Adoption by Design

Eco-friendly animal shelters for the 21st century

By Melissa Wiley

SPCA Dog CourtyardLean and green is the new lean and mean. Fortunately for animal lovers with an eco-friendly heart, that motto extends to animal shelters as well. Ecologically sustainable animal shelters are popping up more and more these days as rescues assume responsibility for setting an environmental example. “The best way to convey that there is a delicate synergy at play in nature that affects us all is through [leading by example],” says Edward Orlowski, American Institute of Architects (AIA), Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Accredited Professional (AP), of the Dearborn Animal Shelter in Dearborn, MI. Being good stewards of the earth is part and parcel of caring for its animals. And in an age when technology makes seeing the world through green-colored glasses less of a dream and more of a reality, animal shelters are standing front and center in the green building movement.

Garnering the Green Seal of Approval

What determines if a building’s green ambitions are truly up to snuff? Established by the U.S. Green Building Council, the LEED Green Building Rating System issues the national stamp of approval for eco-friendly construction. LEED sustainability criteria encompass five key areas: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, and indoor environmental quality. Certification criteria exist along a continuum ranging from bronze to gold.

The cornerstone of green building is energy efficiency, a twofer of saving costs and the planet, both of which animal rescues typically have in mind. Using less energy means taking as little from the earth as possible. And green design paired with animal rescue means using resources like natural light and wood that comes from managed or renewable forests to promote adoptions. Instead of chain-link fences that make homeless dogs look like prisoners awaiting bail, modern green shelters allow animals to show their companionable nature in the light of day and in free-roaming playrooms.

The Adoption Angle

No matter what their green aspirations, shelters’ ultimate aim remains animal adoptions. Architecture firms specializing in green design are keeping their eyes on the prize, employing eco-friendly techniques to get Fido and Fluffy a home. The green design of the Maddie’s Pet Adoption Center at the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), for instance, has contributed to record adoptions. Lucy Schlaffer, AIA, LEED AP, of ARQ Architects, the brains behind the facility, says that all of the animals are provided with “proportioned spaces big enough to let even disabled adopters enter into their spaces to get acquainted.” Commenting on the cage-free conditions, Schlaffer notes that the dogs are organized so as not to face each other directly, reinforcing a sense of comfort. Further promoting calmer animals, who naturally make for more attractive companions, ARQ installed ceilings designed to absorb sound and laminated glass to prevent dogs from hearing each other and stimulating reciprocal barking. Odors are kept to a minimum through an air-recirculation system with individual air supplies that nearly eliminate the possibility of disease spread. Natural daylight brought into each animal’s space allows animals to experience the cycle of day and night. “Most important,” Schlaffer summarizes, “animals are not brought out into ‘display’ rooms and then returned to cramped shared quarters at night.”

Historic Beginnings

The San Francisco SPCA is not without its predecessors. In fact, Schlaffer’s founding partner of ARQ, Paul Bonacci, served as architect for a watershed moment in the confluence of animal shelters and environmentalism: the SPCA of Tompkins County’s Dorothy Park Pet Adoption Center in Ithaca, NY, which has bragging rights to being the first green animal shelter, achieving silver LEED certification in spring of 2005. The facility features dog playroom floors made of recycled tires, a water-collection system for recycling rainwater, and large doors for natural ventilation.

According to SPCA board President Robert O’Brien, AIA member and principal of HOLT Architects, the shelter views going green as a natural complement to its no-kill mission. Ideological harmony aside, the pioneering project was not without its logistical challenges. “The architect selected poplar siding for the exterior of the building because it was a regionally available material, but it did not hold up to the climate and had to be replaced with a more suitable material,” O’Brien recalls. O’Brien and his colleagues quickly discovered that green buildings’ use of cutting-edge technologies, such as geothermal systems, often requires specialized installation techniques, with which a typical installer may or may not be familiar. The latter was initially the case at the SPCA, resulting in a heating system that didn’t function properly at first.

Responsible Remodeling

Whatever the problems inherent in going green from the ground up, starting with a clean slate has obvious advantages. Transforming a preexisting structure into something for the ecological eye to behold, on the other hand, is what some might call a noble act of recycling in itself. “The most sustainable buildings are often the ones we already have,” notes Orlowski of the Dearborn Animal Shelter. Reusing a building already in tact, says Orlowski, also minimizes the needs for new building materials. “Greening” a preexisting structure isn’t necessarily the smoothest road to LEED certification, however, even though criteria differ for new construction and remodeling projects. But with sufficient know how, remodeling efforts can also garner the LEED seal of approval.

Tree House Humane Society, a cageless, no-kill shelter for stray felines, has taken on just that challenge with the opening of its Bucktown Branch shelter in Chicago from a preexisting structure. According to David de Funiak, Tree House executive director, “The biggest challenge in obtaining LEED certification is the funding necessary to do so.” Shelters aspiring for certification must hire professionals not only to design and construct the facility, but to correctly document the shelter’s every energy and material usage.

A Down Payment on Future Savings

Energy efficiency may be costly on the front end, but eventually green design reduces operating costs, translating to more green in the pocket in the long term. Citing Tree House’s anticipated long-range savings, de Funiak enthuses, “We plan to install dual flush toilets to reduce water waste and an automated lighting system to reduce electricity. We have recycling programs in place to recycle all waste materials, from paper to cat food cans.” Solar panels, which de Funiak says will be the shelter’s “crowning achievement,” should pay for themselves within a matter of years by significantly lowering water and heating bills.

Ultimately, long-term cost savings remain a fringe benefit for most shelters on the path toward ecological sustainability. Green shelters are simply the most nurturing environment a rescue organization can provide—for animals and the planet—in the wake of limited natural resources and limited forever homes alike.

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