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January 2011

The botanical garden goes platinum

Platinum is as good as it gets. Ask any musician whether he'd rather have a gold record or a platinum one.

The same is true when it comes to awards for environmental design. When you've designed, built and operated a building for a year, and it meets the highest standards of the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, you receive LEED platinum certification. And that's exactly what the Education Center at the North Carolina Botanical Garden has done.

I was there on University Day in 2009, with Gov. Bev Perdue, to cut a garland of flowers to dedicate the Education Center. At the ceremony, we were all certain that the Education Center would soon be the first building on a UNC campus, the first state-owned building in North Carolina and the state's first public museum and outreach center to earn LEED platinum status. We were certain because so many good people had dedicated their time, talent and donations to making the platinum dream a reality.

The vision of this state-of-the-art facility began in 2000 with longtime garden volunteer Katherine "Kay" Bradley Mouzon, who made a generous bequest to launch the project. Architect Frank Harmon of Raleigh designed the building, with a concept of three separate spaces connected by covered breezeways. The center's rooms are open and bright, lighted more by the sun than by electricity.

Some of the center's environmentally friendly features are easy to see, like the cisterns that catch rainwater from the roof to be stored and used for irrigation and the photovoltaic panels that collect and store sunlight that is used to generate electricity.

Others are more subtle, like the porous paving in the parking lot that cleans stormwater runoff before it flows into creeks and streams. Some you would never notice at all, like the super-quiet elevators that use energy-efficient traction motors and no hydraulic fluid, or the geothermal heat-exchange system that's buried underground.

Carolina students supported this last feature, using money from the Renewable Energy Special Projects Fund, an extra fee the students levied on themselves to support green projects like this one. Other supporters -- nearly 600 of them so far -- have stepped up to contribute to the $12 million needed to build the center. No public money was used for construction.

But the platinum award is not just about creative design or fancy features. It rewards an attitude that keeps the environment a top priority, an attitude that the people involved in the Education Center exhibited throughout the project. They were always looking for ways to reduce waste, reuse items and recycle resources. When trees had to be cleared from the building site, that wood was used for window trim and baseboards. A house being torn down in Hillsborough provided wood for the flooring. Recycled sidewalk rubble collected from the Cary landfill was used to construct plant bed retaining walls. Support beams were made from recycled scrap metal from junked automobiles. In all, only 4 percent of construction waste, by weight, went to the landfill. The rest was recycled.

The result of all that hard work is a beautiful Education Center that is a welcoming place for visitors, a comfortable home for classes and an ideal spot for groups large and small in the community to gather. Like the Botanical Garden grounds that surround it, the Education Center brings together nature lovers of all ages and backgrounds, from professional botanists and master gardeners to kids who are just discovering the wonder of native plants like the carnivorous Venus flytrap.

The N.C. Botanical Garden has always been a showcase of what's green and growing in our state. Now it has an Education Center that is a showcase focused on another kind of green -- the best and brightest ideas about environmental design, construction and operation -- ideas that also have roots here in North Carolina.


Holden Thorp is chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Readers can contact him at

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