Originally published in STIR®
Form follows Earth-friendly function at a lakeshore science center in Vermont.

The idea was to create a visual gem along the shores of Lake Champlain, a vibrant cultural centerpiece on what had been an industrial waterfront. But designers and architects had an additional goal: They wanted to create a showcase for a greener way of life. ECHO at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vt., is just such a jewel.

The 28,000-square foot science center is the first Vermont project certified as a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) site. In everything from the paint and building materials to the toilets in the restrooms, ECHO not only teaches the public how to live a more environmentally friendly life, it demonstrates.

ECHO, which stands for Ecology, Culture, History and Opportunity, is dedicated to keeping Lake Champlain pristine. Bren Alvarez, a partner in Smith-Alvarez-Sienkiewycz Architects, which designed the center, says that a sustainable approach was the only conceivable option for a building on a prominent waterfront site.

The color palette for the project echoes the environmental theme. At the heart of the design was the decision to rely on natural materials, colors and light. Skylights and huge windows let sunlight illuminate much of the center, where a freshwater aquarium and a shipwreck exhibit are the star attractions. Metals are mostly unpainted. Woods are left with their natural finish. The 18-color paint palette, mostly deep shades of red, gray, blue and black, draws from the natural hues of the surrounding region.

"We were very dedicated to the use of natural color," Alvarez says. The rich, dense red, for example, evokes native stone.

Clean Air First

Before colors were chosen, the first requirements for paints and coatings were that they be water-based and meet strict VOC (volatile organic compound) standards. When Mike Talbot, president of Finishing Touches Painting, won the bid for the ECHO project, he turned to Jim Reid, the Sherwin-Williams representative for the Vermont area. Sherwin-Williams' Harmony® Interior Latex Low-Odor Coatings with zero VOCs met the stringent LEED requirements, while also delivering high performance.

"We used Harmony whenever possible," Reid says. About 90 percent of the walls were painted with Harmony, although some surfaces required other coatings. High-traffic areas were sealed with a water-based polyurethane, Sherwin-Williams Wood Classics, while exposed metal surfaces were protected with Sherwin-Williams' low-VOC Bond Plex Acrylic Coating.

The green message is carried throughout the $14.5 million project, says Katrina Roberts, director of external affairs. Environmentally friendly features include fiber-optic day lighting, a solar thermal system for water heating, auto-dimming fluorescent lights and recycled materials. Even in the restrooms, visitors are presented with environmentally friendly choices, such as a button they can push to conserve water when they flush.

ECHO's design also showcases the natural beauty of its setting. The open space is full of light, cut by sharp angles and graceful curves, while windows offer views of Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains. "It's a thoroughly modern space, yet very Vermont," Roberts says. "It's special, without being shiny."

Making the Choice

Choosing "green paint" means making the environmentally conscious decision to use a water-based, low- or no-VOC formula. VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are petroleum-based solvents that are present in most conventional paints. Sherwin-Williams' Harmony® Interior Latex Coatings offers a zero-VOC, low-odor alternative, while still delivering a durable finish.

To use them most effectively, consider the following:

  • Low-VOC paints often dry more quickly. This isn't a problem for most professionals, but can be a challenge for amateurs.
  • Although Harmony is available in more than 1,000 colors, some very deep shades in the ECHO palette were not available, according to Mike Talbot, president of Finishing Touches Painting, the Vermont-based contractor that worked on the ECHO project. To achieve those deep shades, Sherwin-Williams ColorAccents Interior Latex was tinted with Sherwin-Williams Envirotoner Colorant. ColorAccents is low-VOC and meets LEED guidelines.
  • Earth-friendly coatings were well worth the effort on the ECHO project, Talbot says, and green fits well with Vermont, a state known for its clean air and water. He says the low-odor, high-performance Harmony coatings stand on their own merits. "The products are great; we use them even on projects that don't require them."