Design for Water: Sustainable Strategies Benefit Virginia Military Institute’s Cadets and the Local Community

Designing buildings to improve how they relate to water — from the way they distribute resources to the way they respond during weather events — is an imperative for 21st century architecture. Structures impact the ecological environment surrounding them, which is one of the primary reasons “Design for Water” is included in the AIA’s Framework for Design Excellence, a set of measures meant to inspire more resilient and equitable design practices and outcomes.

Designing for water encompasses many strategies ranging from careful site planning that limits the effects of climate change and natural disasters to incorporating systems that reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions. HKS’ design for the Virginia Military Institute’s Corps Physical Training Facility illustrates these strategies in action.

The project underscores the overall goal of designing for water, which is to create spaces that enhance both human and local environmental health. During a recent HKS webinar about the Design for Water measure, Rand Ekman, HKS Principal and Chief Sustainability Officer, noted why design steps such as the ones taken at VMI are so crucial.

“The basic idea is that good design not only conserves water but also improves the quality of water in the watershed,” Ekman said. “The relationship of the building to its site is critically important.”

The basic idea is that good design not only conserves water but also improves the quality of water in the watershed.

A Need for Flood Mitigation Drives Innovation

In Lexington, Virginia, water from Town Branch creek flows into the Maury River, eventually making its way to the Chesapeake Bay. Running directly through — and at some points, under — the Virginia Military Institute, Town Branch carries all storm water from the town to the river. For years, flooding from significant weather events rendered Diamond Street at the VMI Post impassable and sent massive amounts of muddy water rushing to the river, the main source of drinking water for Lexington.

Developing plans for a new corps of cadets training facility, VMI and HKS seized the opportunity to improve conditions caused by the flooding. In collaboration with our civil engineering consultants, Draper Aden Associates, we designed a plan to reconfigure the creek and create a holding basin to collect water and limit run-off — all integrated under the new building, sited atop the creek running through the site.

“Our primary goal was to create a design that would reduce the flow rate of water leaving the site. Once we did that, we took every opportunity to use that water to our great advantage,” said Mike Drye, a Principal at HKS who served as Project Architect and Project Manager. 

To meet those goals, the facility includes permeable pavers and a large cistern to retain rainwater absorbed through vegetated roofs. Filtered on-site, recycled water makes its way through the building via a greywater plumbing system and low-flow fixtures that also limit water consumption.

One of the building’s most remarkable features is a passive downdraft HVAC system comprised of four shafts, one on each of the building’s sides, which cools the air using chilled water and removes moisture from the atmosphere, passively circulating high-quality fresh air to the training floor without the use of any fans.

All told, the VMI Corps Physical Training Facility addresses nine of the 10 measures outlined by the AIA’s Framework for Design Excellence: design for water, ecosystems, integration, equitable communities, economy, energy, change, discovery and well-being.

Enhancing Student Education and Wellness

With demanding curriculum and fitness regimens, VMI cadets often experience high stress. The Corps Physical Training Facility incorporates natural light and has clean, healthy air — elements that contribute to better overall mental and physical well-being.

Known for its civil and mechanical engineering programs, VMI is dedicated to educating a rising generation of leaders and problem solvers. Throughout and after construction, the civil and mechanical engineering programs have capitalized on having the Corps Physical Training Facility close to their classrooms, using it as a case study of what well-integrated, sustainable architecture and engineering can look like.

The HVAC system provides a particularly rare learning opportunity, according to Drye, who says that the large size and complexities of the facility allowed for a unique system not found in many other buildings.  “To have such a unique system as a learning lab for mechanical engineering students is pretty impressive,” he said.

Civil engineering students gain much from investigating the unique building site, which is filled out almost entirely by the 205,000-square-foot facility. 

“We used nearly every trick in the book for civil engineering,” Drye said, noting that many distinct civil engineering strategies to configure the landscape and waterway were applied on the building, under the building and around its slim perimeter.

Sustainable Achievements Require Collaboration and Dedication

When the project launched in 2012, an executive order from the governor of Virginia mandated LEED Silver certification for new construction on state property. The design team exceeded the mandate, earning LEED Gold certification due in large part to the project’s innovative water-oriented strategies. Drye believe such policies are critical lynchpins in pushing sustainable design forward.

HKS’ inquisitive nature and culture of innovation were key drivers behind the building’s design and delivery. But the HKS team also worked with an array of architects, engineers, sustainability consultants and advisors, relying on the crucial expertise of others to see the project through from site analysis to completion. 

“It’s a benchmark for how we need to structure our teams and services if we’re going to implement sustainable design successfully,” Drye said.

Another key to achieving high-performing, environmentally friendly buildings is working with clients who support sustainable design. The collaborative process resulted in a building that meets a variety of the school’s goals.

“I am thrilled that not only is this a centerpiece facility of the Post supporting cadet development but that we support the earth and reduce our carbon footprint through all the innovations implemented,” VMI’s Director of Construction, Col. Keith Jarvis, said to Stormwater Magazine in 2018.

HKS and VMI are now collaborating on a second project, an Aquatics Center, where construction recently began. It is designed to have a pitched roof and bioretention basins as well as an HVAC system that tightly controls air temperature and humidity to minimize evaporation from the swimming pools inside.

Located adjacent to the Corps Physical Training Facility, and also over Town Branch creek, the new structure benefits from the same flood mitigation strategies and lessons learned during the initial project, which Drye sees as a new standard for integrated sustainable design.

“I very adamantly feel that the building improved existing conditions in so many different ways,” Drye said. “For this building to be there and not send more water to the Maury River, but send less, and have an HVAC system that uses less energy and contributes to the environment in a meaningful way… it is something very powerful.”