a host of features intended to reduce the city's utility bills by as much as 50 percent. The lights in the building, including attractive, bulbous metal ceiling lamps, use highly efficient compact fluorescent bulbs that last two or three times as long as incandescent bulbs and consume about one-third the electricity, said John Spears, a sustainable-design consultant who advised the city on the police station project.
The roof is light-colored and heat reflective. The bathrooms have low-flow toilets and sinks. The heat pump is buried in the ground. Because the temperature in the ground is always cooler than outside air in summer and warmer than outside air in winter, ground pumps require less energy to heat and cool the air in the building, Spears explained.
City officials could not provide a dollar amount, but said that the savings generated by all these features far exceed the added costs of making the building "green" -- including a $5,000 consultation fee paid to Spears.
By building the station on a blighted stretch of road, the city was also able to fund nearly half the $1.7 million cost with a state urban revitalization grant, Sissine said.
The station appears to have had its intended effect. Spurred in part by its presence, several new businesses are opening up in vacant buildings on both sides of it. A large building of artists' lofts is under construction on the same block just a few doors away from the station.
The city is hoping to get national recognition for its efforts. Spears has submitted an application to the U.S. Green Building Council, a coalition of building industry representatives, to get Mount Rainier's police station certified with a gold rating -- the council's second-highest -- for energy efficiency.
But it is arguably the men and women who work in the station every day who most appreciate its design, particularly given its contrast to the previous station building, a dark and dingy set of rooms on the second floor of a boxy brick building.
The first time he saw the new station, Patrol Officer Joey Toto said, "I was like, 'Wow! This is really nice!' " He had a hard time pinning down what made it so special. "There's the high ceilings, the exposed beams, it's all kind of . . . . artsy. Yeah, that's the word I'm looking for."
Wanda Foster, acting records manager, had no doubts about her favorite feature: "I love that I don't need to turn the lights on during the daytime," she said. "Natural light is so much more calming."
Do you know of a building in Prince George's County that Extra should highlight in this series? All suggestions are welcome, including private residences, commercial facilities, public offices, historic sites and new buildings. E-mail the address of your proposed building, along with a brief explanation of what makes it architecturally distinctive, to email@example.com.