EnviroCenter draws interest

August 17, 2008

A renovated 1905 farmhouse on a busy truck route in Jessup might seem an unlikely place for political involvement in environmental innovation.

But the expanding EnviroCenter on Route 175 is drawing interest from elected officials eager to change the way buildings use energy.

The three-year-old center was created as a combination business incubator and showcase of techniques that can be used by commercial and residential developers. The building is filled with devices that reuse or redirect natural energy, and resources that sharply limit the use of fossil fuels for light, electricity, heating and cooling.

But what piqued the interest of U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin and Howard County Executive Ken Ulman during a recent tour was the claim that the methods used at the center could significantly reduce construction costs. Creator and architect Stanley Sersen said building his way cost $175 a square foot, compared with $200 to $400 a square foot for conventional Class A office space.

That could create new opportunities to make money and spur job growth, as well as helping to reduce carbon pollution, the elected officials suggested.

"It's our next wave of economic development," Ulman said. "To me, that's one of the most exciting things about all this."

Sersen's firm, ASG, is at the 5,000-square-foot center, as is Chesapeake Solar, Paul Bassett's Water Management and several nonprofit groups.

ASG also has helped design a conference building that incorporates similar techniques for the University of Maryland experimental farm in western Howard County, though the project has no construction funding.

Ulman was interested in trying to adapt some of Sersen's methods for county use - such as the rainwater collection system that pumps water through slow-drip irrigation tubes to care for landscaping plants. Part of the EnviroCenter roof is green with growing plants, and the building has radiant heat in the floors.

The foyer countertop is made from compressed sunflower seed hulls, Sersen said, and is cheaper than conventional laminate glued to particle board, yet looks as good. The stairway to the second floor is designed to help the flow of warm air in winter, and electrically operated windows near the roof foster a cooling airflow in summer.

The building uses recycled materials from the original farmhouse, natural light brought into the structure through skylights and "sun-tubes" cut into the roof, as well as solar panels for hot water and electricity.

"You're showing us the model that can work nationally," Cardin said after the brief tour.

What lawmakers have to do, Cardin added, is set the standards and then let American ingenuity take over.

Sersen said his building is carbon-neutral and produces a significant portion of its own energy. He plans to expand the center next year with 15,000 square feet of office space. The expansion also will include a 9,000-square-foot greenhouse that he said would grow food for distribution to people who work there.

Obama office

A Howard County campaign office for likely Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama opened in Columbia last week with the help of a congressman, county elected officials and a 4-year-old.

About 60 people turned out at 5560 Sterrett Place on Tuesday for the official opening. Del. Guy Guzzone, one of three Obama campaign county co-chairs, said the office is needed to help organize phone banks, recruit volunteers and deploy door-to-door troops in a state and county where Democrats believe their candidate has an edge.

But the location also allows for dispatching workers to Virginia, where Obama supporters believe they could pull off an upset against Arizona's Sen. John McCain, the Republicans' presumptive nominee, Guzzone said.

The former insurance offices are next to a suite occupied by the Howard County Chamber of Commerce.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings delivered one of the emotional speeches that have become his hallmark. Pointing out Owen Brocklebank, who will turn 5 this month and begin kindergarten at Guilford Elementary, Cummings said, "True leadership must have a sense of urgency."

Owen will have just one year in kindergarten, first grade, and so on, Cummings said, and the youngster and other children can't wait years for Americans to correct serious problems.

"The greatest threat to our national security is our failure to properly educate every one of our children," Cummings said, just before the official ribbon-cutting.

Bob Pratz, a Long Reach resident, county Republican Central Committee member and the newly named county chairman for the McCain campaign, said the GOP plans no local presidential campaign offices. But McCain supporters were active at the recent Howard County Fair and expect their candidate to do well in Howard County, he said.

"We've had an awful lot of excitement and a lot of interest from Democratic voters," said Pratz, a mortgage broker.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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