Since opening in the summer of 2020, the newest building on Virginia Tech’s Health Sciences and Technology campus in Roanoke has used rainwater alone to flush its toilets and irrigate surrounding green space.

Rain is captured from the roof of 4 Riverside and redirected to a 24,000-gallon underground cistern. The water also flows through the William Jacob and Barbara Boyle Lemon Family Garden Roof, which helps reduce energy use, contributes to biodiversity, and reduces rainwater runoff.

While rainwater harvesting is not new – it’s been used around the world for years – it has become an important part of green building design. Combined with low-flow plumbing fixtures, the result is a 60.8 percent reduction in water use for the newest facility at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC.

In 2009, the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors approved its initial Climate Action Commitment. Student and community advocates have since helped revisit and revise the commitment to sustainability with goals that include being a carbon-neutral campus and achieving 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030.

As part of the initiative, new buildings need to seek Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification of Silver or higher, an internationally recognized distinction for sustainable architecture. The new 139,000-square-foot building received that recognition from the U.S. Green Building Council in 2021 to join the growing number of LEED-certified Virginia Tech buildings.

The building houses Fralin Biomedical Research Institute laboratories and core facilities, the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine’s Animal Cancer Care and Research Center, and Carilion Clinic training classes. Ventilation requirements for biosafety labs and other spaces, as well as state-of-the art research tools, make environmental design a greater challenge.

“Biomedical research facilities are energy intensive,” said Sarah Glenn, associate director of facility development and technical operations at the institute. Before joining Virginia Tech, Glenn was part of the engineering team that worked on the building. “The laboratories are packed with energy-hungry equipment that has to be heated and cooled with 100 percent fresh air, rather than recycled air.”

While it’s hard to reduce energy consumption in a lab building, water is another story. “Due to our proximity to the flood-prone Roanoke River, the design team really focused on limiting runoff by installing a green roof over a portion of the building and constructing a rainwater harvesting system,” Glenn said. “The green roof holds water temporarily and allows it to make its way to the river slowly, and the harvesting system captures water from the remaining roof surface and stores it for use in toilet flushing. So we are reducing our water consumption by about 1,000 gallons per day, as well as limiting the runoff to the river.”

The way the building is engineered and its focus on sustainability also reduce pollution and the risk of flooding in the Roanoke River.

“Our mission has always been to contribute to the improvement of human health along multiple dimensions,” said Michael Friedlander, Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology and executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. “That commitment naturally extends to the facilities where we work and our partnership with this community that is also home to all the faculty, students and staff at the research institute.”

It also extends beyond the buildings.

On April 15, faculty, staff, and students met at River’s Edge Park for a Roanoke River cleanup organized by the Roanoke Graduate Student Association, continuing an important tradition begun at the institute seven years ago.

In addition, the institute has a Green Team made up of volunteers whose goal is to draw attention to and mitigate the environmental impacts of research labs. The Green Labs Program works to make the labs more sustainable by sharing best practices and facilitating waste reduction and recycling.

That includes working with some Virginia businesses. Salvaged plastic film is sent to Winchester-based Trex, for instance, which uses the material for decking and outdoor furniture, and styrofoam goes to Atlas Molded Products in Ridgeway for processing and re-use.

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