This may be the healthiest building in New Hampshire
Unitil’s Seacoast Operations Center is the first building in New Hampshire to achieve WELL certification. Pictured is one of several live plant walls in the building. (Hadley Barndollar | New Hampshire Bulletin)
Lighting choices that reduce eye strain. Live moss walls and pollinator gardens. On-demand ventilation. Rainwater storage and electric vehicle charging stations.
These are just a few sustainability and well-being features at Unitil’s Seacoast Operations Center in Exeter, a building that very well may be the healthiest in New Hampshire. It’s the only building in the state to have achieved a coveted certification.
Unitil’s $17.5 million 54,000-square-foot facility, which opened in 2020, is both LEED and WELL certified, two different but complementary rating systems that recognize buildings designed and constructed to support both the environment and human health and well-being. While LEED, the most widely used green building rating system, centers around environmental sustainability, WELL focuses on how people feel in and interact with a building.
Unitil’s Exeter building – home to its Seacoast electric distribution operations and forestry, engineering, and centralized electric dispatch teams – is the first and only in the state to be WELL certified. Unitil is also the only utility company with a certification as such in New England.
The building had to meet rigorous requirements to receive both certifications, including clean air and water systems, natural light, available healthy food, and access to outdoor spaces. Sara Sankowich, director of sustainability and shared services at Unitil, said the environmental and human impacts are equally as important to the utility company.
“When we look at sustainability, we look at it in a larger scope,” she said. “Environmental sustainability and stewardship, but also our employees. We really wanted a space that is healthy for our employees.”
It’s easy to measure physical cost savings from energy efficiency measures, Sankowich said. Measuring how the building is impacting employees is harder to quantify. She called those “soft benefits,” such as worker productivity, increased collaboration, and attractiveness to new employees.
But according to the WELL certification itself, certified buildings often see an 8 percent increase in employee performance due to improved air quality alone.
“What we’re introducing to the state here with the project is more so sustainability from the human perspective, our health and well-being in the built environment,” said Laura Samoisette, high performance buildings project manager with Resilient Buildings Group, a partner in the project. “Combining the two of these is really a unique opportunity I think we’re going to see more of.”
Built to withstand a Category 4 hurricane, Unitil’s Seacoast Operations Center is equipped with many energy efficiency and environmental features – some far beyond what the typical person may consider.
Food disposal, for example, is offered only in one centralized area of the building. That means all employees have to walk to get rid of food waste, a psychological way to reduce it.
Sankowich said air quality is a huge piece of their certifications – both environmentally and for employee health and happiness. Most of the building has on-demand ventilation, meaning fresh air can be introduced at any given time. The office space and warehouse area are also different “thermal zones,” she said, meaning the air is conditioned differently in each.
A star of the show, according to the project partners, is the rainwater collection in the car wash bay. With a large fleet of line trucks that are on the road all winter long, often responding in bad weather, Unitil estimates 32,000 gallons of water are required to wash the vehicles each year. As a water conservation measure, they installed three 700-gallon tanks that collect stormwater off the roof, which is ultimately reused to pressure wash the vehicles.
Jason Kearns, senior fleet and facilities coordinator for Unitil, said it was the “No. 1 thing” he wanted in the building.
And it was a low-cost way to use stormwater, added Michael Lawrence, architectural associate principal at PROCON, designer and construction manager for the project. Aside from the large plastic tanks and additional piping, it’s a “gravity-fed” system for the most part, what he called “a nice feature,” and one that Unitil can show off to visitors.
Employee health and well-being
Prior to breaking ground on the new Exeter building in 2019, Sankowich said, Unitil held a design charrette with all future building occupants to gauge what would make them feel happiest and healthiest in a workplace.
What resulted was delivery of community-supported agriculture for employees, a lactation room for nursing mothers, a healthy food vending machine, and many other additions.
In the office spaces, there is biophilic design – live plants and moss on the walls that Sankowich said improves mood and helps people concentrate. The lighting was specifically chosen based on color rendering and flicker with the goal of minimizing eye strain.
The building’s 75 or so employees were even considered when construction materials were selected.
“Throughout the spaces, we really wanted to make sure that we were factoring nature into our design, not just from the pictures on the wall, but also the materials we chose and the paint that was on the walls,” Sankowich said. “And throughout that material we were purchasing, we wanted to make sure it had low (volatile organic compounds) so that off-gassing and the things that sometimes give people headaches, smells, they were minimized.”
Employees are also encouraged not to wear strong perfume and cologne or bring in scented soaps as a way of reducing off-gassing, which is described as the release of harmful chemicals from products and materials.
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