The City of East Grand Rapids, Mich., was faced with a predicament in 2004. City Hall and the East Grand Rapids Public Library, built adjacent to each other more than 40 years ago, were no longer sufficient to accommodate the needs of the community.

Designed in the more drab industrial style of many '60s public buildings, the two community outlets had grown increasingly outdated. Next to the two buildings stood a retired concrete water reservoir structure. The people of East Grand Rapids agreed that the time had come for a facelift.

There were limitations, however. Razing and rebuilding wasn't feasible because of the buildings' proximity to the lake and the weak soil beneath. With the design guidance of Grand Rapids architectural firm Cox Medendorp Olson Architects Inc., the community opted to combine the three structures to create a single community center with more up-to-date facilities and a visually appealing look. The new design was more befitting the buildings' prime location overlooking the scenic Reeds Lake, a popular recreation destination for many years

The architects' design called for extensive remodeling of City Hall, the library and water reservoir. Moving the East Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Department from City Hall to a new home in the water reservoir, which would receive a total makeover, would create extra space. Along with the remodeling, additions would be built to connect the three buildings and create a flow between them visually and physically. The unified structure would also be connected on the lower level to the East Grand Rapids Department of Public Safety.

Community involvement

With the focus on sustainability and the progressive views of the community, it only seemed natural to take the green construction route and aim for LEED certification. Energy conservation and environmental friendliness were two of the main objectives in the design of the project and the specification of its materials.

"Green construction is simply the responsible thing to do," says Bill Rapson, architect with Cox Medendorp Olson. "If you're in the business today and not focusing on green construction, you're in the minority."

Aside from saving three existing structures from demolition, the design plans called for such energy-conserving features as the use of formaldehyde-free cabinets and trim, larger windows with fins angled to filter in more natural light in the winter and less in the summer and a roof designed to reflect more sunlight and cut air conditioning costs.

The architects had originally planned to use kraft paper facing over glass fiber insulation but given the nature of the project, they thought using CertainTeed's MemBrain over unfaced glass fiber insulation would be a better fit. The patented polyamide film vapor retarder product changes molecular permeability under varying humidity conditions to allow wall cavities to stay dry and help reduce the risk of damaging mold or mildew. For this reason, it contributes to the sustainability of a building, making it a popular new specification on green construction projects.

"To have an efficient wall cavity, we need a vapor retarder that will allow the wall to dry to both sides, depending on the particular climate condition," Rapson says. "We started looking at the product because we'd always been a fan of the ability of kraft paper to drain moisture out to the exterior."

The vapor retarder would perform well in the west Michigan climate, which features very high humidity in warmer months and very low humidity in colder months.

Inspiring look

Grand Rapids construction firm Triangle Associates Inc., a family-owned business and operated for four generations founded in 1918, won the general contractor bid and broke ground on the project in May 2005. The Triangle team was very excited when visualizing the masterpiece they would be creating. The before picture wasn't too thrilling, says Brent Gibson, project manager for Triangle Associates.

"The buildings had a very drab, unfriendly look-not too pleasant for prime lakefront real estate," he says.

The Triangle Associates crew went to work sprucing up the exterior and gutting the interior of the buildings. This included building a lot of bulkheads, a two-story walkout, an atrium to connect City Hall and the library, and installing larger windows. The water reservoir, which resembled a U-shaped concrete bunker, received the most serious renovations. Workers cut several windows out of the structure's concrete exterior and constructed Parks and Recreation Department offices, and large public rooms for such recreational activities as fitness classes and sports.

"Before, the Parks and Recreation Dept. was trapped in the core of City Hall with no windows," Rapson says. "Now, it's been moved to the former reservoir, and people have beautiful views of Reeds Lake."

Triangle Associates subcontracted the stud, drywall, insulation and acoustic ceiling installation work to Ritsema and Associates, another Grand Rapids contractor, founded in 1955 that employs 150 and focuses on all areas of interior construction. As soon as the interiors of the buildings were cleared, the Ritsema crew went to work on framing the intricate network of walls in the building's design.

"It was a very challenging framing job," says Brian Becker, field superintendent for Ritsema. "There were a lot of bulkheads, radius soffits and walls-very out of the ordinary. It took a lot of thought and work to get through it. We're very proud of the outcome, though."

Once the studs were up, the crew installed 12,000 square feet of fiberglass batt insulation, and covered it with MemBrain vapor retarder.

The project took just over a year, finishing in late July 2006. Looking at the finished product, the architects and contractors were very pleased with their work.

"There's just a night and day difference from what the three individual buildings used to be," Rapson says.

And the folks in East Grand Rapids are very pleased, too. Now, City Services workers have a more visually appealing place to work with more space, pleasant views and better acoustic control between workstations. East Grand Rapids Public Library visitors now enjoy books in a brighter atmosphere that is anything but stuffy. Finally, recreation seekers at the new Parks and Recreation Department can enjoy physical fitness activities with views of nature as an inspiring backdrop.

"Everybody is very excited," says East Grand Rapids City Manager Brian Donovan. "Before we opened the building to the public, we saw a lot of people peeking in through the windows. Now, we're able to let them come in and look around. I've received a lot of favorable comments about the exterior, and now, we can let people in to see how nice it is on the inside, as well."