Trends in Green

A Deeper Shade of Green

When international living Future Institute CEO Jason McLennan presented Seattle’s Bertschi School with a Living Building certification plaque for its new science classroom addition, it was only the fourth time that a building had received the designation.

After the ceremonies, members of the Restorative Design Collective — the consortium of architects, engineers, contractors and more who made the new space a reality — took a moment to reflect on the journey to certification.

The Living Building Challenge presents the most rigorous standard for green building in the world. It was only conceived a few years ago and, after several years of it mainly serving as AEC industry cocktail party fodder, pioneering companies have put together projects to aim for — and achieve — this new certification.

Requiring net-zero energy and water use, along with a strict regimen of materials that cannot be used in construction, the Living Building Challenge requirements also support the social and economic aspects of sustainability’s triple bottom line. While the popular LEED standard has increasingly included these aspects in its requirements, Living Building certification is our industry’s moonshot. Like that outer space journey that seemed impossible at one time, it can be done.

As contractor for the project, a significant challenge on the road to certification came in materials sourcing. Ensuring that no material in the building was included on the Living Building Challenge materials “red list” doesn’t sound daunting at first. Consider, though, that many building materials are, when you get right down to it, made of other materials.

Countless hours were spent asking questions about materials. For example, what materials make up the insulating jacketing on electrical wiring? After drilling down through subcontractor, vendor and manufacturer supply chains, answers ranged from, “I don’t know,” to, “Let me contact our attorneys to see if I can tell you.” This was not an easy process, but the outcome was to the benefit of the entire building industry. We were able to contribute to databases such as the Health Products Declaration collaborative, that will make sourcing safe and environmentally friendly materials easier for the industry in the future. In addition, responsible manufacturers listened and committed to making changes to the material make-up of their products.

For the Bertschi project, this effort was instrumental in helping achieve certification. A contractor’s job is challenging enough — delivering a project on schedule and under budget. The Bertschi project blazed the trail for the building industry by adding the challenge of sourcing and procuring healthy building materials that meet the stringent Living Building Challenge requirements.

Another key to certification was monitoring performance. The Living Building Challenge requires any building aiming for certification to operate for 12 months at net-zero energy use, net-zero water use and net-zero waste. A lapse restarts the clock.

Shortly after Bertschi Living Science Classroom went into operation, it became clear that the original photovoltaic solar system in place was not generating enough energy to offset the building’s energy use. The solution, in this case, is a testament to the dedication of the project team who added more solar panels, replaced inefficient panels and worked to understand and reduce the energy use of the building. For example, it was discovered that the compo sting waste system was using more energy than expected. Adjustments were made to reduce energy use as much as possible, and valuable lessons were learned.

Adding the additional solar panels was also a valuable investment because, if excess power is generated, it will simply offset energy used by other facilities. A small contingency budget is imperative to make these types of adjustment, if necessary. If not used, that money is returned back into the owner’s pockets.

The final key to the Living Building certification of the Bertschi School Living Science Classroom is the team of people. This project took a committed team that was absolutely dedicated to show that “deep green” building is possible. For a school like Bertschi, which has been and will continue to be a leader in sustainable education in Seattle for generations, this makes sense.

Imagine the savings to our education system and our society if facilities this efficient, with no net impact on the environment, are built. Imagine the effect on the education of sustainable building practices to our children and the importance of that education to future generations. A project like the Bertschi School’s Living Science Classroom proves that schools can invest in new buildings for the long-term benefit of our society by increasing efficiency, reducing the overall environmental footprint and contributing to the sustainable education of our children.

This article originally appeared in the School Planning & Management June 2013 issue of Spaces4Learning.

About the Author

Brian Cunningham is Project manager, for Skanska USA.