Case Studies

Commonwealth Architects

Meeting the gold standard in historic preservation

When it came to going green while redesigning one of the quintessential buildings in downtown Richmond, Virginia, Commonwealth Architects was part of a team that didn’t quite go for the gold but won it anyway.

To be sure, Commonwealth Architects and its project partners, including the Virginia Department of General Services (DGS), Sustainable Design Consulting, M/E/P Engineer Integral Group and construction manager Kjellstrom and Lee Construction, set their sights high enough in 2006 when they undertook the conversion of the former Hotel Richmond into what’s now the Barbara Johns Building and occupied by the Virginia Office of the Attorney General.

Commonwealth Architects

Photo credit: Suttenfield Photography.

With all those firms long established in Virginia’s capital city and well-versed in historic preservation and conservation-friendly practices, they hoped to garner a silver certification from the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) report card, which takes nearly 60 details into account when gauging a project’s overall sustainability.

Working on the historic structure would be no easy task, further complicated by the fact that the hotel, built in 1904 and added to in 1911, had long been a state-owned office building subject to different expectations, not to mention a tight construction budget with every major physical change being monitored by a community that values its heritage.

Then there was the Great Recession that would put the work on hold from 2009 to 2013.

Notwithstanding those challenges, a decade later the Barbara Johns Building is finished and feeling the hustle and bustle of Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring and his staff of 400.

Still a landmark with its exterior replicating the original Italianate architecture, the 12-story, 164,000 square-foot brick building proudly fits the downtown’s character and overlooks the state capitol building designed by Thomas Jefferson in the late 18th century. Only now it’ll be simpler and less costly to maintain and better able to withstand the next century as it makes history of its own while bearing the name of a prominent African-American civil rights activist.

New history made

Appropriately enough on Martin Luther King Day this past January, Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced that the building would be renamed after the late Barbara Rose Johns Powell, who as a teenager in 1951 organized a student strike to protest segregated schools in central Virginia’s Prince Edward County.

“I cannot think of a better person to inspire the men and women who fight for justice and equality in the office of the attorney general than Barbara Johns,” McAuliffe said at a gathering in Richmond. “When Barbara stood up for equal access to education as a plaintiff in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education, she helped change the history of our nation for the better and inspired a new generation of civil rights leaders.”

With his firm having played such a prominent role in the design, Robert C. Burns, director of historic architecture and a principal of Commonwealth Architects, feels justified in taking a bow, along with the partnering firms.

“I take a lot of pride in it,” says Burns. “I’ve developed a pretty good expertise in historic projects, and this one was especially rewarding … we were able to outperform our estimates.”

“I take a lot of pride in it. I’ve developed a pretty good expertise in historic projects, and this one was especially rewarding.”

Over a decade ago, when the project was initiated, the design team registered it with the U.S Green Building Council, a 13,000-strong membership-based nonprofit headquartered in Washington, D.C., that promotes sustainable construction and operation. Drawings, specifications and reports outlining the project systems and design had to be submitted at various phases, with good grades returning, but the gold certification still took the project team by surprise.

As Burns muses, the project team sold themselves short when anticipating how many credits they could achieve while performing myriad and complex tasks. When it came to credits for energy efficiency, they used what’s known as the Variable Refrigerant Flow HVAC system which, along with improved thermal insulation in the building’s envelope, figured to save significantly in heating and air-conditioning costs—the latter a huge factor in Richmond’s long, hot, humid summers.

“The VRF system also made the thermal controllability of individual spaces throughout the building possible, and the existing hotel layout, coupled with the desired program for closed offices by the AG, made the lighting controllability credit achievable as well,” says Burns. “These were all the credits achieved that were not anticipated in the initial scorecard.”

In that initial scorecard, the project’s mechanical engineer conservatively estimated a modest four points only to see it qualify for 16 by the time the Green Building Council assessed total energy efficiency.

A second challenge had to do with meeting the Green Building Council’s thresholds for recycling much of the building’s original content and purchasing other materials from regional distributors. Given the difficulties of reusing old materials and fixtures, the project team was conservative in those estimates as well, only to again be pleasantly surprised.

“Similarly, we were cautious with the credit for low-emitting paints because often with historic projects, we need to use non-compliant paints and coatings to match or recoat something existing, but we avoided that here and were able to specify high-quality compliant products without detracting from the historic appearance and performance.”

As far as water use went, the contractors scored an “exemplary” credit with 40 percent savings, largely through the use of low-flow plumbing fixtures and a basement cistern to collect rain from the roof for use in replenishing water in the rooftop cooling towers lost to evaporation. Then, there was an innovation credit for Historic Resource Preservation, something the project team didn’t anticipate but much appreciated.

Test of time

To many of the locals, with the project complete, the splendors of a bygone era are back in Virginia’s Capitol Square. The former Hotel Richmond—listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register—had been built by one of the most notable women of her era, Adeline Detroit Atkinson, and was the epicenter for high entertainment and state politics, serving as the headquarters of Virginia’s Democratic Party, dominated for decades by former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr.

In the late 1960s, another governor, Mills E. Godwin Jr.—the nation’s first to serve terms as a Democrat and a Republican—arranged for the state to buy the building to house much of the Virginia bureaucracy. That it did for around 50 years, but as time took its toll, the wear and tear on the structure became too obvious to ignore.

Burns isn’t the only one who’s happy the building was renovated rather than razed. Modern times at the former Hotel Richmond may not be as colorful as during the building’s carousing heyday, rife with the smoke-filled rooms where lawmakers cut deals out of the public’s sight, but one might say it’s been put to more legitimate use with the attorney general and his staff pursuing Virginia’s legal interests. And the building sure shines with that gold designation.

“It was a moving target that took over 10 years to complete and it was a real team effort,” says Burns, again lauding the work performed by the Department of General Services, Integral Group, Sustainable Design Consulting and Kjellstrom and Lee. “Lots of people were watching, and the pressure was on everyone to do everything particularly well. We did, and I get a real source of pride every time I walk by.”

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