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Print this page by Nicole Anderson Ellis

In March, Virginia Commonwealth University’s Walter L. Rice Education building became the first project in Virginia to earn LEED Platinum certification, the highest efficiency rating possible under the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. 

This pleases Inger Rice, the building’s donor. From the onset, Rice required that the 4,900-square-foot, $2.6 million structure bearing her husband’s name set the bar for function without sacrificing form.
Nine years ago Inger Rice donated 350 acres for use as the Rice Center for Environmental Life Sciences.  In 2007, she donated another $2 million for construction of an on-site facility for laboratories, a conference room and administrative offices. 

That gift came with stipulations.  “It needed to be as green a building as possible,” recalls Leonard Smock, chairman of VCU’s Department of Life Sciences and director of the Rice Center.  And it had to be beautiful. 

VCU’s success in meeting the first requirement is, in Smock’s words, “a no brainer.”  Given the building’s hidden charms — the buried geothermal heating/cooling system, the living roof, the solar panels, the on-site waste water treatment — there was little doubt the project would go platinum.  But what about Inger Rice’s aesthetic goal?     

Nestled off-center on a James River bluff in Charles City County, the narrow edge of the structure can’t compete with the river view.  It doesn’t try.  Visitors are meant to look past the building. 
“We knew the emphasis of the Rice Center was on the river,” says Kirk Train, founder of Charlottesville’s Train & Partners Architects, which headed the project.  Massive windows ensure that nearly 98 percent of the interior space offers views to the forest where a pair of bald eagles nest. 

Yet there’s plenty to explore inside.  A blue-stone fireplace stretches to the conference room ceiling.  On either side, pressed-sorghum boards panel the walls, their organic cell structure reminiscent of microscope slides.  The sorghum earned LEED points for rapidly renewable resources. Meanwhile, elegant glass prism skylights flood the laboratories with light.

Even the fragrant paneling in the bathrooms earned points for local materials.  “Milled out of three cedar trees that were taken down to site the building,” explains Train. They were the only healthy trees removed. 

Outside, the building’s long lines and sharp angles are softened by the branches of mature oaks.  “It had to fit in among the eagles,” says Rice. 

When she first entered the conference room and saw all the glass, “I actually cried,” she recalls.  “This was too good to be true.  That it could be efficient and beautiful.  That you could have both.”


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