Bertram and Judith Kohl Building Receives LEED Gold Certification

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

by EJ Dickson

Kohl Building
The three-story, 37,000 square-foot Bertram and Judith Kohl Building, which houses the jazz studies department.
Kevin G. Reeves

When hearing the plaintive hum of a tenor sax emanating from the Bertram and Judith Kohl building, your first thought is not necessarily of architectural sustainability. Yet the three-story, 37,000 square-foot edifice is not just the home of the Jazz Studies department; it’s also an exemplary model for green architecture. Designed by Cleveland-based architecture firm Westlake Reed Leskosky, the building has officially received LEED Gold certification, making it one of the few — and perhaps, only — music conservatories in the world to receive the distinction.

Since Oberlin established a minimum-LEED silver certification standard for campus buildings in 2006, the college has demonstrated a commitment to sustainable design that is shared by Westlake Reed Leskosky, which responded to a Request for Proposal in 2006. As an early adapter of LEED and builder of the recently completed Mixon Hall at the Cleveland Institute of Music, the firm was highly regarded from the outset. “We’ve always been designing sustainably,” Westlake associate and project designer Jonathan Kurtz says.

Completed in 2010 for $15.5 million, the Kohl building was designed to achieve energy performance 50 percent beyond the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) baseline. It features a geothermal heating and cooling system, and a green roof designed for stormwater management.

Kurtz’s team made “a conscious effort to select construction materials that were regionally manufactured and sustainably harvested,” says Monica Green, who helped work on the building as the firm’s specifications writer and LEED consultant. Additionally, 90 percent of the waste from construction was transported to a local recycling facility instead of a landfill.

Although LEED Gold status was projected for the building early on in the design process, Green says that there’s “a real feeling of accomplishment” over the firm meeting its goals for the project. “Oberlin College has made a commitment to sustainability, and we were determined to achieve that for them,” Green says.

For the principal architects and designers involved with the project, achieving optimal energy efficiency standards was one of the primary objectives. “Our goals and objectives were very well-established during our first meeting with the conservatory,” Kurtz says. Although the designers initially aimed for LEED silver certification, early on in the design process Kurtz and his team aimed higher, ultimately achieving a Gold certification with exemplary energy performance and indoor environmental quality.

While designing the building according to energy efficiency standards, the architects also had to take its function as a rehearsal and performance space into account. By installing a geothermal radiant system, for instance, less material was required for ductwork, assuring the integrity of the acoustics of the space. “We had to pay careful attention to the building’s energy system and how it impacted acoustics,” Kurtz says. The geothermal heating and cooling system was an energy-efficient means of maintaining humidity control, which is crucial to the integrity of the dozens of rare instruments in the building’s basement archives; sustainably harvested wood floors on acoustic isolation pads were also installed, to buffer sounds from between spaces in the building.

For the most part, Kurtz says, the design goals of the building — as a conservatory and as a model for energy efficiency — “weren’t diametrically opposed to each other,” and meeting LEED requirements was a matter of reconciling the constraints to improve the design, not detract from it. However, Kurtz says that while the conservatory and the firm’s commitment to sustainable design is notable, “the outdoor communal spaces that enhance the day-to-day life of the students are important as well.” “These important, intangible factors play into the model just as much as the other features do, even if they don’t get LEED points,” says Kurtz, who designed a common area in the lobby and several other meeting spaces to facilitate social exchange.

As one of the many jazz students who spend hours in the Kohl building on a daily basis, double-degree senior and saxophonist Tim Bennett agrees with Kurtz’s assessment of the building as a conduit for social interaction. “It’s cool to have some type of distinction, and to know we’re not doing anything to hurt the environment,” he says, “but to me the best thing about the building is the real sense of community here. Just to have a space that we can call our own is great.”