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Sustainability as the Center of Design: Vashon’s Center for the Arts Makes Water Conservation a Priority

Seattle, Vashon Island, Puget Sound, Vashon Center of the Arts, LMN Architects, Blue Heron Arts Center, Pacific Northwest
Image Credit: LMN Architects

By Meghan Hall­

Located southwest of Seattle, Vashon Island is the largest island in Puget Sound south of the Admiralty Inlet. Water — and greater concern for the environment — play an important role in day-to-day life on the island, meaning that development projects such as the Vashon Center of the Arts, completed in 2016, needed to place sustainability at the forefront of their design. For LMN Architects Director of Sustainability Kjell Anderson, early planning made all the difference in proving that the center’s mission of promoting the island’s art culture could still be accomplished while fulfilling the island’s need for a highly sustainable facility.

“Water was the story from the very beginning,” explained Anderson. “Vashon Island relies on a single-source aquifer, and so the clients were very concerned and protective of that.”

The $20.2 million project is a multi-purpose performance venue that expanded the historic Blue Heron Arts Center that was originally constructed more than 100 years ago in 1912. Programming for the 19,000 square foot addition included a 300-seat performance hall, art gallery, meeting spaces and classroom space. The design of the building draws from Vashon’s location in the Pacific Northwest with its modern gabled roof, large lobby windows and weathered steel panels. Polished concrete floors, exposed structural ceilings and plywood decking were all used to further emphasize the center’s mission to host a wide variety of programs while maintaining its connection to the surrounding environment.

Image Credit: LMN Architects

“They wanted a lot of flexibility,” said Anderson. “This is a center for the arts, and they wanted to have a wide variety of performances there. A theater like this will have less programming, so meeting rooms, spaces used other than just for performing arts, are things you include to get the building used much more often.”

But beyond the surface-level design of the building is a complex system designed to maintain the island’s aquifer and replenish the wetlands surrounding the site. The project, according to Anderson, was designed very specifically with the flow and collection of water in mind.

“A single source aquifer is inherently risky, and there can be water quality issues if you suck too much water out of the ground,” said Anderson. “If you pull too much water out without putting any back in, salt water and other potential pollutants will seep into their water source. It can cause an existential crisis if they don’t have fresh water. They wouldn’t have an island.”

The project site was comprised of two pieces of property. The first was utilized to build the new arts center, while the remaining site was devoted to wetland conservation. LMN helped to design a combination of rain gardens and landscaped swales on the west and south sides of the arts center to recharge the wetlands. The building’s large roof is also specifically designed for rainwater collection; water drains off of three different roofs into a large cistern, rain garden and retention tank.

“The gutters were designed to drain the entire roof into this single, very artistic, downspout that goes along the west side of the building to recharge the wetlands and allow them to thrive as much as they can,” said Anderson.

The excess water collected during the winter is used for toilets within the building throughout the year. However, due to several abnormally dry summers in the Seattle region since the center’s opening, the center’s water supply has not lasted through the summers.

“Precipitation patterns have changed over the last four years; there’s no appreciable rain going into the system,” explained Anderson. “It was designed to use non-potable water year-round based on historical rainfall patterns, but the center hasn’t been able to make it through the summer yet [without drawing on other sources.]”

However, recycling water and producing a sustainable building is important for arts centers, continued Anderson, because it allows organizations to reduce long-term operational costs and direct more funds towards programming, something that the Vashon Center for the Arts has been successful at accomplishing. According to the center’s site, in 2017 alone, VCC had 790 students enrolled in 96 classes and employed 45 local art instructors. Beyond arts education, more than 23 residences were granted through the Vashon Center of the Arts as it worked with about 1,200 students and dozens of teachers.

“You don’t have a campaign to pay the energy bill or the water bill, usually,” said Anderson. “They wanted a center for the arts that would collect arts organizations around the island and provide a better facility for them, and so we focused on reducing operating costs, so the center could put their money into supporting artists and programming in the future.”