One month in a living building: Hitchcock staff share their experience

Hitchcock Center staff share meaningful experiences of the first month working in our living building.

Julie Johnson, Executive Director

I am still astounded at how fresh the air smells in our building and how immediately I can tell if something new has arrived that has a strong scent – whether it be packaging from a supply order or the ink on a new print job. When our new refrigerator arrived, it immediately filled the room with a strong odor as it off-gasssed for weeks. Throughout the construction of our building, from staining the wood to installing the carpet, never did I smell that characteristic “new” building smell. Now when I walk into a large store or another building, I am struck by all the smells. My nose has become much more attuned to what is healthy indoor air, and what is not.


The Nepon foam flush toilets are so easy to use in our bathrooms. They use approximately 3oz of biodegradable foam per flush. It takes roughly 127 flushes of these toilets to equal the water use in one flush of a standard low flow water toilet. Our toilets flush to Clivus composters in the basement below.

Colleen Kelly, Education Director

My 3 year old grand-daughter came for her first visit to the new Hitchcock Center. She had visited the old building and had loved the live animals as most children do. But this time at the new living building she had a totally different take away.

She had just travelled a distance from Maine in the car so she let me know right away that she needed to use the bathroom. I gladly took her hand and led her in to the new foam flush Clivus composting toilet and showed her how to push the button to get the foam (bubbles) moving before jumping up on the seat. She gracefully watched through her legs as her pee popped the bubbles and headed down the dark tunnel to the basement. I took the time to tell her about the water that is normally in other toilets is fresh drinking water and it is so silly to waste water we drink in a toilet – especially these days with the drought going on!! After she was done she jumped off the seat and threw her hands in the air and said “that was fun!” So I took advantage of the teachable moment and  took her down in to the basement to show her where the tunnel from the toilet leads to. I was also able to show her the clear tank that her pee was being stored in. The entire time in the basement she did not say a word and we headed upstairs to find her mom. We entered a room filled with adults and she immediately began telling them all the details of the adventure of her pee in the toilet and how she didn’t have to waste any drinking water!!

To me this is what it is all about – having families use the building and learning sustainable practices just by being here!!!

Katie Koerten, Children, Youth & Family Program Coordinator & Environmental Educator


The water exhibit in our Ecotone places us in our Connecticut River watershed. It also provides a view into our rainwater harvesting system through our first flush system. Come visit us on a rainy day to see our system in action!

Our building and all its features have been in the works for as long as I’ve been on staff of the Hitchcock Center. So, talk of composting toilets and solar panels and net-zero water has been become almost run-of-the-mill to me. A given. The new normal. One day, shortly after our move to the new building I interviewed Kay, my new Homeschool I intern and gave her a tour of the building. When we came to the rainwater capture tanks, I showed Kay where the rainwater comes in from the roof and how the first flush is captured in our tanks and the rest goes out to a reservoir underground. I explained that all water used in the building comes from the rain. Kay’s face lit up, and she asked, “So we’re drinking rain water??!! That’s really cool!” And I said, “Yeah! It is really cool!” And I suddenly couldn’t wait to share this feature with many more people: kids in my programs and their families, my own friends and family, the public. Because it is REALLY COOL that we use captured rainwater in our building, and besides it being really cool, it’s a way we show environmental leadership, and maybe, just maybe, inspire others to make their own healthy choices for the planet.

Ted Watt, Naturalist & Environmental Educator

Our new building is designed to be zero net energy – all the electricity we are using comes from the photo-voltaic panels on our 2 roofs. That is very inspiring to me. This early in our use of the building we are trusting that the designers got their calculations right! But more and more I’ve been thinking about what we do as occupants of the building. The final equation has as much to do with us as it does the building design. How can we really, minute to minute, every day, reduce our use of electricity? Can we program the lights to shut off quicker after we leave the room? Do we all remember to unplug our computer cords when we are not using them? What other innovations can we make in our behavior to reduce our use of this precious resource: electricity?

Marcus Simon, Development Coordinator

I feel much more in-tune with the “real” world in our new building – it sounds like a simple thing, but being able to open a window next to my work station to feel and hear the breeze actually makes me feel more…human.

Bird silhouettes can be found throughout the building on our windows. Stop by and ask for a key at the reception desk to learn the birds!

Bird silhouettes can be found throughout the building on our windows. Stop by and ask for a key at the reception desk to learn the birds!

There’s much less separation between the life going on in the world outside of the building, and the life of our activities happening inside.  When it’s sunny, we can collect the PV energy on the rooftops, but still pull the window shades to keep cool.  When it’s raining, we can put every drop to good use, keeping it all on site to sustain the plants and animals around our building, and to sustain all of us inside of it, supplying our sinks and water fountains.  These things maybe sound simple, but it’s a pretty revolutionary thing to actually see it put into practice.  The brilliant design of our site and our building makes these efficient and regenerative actions feel almost like a seamless process.  As a direct result of being in this built environment all day, I feel like a more grateful and connected human being. We’re taking responsibility for the bounty of creation; I guess this perhaps speaks to that somewhat hard-to-define “beauty” component of the LBC imperatives…It’s not just about building aesthetically pleasing things – and our building and site certainly are pretty – but it’s about something more intangible.  There are spiritual and emotional impacts to what we build and what we use, to living in ways that utilize resources responsibly.  Being a part of a space like this, one that helps us to adapt our behaviors for a more sustainable path forward, has already been a rewarding experience for me.

Peter Lamdin, Environmental Educator

For me, it’s all about water. No surprise, given the drought we’ve been having. Every time I need to use water at home, and here I am not actually thinking about the toilet – that’s a different beast – but about all of the greywater that goes into my septic system while the flowers and plants die or look, shall we say, parched. When I go into the new Hitchcock Center, I know that when I wash my hands, or do some dishes, that water will go into our greywater system and be put to good use. At home, it literally goes down the drain. But, because of what I see at the center, I began to save dish water and toss it onto the flowers. If I need hot water at the sink, I save the cold as it comes out to use outside. The way code is right now, even if I wanted to, a gray water system would likely not be approved. Yes, for greywater systems to work on a large scale people would need to change habits, or at least the soap products they may be using, but imagine the savings in water usage. I’ve imagined it before, but now, at the center, I can see it.

Rebecca Niemark, Development Director

I find myself moved and inspired by this impressive “living” building and by my new colleagues who, with the support of our community, risked and accomplished such a visionary undertaking. Their commitment and this building gives me hope for our future.

Jeff Mazur, Environmental Educator

This past weekend my son and I hiked up in the White Mountains of NH, and stayed over at Madison Springs hut. The hut was newly rebuilt in 2010, and they had a poster talking about all of the efficiencies their new building had – solar panels, LED lights, better insulation, high efficiency refrigerators and freezers. As I looked at their list, I thought to myself, that we do all of that and more in our new building – collect and process rain water, have a heating and cooling system (I was wishing they had heating, after coming in from a 4 mile hike up the mountain in the rain), and our composting toilets have no odor associated with it, thanks to our negative pressure fans.

Micky McKinley

Now every time I use a flush [water] toilet I think “What a waste!”

Jessica Schultz, Communication & Living Building Coordinator

Last weekend I stopped at r.k. Miles to pick up a can of Penofin Verde stain – one of the non-toxic products used on the exterior wood of our building and the benches. As I stood waiting for the staff member to retrieve my order, I looked around the bathroom showroom and wondered why they were selling “antique” toilets that required water for operation. Of course I still use them nearly everywhere other than work, but I realized in that moment how quickly the use of foam flush composting toilets had become the new normal in my life, just as we hope it will for all visitors to the Center.

One response to “One month in a living building: Hitchcock staff share their experience”

  1. Nancy says:

    Wonderful commentary from the every day use of this remarkable building by its occupants. Thanks for sharing these initial reactions!

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