The Inger and Walter Rice Center for Environmental Life Sciences is Virginia Commonwealth University’s field station devoted to environmental research, teaching and public service. A primary focus of research at the site is on the science and policy of large rivers and their fringing riparian and wetland landscapes.

The Inger and Walter Rice Center Richmond, Va.

The 4,889-sq-ft center sits on 343 acres along the James River. The property is divided by a 70-acre lake, an early 20th Century impoundment of Kimages Creek, which will eventually be restored.

The Education Building is the first phase of the project and includes office space, classrooms, labs and a multipurpose room. The predominant material is naturally weathering wood with abundant glazing. The building treads lightly upon the land. Its development necessitated the removal of only three cedars, which were used in the interior of the new structure.

The site itself is recognized as the dominant architectural theme, with the structure occupying the prow of the site’s bluff overlooking the river.

Platinum Points The largest single-point contributor was energy efficiency, says Rebecca Aarons-Sydnor, senior project manager with Sustainable Design Consulting, the project’s sustainability consultant. Designers included a ground-source heat-pump system with radiant flooring, plus PV panels that supply more than 17% of the building’s energy needs.

The roof is either light-colored roofing membrane or vegetated, which contributes to a reduced energy load. The building also includes operable windows and ceiling fans. The center achieved a 58.8% efficiency savings in energy use, says M. Kirk Train of Train & Partners Architects of Charlottesville, Va.

The Rice Center’s location and tight budget meant the design team had to work smart. Budget constraints as well as location on a rural site reduced many available points, Train says.

Key Players

Architect: Train and Partners Architects, Charlottesville, Va.
MEP Consultant: 2rw, Charlottesville, Va.
Sustainability Consultant: Sustainable Design Consulting, Richmond
Owner: Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond
General Contractor: KBS, Richmond

Another big point-contributor was the use of local materials, such as Pennsylvania bluestone for the fireplace. Where materials were not local, they were either recycled or rapidly renewable, such as cotton insulation and sunflower seed boards. Designers used finishes and coatings only when necessary and natural finishes wherever possible.

Other highlights:

  • Rainwater retention
  • Pervious gravel paving for stormwater
  • Significant daylighting
  • Solar voltaic panels
  • Solar-shading devices
  • Bird-safe glazing strategies

Biggest Challenge The project’s small size and rural location drew smaller-scale subcontractors that typically worked on much less-complex projects. One of the project’s biggest challenges was finding subs who could “execute these systems and use the various new systems employed,” Train says.