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Going Green

Community health center creates ideal environment for delivering effective health care

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When construction of the new 32,000-square-foot La Maestra Community Health Center is completed in late-2006, the three-story facility in the 4000 block of Fairmount Avenue in City Heights will be the first community health center in San Diego, and among the first in the country, to be designed and built "green" from the ground up.

Design and construction plans for the new La Maestra Community Health Center include a number of environmentally friendly and energy-efficient features.

The facility will house the full and comprehensive range of La Maestra's health and community services, which include adult primary medical care, women's and children's services, literacy programs, dental care, educational programs, housing assistance, job training / placement, and referral services for the neighborhood's economically challenged and culturally diverse population. It will also include a pharmacy, and retail and office space.

"We're really excited about the prospect of offering a health care facility that is actually healthy for the community and reflects what we as an organization are committed to, which is promoting good health," said Zara Marselian, La Maestra's CEO. "We've outgrown our existing maze of 13 buildings and are in urgent need of a new facility. The sustainable green design adds a new and exciting dimension to our mission of providing quality healthcare and education to residents and improving the overall well-being of the community."

Alexei Ochola, a member of La Maestra's Board of Directors, first advocated for the idea to the board and the staff. Recognizing the many benefits, the recommendation was quickly adopted. Sustainable design has now become the central theme for the capital campaign currently underway to help fund the project, as well as for building design and construction.

"The City Heights area is undergoing tremendous redevelopment and we wanted to be part of bringing a unique project to the redevelopment effort," Ochola said. "As the largest employer in the area, we feel this project is vital to the community and to the new business owners and residents who are drawn into the area as part of redevelopment. A healthy building providing health services seemed like a natural fit."

And the decision to go green became even more obvious to them when they began realizing the many benefits. With new breakthroughs in technology, science, operations and building science, designers, builders and owners who build green have an opportunity to maximize economic and environmental performance.

According to the U.S. Green Building Council, of which La Maestra is a member, going green reduces the environmental impacts of natural resource consumption, enhances and protects ecosystems, improves air and water quality, reduces solid waste and conserves natural resources.

Economically, a green facility reduces operating costs by lowering utility expenses, enhances building value and return on investment, decreases vacancy and improves tenant retention, and reduces owner liability, which improves risk management. In cases where there is staff, green measures have been known to improve employee productivity and satisfaction, both of which can have a measurable effect on the organization's performance and bottom line.

From a community health and safety standpoint, the USGBC says green facilities improve air, thermal and acoustic environments, enhance comfort and health, minimize strain on local infrastructure and contribute to an overall improved quality of life.

It is that improved quality of life that La Maestra considers to be one of the most important and valuable benefits of constructing a green facility. According to Ochola, present design and construction plans for the new community health center include a number of environmentally friendly and energy-efficient features.

The new facility will be sited such that it is oriented in a southeast-facing direction in order to capture maximum sunlight, which can provide warmth and natural lighting. The building lobby will be covered by a huge dome, which will allow daylight in and reduce reliance on electric lighting. The windows will open and close for improved natural air circulation, requiring less energy to run ventilation systems. Walls, floors and roofing will be made of recyclable materials and special insulation will be used to conserve heat.

Adhesives and other building materials that contain toxic materials and chemicals that emit volatile organic compounds will be avoided. Solar panels will be installed on the roof as a renewable energy source to supplement the heating and ventilation system, reducing the number of pollutants into the environment.

"All of these efforts not only make sense environmentally, but they make economic sense in both the long and short term, and there are immediate paybacks," Ochola explained. "Most people think that it is more expensive to go green and there is a big upfront cost associated with building a green facility. But we haven't found that to be the case at all, especially when you incorporate green design into your plans from the very initial stages."

In addition to the positive economic impacts that sustainable green design offers, Ochola adds that there are bona fide health benefits that sometimes get overlooked.

"Green facilities are responsible for better air quality and offer an ambience that subconsciously makes people feel better," Ochola said. "For us in the health care industry, that is significant because when people feel better, they recover faster and more completely, and when the staff is productive and happy, patients end up receiving better quality care and better outcomes."

Even with a century-old history of quiet success in European cities like London and Milan, green design and construction hasn't yet taken a strong foothold in the United States, but that trend is slowly changing. There is an estimated $15 billion worth of green buildings currently in design or under construction in the United States, which represents only 5 percent of the $315 billion total annual construction for commercial, industrial and institutional buildings. As small as that number seems, the green building industry estimates that the number of green projects is growing at a rate of 75 percent each year.

Ochola is hoping that the new La Maestra Community Health Center will help the movement grow by becoming a beacon in the community that shines the light of green design and sustainability for others to see and ultimately follow.

"Certainly, going green gives La Maestra additional exposure and visibility in the community so that we'll be able to gain additional support for future development in subsequent phases," he said. "But we also want the building to be used as an educational facility that can enlighten others about the benefits of green design and construction. It can be a valuable model for others to study while elevating the clinic to a status that it has never seen before."

Barrett is a staff writer at Beck Ellman Heald agency.

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