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Green office architect planning wind-generation deal

A solar tube light at Enviro Center
A solar tube light at Enviro Center - Steve Ruark
Rare is the workplace that doesn’t turn on the lights in a womens’ restroom with no windows.

But the Enviro Center in Jessup isn’t like most other offices.

Architect and entrepreneur Stan Sersen transformed the building from a 700-square-foot, 1905 farmhouse on a former lumberyard into a 5,000-square-foot office building, spending $1.3 million on land, renovation and new construction. Rooftop equipment funnels sunlight through fiber optic cables, for instance, lighting the ladies’ room and other interior spaces without electricity on sunny days.

The whole idea of the Enviro Center is to break from conventional building practices and create workspaces that are in tune with the environment.

Sersen built the Enviro Center to create a home for commercial tenants who are dedicated to the environment, including his own architecture firm and the Green Building Institute, a nonprofit he runs. The economic recession torpedoed massive expansion plans, and the building now stands half empty after tenants grew out of the space.

But Sersen has plans for the center’s rebound. He is finalizing a wind-generation deal with Frostburg State University and drawing up plans to try a type of sustainable food production known as aquaponics at the Enviro Center. It has no connection with the state's offshore wind bill backed by Gov. Martin O'Malley. But it shows that more leaders are recognizing that wind is a good source of renewable energy. And in April he expects to reveal plans for a new environmental education initiative in partnership with one of his tenants.

Architect Carri Beer, who has toured the Enviro Center, says Sersen’s inclusion of so many environmentally minded features in a commercial building is unusual.

“There’s a really small percentage of buildings like this,” says Beer, who leads the environment committee of the American Institute of Architects’ Baltimore chapter.

Sersen’s wind project would link wind turbines at a Western Maryland industrial site to the local electric grid. The Green Building Institute would facilitate construction management, working with Frostburg State University and Millersville turbine maker Vertical Wind Ventures. Construction could start as early as April.

That’s also when Sersen’s Green Building Institute is teaming up with Enviro Center tenant the Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education on a new major education initiative to teach the association’s environmental literacy certification program in homes across Maryland. Essentially, parents and homeowners would get instruction that is similar to what their kids learn at school.

Maryland’s environmental literacy requirement means that educators teach more than in high-school science class how children’s actions affect the earth. Instead, it’s woven over the years through music, math and language arts instruction, says Laura Johnson Collard, executive director of the environmental association.

Kids go home and talk how they turn off classroom lights when they leave and try to save water. Parents are then saying to their kids that they want the same learning, Collard says.

The Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education moved into the Enviro Center three years ago, attracted by the building’s green ethos and the nonprofit’s mission to teach Marylanders about stewardship of the natural world. Working in an environmentally minded building shows the group practices the green principles it preaches to the 450 Maryland schools whose curricula the association certifies as providing successful environmental education.

The building does not hold LEED certification, an industry-designated rating of environment-minded design and construction. It would have cost too much, and tax incentives were too low when he built it in 2005, Sersen says.

Nevertheless, the building is loaded with environment-minded features:

• The south facing roof overhang points up – not down as usual – funneling southerly breezes into the building and creating an electric-free whole house fan to cool the space in summer;

• Two dozen solar panels cover the Enviro Center’s southern roof. Half power the building’s radiant heat floors, while the other dozen generate electricity that offsets usage from the power grid; and,

• Lighting relies on rooftop equipment that tracks the sun. It compresses light into fiber-optic cables, which then illuminate ceiling fixtures.

Its environmentally friendly features make the building unique, Beer says. Commercial building developers typically don’t show much interest in green building practices because they won’t see the return on their investment through future energy savings or improved air quality.

“They just want to get tenants in there,” Beer says. 

Will Morton is a freelance reporter who has written for the Baltimore Sun, the Baltimore Business Journal, Urbanite, Baltimore magazine and Style. He has also written for the Wall Street Journal and was an editor at Dow Jones Newswires in New York. He started as a teen reporter for the student-run Cavalier Daily at the University of Virginia.

All photographs by STEVE RUARK except Stan Sersen courtesy of Enviro Center.

Click photos to read captions.
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