Heifer International takes sustainability to heart | KEYE Austin - Green Right Now
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Dec 042009

By Harriet Blake
Green Right Now

Unlike other retail gift suitors seeking your holiday dollars,  Heifer International is on a mission.

Jake Lyell Lucas Selvester, 8, with the family heifer in the Mara Region of Tanzania (Heifer Internaional)

Jake Lyell Lucas Selvester, 8, with the family heifer in the Mara Region of Tanzania (Heifer Internaional)

It wants to “pass on the gift” of a donation to a family in need in the developing world, giving them not short-term relief but a way to help themselves — a source of food, animals to raise, a hold on a small business.

Started in 1944 by Midwestern farmer Dan West, Heifer’s unique concept literally began with a heifer, a young female cow. Not only does the cow provide milk for one family, its offspring can then be given to other families to do the same.  In this way, Heifer International has assisted 8.5 million people in more than 125 countries in its fight against world hunger and poverty.

Every year, Heifer International offers donation plans in its holiday catalog and on its website, where people can buy a goat, a flock of chicks, a hive of bees or even a water buffalo for families in need.

This year, the company put out a greener catalog by partnering with the World Resources Institute and the paper manufacturer NewPage in an effort to save the world’s endangered virgin rainforests. The endeavor, called Project Potico and funded by NewPage, ensures that the paper used in the catalog is supported by carbon offsets and a reforestation project in Indonesia where low income levels jeopardize the ecosystem.

Heifer International Headquarters (Photo: Tim Hursley)

Heifer International Headquarters (Photo: Tim Hursley)

But not only are Heifer’s mission and production eco-friendly, it also turns out their headquarters in Little Rock, Arkansas, is uber green. It earned a 2008 Platinum LEED designation, the top level for buildings, from the US Green Building Council. The project also was honored with the American Institute of Architects’ National Institute Honor Award, considered architecture’s highest honor.

“People just say ‘wow’ when they look at our building,” says spokesman Ray White, adding that it’s been featured in several publications including Modern Steel Construction and eco-structure magazines. And for staffers, White says, “We feel energized working here.”

Heifer International had outgrown its three buildings and decided to consolidate. They relocated to a wetlands area, where they took over a polluted brownfield (for which they won an EPA award in 2004) and wove a high-tech structure around the wetlands without overlooking any environmental amenities. The primary designer of the award-winning building is Little Rock architect Reese Rowland, who was 33 when he designed the new Heifer headquarters, which opened in 2006.

The 94,000 square foot building is located on about 30 acres adjacent to the Clinton Presidential Library, which Rowland’s architecture firm, Polk Stanley Wilcox, also helped design and which opened in 2004. Heifer International has an education center that focuses on Heifer’s hunger mission but also addresses the environmental aspect of their new site complete with green building tours.

Ultimately, Rowland says, “Green living can save money, energy and address hunger issues.”

Heifer headquarters is a narrow building, close to the Arkansas River, with an east-west orientation in order to track the sun from east to west. “This is the way buildings were built in the days before air-conditioning,” says Rowland. “You had to capture the southwestern breezes, try to block the sun but let the light in. It’s about stepping back and stepping forward at the same time. A big glass box with air conditioning is not as efficient as using natural lighting. You need to let the building work with the environment.”

The walls of Heifer International are glass with light shelves situated throughout. The light shelves bounce natural light from the outside walls throughout the building. The narrowness of the building maximizes the penetration of light throughout the interior.

Light fixtures turn on with the use of motion detectors, says White, explaining that the bathrooms and break rooms were intentionally located in the middle of the building so the lights would only come on when people moved into that area. There also are light sensors, says Rowland, that measure the sunlight in a room, adjusting the interior lights as needed. This saves as much as 50 percent on the building’s electric bill. A savings, he says, that can go into feeding people.

“Heifer is about sustainability,” says Rowland, “and our firm has always used sustainable practices.”

“For every extra we considered, we first measured to see how many years it would take to see a savings. We were looking for a quick pay back, so if it took too many years, we didn’t install it.” Currently, says Rowland, “the project is about half-way paid off on every given feature.”

The carpeting is made from recycled materials and is laid in tiles so if one area gets worn, it is easily removed and replaced.

Among the project’s most intriguing features are the stairwells that wrap around the water tower. Gathering water is something that Heifer deals with in all its global communities, says Rowland. Building the company headquarters was no different.

“We looked at the 30,000 square-foot roof,” he says, “and determined that we could gather about 25 to 30,000 gallons of water. We needed a water tower that would accommodate a four-story building. But we didn’t want to hide it so we found a tank that could support a stairwell that wrapped around it.” The stairwell-wrapped water tank sits inside the headquarters’ glass building. It also helps with the air-conditioning, says Rowland. “Because the water tower is located above the wetlands, cool air comes in at the bottom of the stairwell, as the air heats up and rises, it is released at the top through a vent.

“Within the first three weeks of opening, the water tank was filled,” says Rowland. About 30 percent of that water is used to flush toilets, the rest is channeled through the cooling system for air conditioning. White says the water bill for the building is a mere $300.

The building’s parking lot was designed with bio-swales, landscape elements that remove silt and car oils from surface runoff water – or as Rowland says, “glorified ditches that operate like a kidney to clean out the junk and gunk”. The grassy bioswales collect water, which then feeds into the wetlands. The cleaned water will not damage those downstream and actually will help, a concept is in keeping with Heifer’s philosophy.

The architects used green practices in cleaning up the abandoned brick and concrete warehouses that filled about 20 acres of the site. “We didn’t want to throw anything away and add to the landfill,” says Rowland. “So we cleaned up the bricks and used an industrial crusher on the concrete to make gravel…we didn’t have to buy anything new from a quarry. In the end we saved about 97 percent of the warehouses by recycling their contents. The assorted red-color bricks were incorporated into the project’s driveways.”

White says all the landscaping uses plants indigenous to the area such as pussy willows, which absorb oil in the water that can be fed to the wildlife. “We have turtles, migrating birds and all sorts of animals that live on the property,” White says. The wetlands have been stocked with fish.

“It takes a paradigm in your thinking to accomplish this,” says White. “If you report to stockholders you might not have this option. Fortunately [for us] the government can reward people for being environmentally responsible.”

“Build things correctly and treat people right…is the way all cities should be developed,” adds Rowland. “This is what architecture is – about making a difference.

“We spent a lot of time talking to Heifer about their mission and how by helping one family it causes a ripple effect similar to what happens when a pebble hits the water. The concept of concentric rings of influence was key. We designed the building with that in mind, starting with the first circle, the entrance commons, where people enter headquarters.” There is also a wetlands ring, the office building ring and the vehicular traffic ring. Heifer’s founder, Dan West, according to his daughter, used to say that no matter where he was in the world, all decisions were made within a circle — the circle of life.
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