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The ‘Green’ Bush: The New Presidential Center’s Eco-Sensitive Design

This is the first installment in the KERA News series "Inside the Bush Center."

George W. Bush’s environmental legacy as president was decidedly mixed. He established the largest protected marine environment in American history – more than 100 million acres set aside in our Pacific territories. But he also permitted more mountaintop removal by mining companies. And he refused to sign the Kyoto protocols on global warming. Yet the George W. Bush Presidential Center on the campus of SMU is unequivocally eco-sensitive. The new center will be dedicated Thursday.

Peter Arendt is from Fort Worth and he’s walking on the gravel pathway that loops through the urban park that makes up a large part of the 25-acre Bush Center. Arendt is the director of design and construction for the complex. He’s coordinated everyone from the architect to the contractors, the museum display designers to the restaurant manager. He represents the owners’ interests — in this case, that means in addition to all the design team, he had to work with the National Archives, which runs the presidential libraries and museums, the Bush Foundation, which owns the Bush Institute — the political think tank that’s attached to the non-partisan library and archive — and SMU, which owns the land. The KERA radio story.

For Arendt, the Bush Center “is a great hallmark in my career.”

That’s because the 65-year-old designer has never helped create a platinum building before. Platinum is the highest LEED certification. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. The designation is awarded by the nonprofit group the U.S. Green Building Council. It has a checklist of 110 different features, everything from the ways a building uses energy and re-uses water to whether the construction materials were recycled from older buildings. To earn platinum status, a project has to meet at least 80 of those criteria. The Bush Center achieved 90.

Jonathan Kraatz, executive director of the Green Building Council’s North Texas chapter, says: “Platinum is actually a very rare designation. Nationally, that’s less than 1 percent of the facilities that have a LEED certification.”

Kraatz says there are buildings in North Texas that have been verified platinum – but only a handful, including the Botanical Research Institute of Texas in Fort Worth. And no other museums. Even the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, which has touted its many sustainable design features, is the next level down, LEED gold.

Peter Arendt says platinum status is especially difficult for museums.

“You have lighting,” he says. “You have lots of lighting. You have very strict requirements for the preservation of artifacts.”  Museums need climate control to counter all the heat from the lights because heat and humidity can ruin their precious documents and specimens.  And all that air conditioning means museums eat up a lot of energy.  “So it is rare,” Arendt says, “that a museum facility will even try to achieve it because there’s so much working against them in the first place.”

The upside of all that air conditioning at the Bush: The condensation is collected and used to flush the toilets.

Arendt says he was surprised to find that it didn’t cost all that much to move from gold to platinum status. Initially, the plans were to aim for LEED accreditation of some sort. Silver looked easy, but as the project developed, platinum looked increasingly possible. The “up-charges” from ramping up from gold to platinum, says Arendt, were less than 4 percent of the total cost.

Kraatz says prohibitive cost is one of the great “misconceptions” about LEED certification. For one thing, in the past decade, the technology for all this — solar cells, rainwater capture — has gotten cheaper. But then, we are also talking about $500 million complex with the Bush Center. That’s more than the entire AT&T Performing Arts Center and the Meyerson Symphony Center combined.

But when it came to eco-planning the complex, Arendt says, the Bush Center already had a number of things going for it. Designed by well-known architect Robert A. M. Stern, the Bush is basically a broad, flat-topped building. Which meant there’s a lot of roof space for solar panels.  “That has allowed us to capture 13 percent of the project’s energy needs,” he says. “And all of our domestic hot water is coming from solar energy.”

And then, there’s the sizable public park. At 15 acres, it’s almost three times as big as Klyde Warren Park. With the building itself, Stern applied his "neo-classic" thinking: Predictably, he did something of an update on SMU’s red-brick-and-white-trim traditions, the neo-Georgian look borrowed wholesale from Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia. (In Dallas, Stern’s tony traditionalism is most prominently represented by the Ritz-Carlton downtown, but he also designed the Preston Hollow home at 5950 Deloach Ave.)

But the landscape architect, Michael Van Valkenburgh, had a different directive: He was set free to create something more dramatic.

“Mrs. Bush and our landscape firm,” Arendt says, “were very interested in making a native Texas landscape.”

The result is a mix of blackland prairie, found in North Texas, with the flat limestone blocks and rain-washed gulleys of the Hill Country. More than 30 types of native Texas plants and trees are used in the park on a graded slope. Frankly, to make it more pleasant to walk in (under the grueling Dallas sun), the park could use more shade trees — although, of course, the ones already planted need time to fill out.

The entire site of the Bush Center drops 17 feet from north to south. So everything – from the parking lots to the park – naturally drains to the southern end. And there, beneath the tall grasses and the cattails of a small wetlands, the designers have buried a 252,000–gallon cistern. It collects all the runoff that filters through the stream beds to provide half of the center’s irrigation needs.

But the drainage is more than a technical feat for Arendt. The water flow makes the park move and change and live.

“When you have a rain event,” he says, “there will be times when water will be coming out of the rocks and spilling like small waterfalls down into the streams and work its way to the cistern. Which I think is probably one of the more remarkable things about the site.

“It’s not just plantings and trees, it’s also what happens in a natural landscape.”

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Dane Walters / KERA