ATLANTA—The Georgia Department of Natural Resources completed construction of one of the world’s most environmentally friendly buildings. Sweetwater Creek State Park Visitor Center has earned the U.S. Green Building Council’s highest LEED accreditation possible, making it one of only 20 LEED Platinum certified (New Construction) buildings in the world.

Located in the historic Sweetwater Creek State Conservation Park, the new Visitor Center serves as a gateway to the park trails and the historic New Manchester Manufacturing Company mill ruins. According to Long Engineering, Inc., the site-integrated building derived its form from program requirements, site topography, climate, and solar orientation, as well as from a strong commitment to remaining consistent with the park’s educational mission of preservation and conservation of the many natural and cultural resources that lie within it. In recognition of its innovative and collaborative engineering on the Visitor Center, Long Engineering received the Grand Award (Small Projects category) from the American Council of Engineering Companies-Georgia in its 2007 Engineering Excellence Award competition.

The site for the Visitor Center had a limited potable water supply, no access to a public sewer system, and a modest budget for design and construction. As the civil engineer, Long Engineering tackled this shortcoming by designing numerous systems, including a 15,000-gallon, underground storage system to hold enough water to fight a potential fire. A portion of the facility’s roof also consists of a garden that absorbs much of the rainfall that falls on it, while the remaining portion collects rainwater that runs off the roof, through the downspouts and into a 10,000-gallon underground cistern. The water is then treated and used in a mop sink, lavatories, and foam flush toilets.

Waste from the waterless urinals and toilets empty into compost bins in the basement of the building. The compost can be used as fertilizer, and any remaining liquid is combined with the grey water from the drinking fountain, lavatory, and shower and run through a septic tank where it is distributed through a drip irrigation system to plant roots in the center’s demonstration garden.

"What makes this project so unique is how integrated every aspect of the building is," says Shepherd Long, vice president of Long Engineering. "You can’t have one part of the system function without another, which made the design process so collaborative. Each team member was part of every step of the design process, and we all had to make sure our piece of the design worked with the many other pieces. It was truly an integrated design process."

The integrated design process, along with the designed sewer system, results in 100 percent of the waste being treated on-site in an ecologically healthy manner, without the use of chemicals. Unlike conventional sanitary sewer systems, this one eliminates the use of municipally provided potable water. When coupled with the harvested rainwater, which supplies more than 44 percent of the building’s water needs, potable water use is drastically reduced by 77 percent.

"The most successful examples of the built environment recognize their place within the natural order, working in harmony with the environment," says Dan Gerding of Gerding Architects. "Eco-effective buildings that save water, materials, and energy, while providing superior interior environments that promote occupant comfort and productivity, are by-products of good design."

Stormwater management at the Visitor Center use an integrated, comprehensive approach to reducing runoff through rainwater harvesting, a roof garden, pervious pavements, and minimizing impervious surfaces. Rainfall that is not re-used or absorbed by the soil is collected and taken to two stormwater quality ponds. These ponds collect the water and allow it to filter slowly through a matrix of grass, soil, and open-graded stone, cleansing the water of potential pollutants and encouraging groundwater recharge.

The total cost for the building, including the site work and exhibits, was less than $2 million, or $175 per square foot, making the Visitor Center a full-scale demonstration for designing high-performance green buildings with a moderate budget, proving, according to Long Engineering, that through creativity and innovation, cost-effective, sustainable design is possible.

The 8,743-square-foot Visitor Center includes exhibit areas, retail, administrative offices, an audio-visual room, multi-purpose rooms, a water quality lab and classroom, and restrooms. The building itself, as well as the exhibits it houses, will serve as accessible educational tools for more than 100,000 visitors annually to learn about and understand conservation and responsible building design. The Visitor Center is phase one of a two-phase project. Phase two will be underway after fundraising efforts are executed.