‘Living Buildings’ Grow In Western Mass

In the construction industry, the most eco-friendly type of building used to be LEED certified. That’s where buildings get different ratings according to how well they conserve energy and other resources. But today, there’s a higher standard — the Living Building — which is meant to be so green it actually leaves the environment better than it found it.

“We’re standing on Trex decking which was made with recycled plastic and recycled wood shavings,” says Reid Bertone-Johnson, proudly rattling off the environmental achievements of the building he manages — a satellite classroom for Smith College, perched atop a hill in Whately. “The insulation values of the walls are substantially higher than a normal home would be built.”

The main room is full of exposed wood beams and huge triple-glazed windows that let in plenty of sun.

“We more often than not do not need to turn on any lights in our building,” he says.

What power the building does use comes from two pole-mounted solar panels outside in a field.

And for the piece de resistance, he opens the bathroom door to show a composting toilet, where human waste falls to the basement, gets mixed with pine shavings, and sits for up to 15 years in a three-chamber composter with surprisingly little odor.

“I can even open up the door and crank the compost around,” he says, turning a ratchet.

All together, these attributes make up a certified Living Building. That means it met some of the most stringent criteria in the green building industry. To get the certification, Living Buildings must produce more energy than they use, capture all their own water, use local products, avoid any toxic materials and essentially mimic a self-contained organism.

Since the Living Building Challenge began a decade ago, only eight buildings have passed. Smith’s field house (known as the Bechtel Environmental Classroom) built in 2012, was the fifth.

And this week, Hampshire College in Amherst opens a much larger project — the R.W. Kern Center, a $7 million, 17-thousand square foot welcome center that it hopes will qualify as the next Living Building.

As campus tour guides walk by, praising the building to prospective students, builder Jonathan Wright points out the highlights to visitors. “All of this wood you see is reclaimed red oak timber,” he says, pointing at the finished floor.

“That spins around with force of the water, and cleans out the debris,” he says, explaining the system built to catch rainwater on the roof and treat it on site for drinking.

Hampshire still has to present a year of utility bills to pass the challenge. Williams College in Williamstown entered a building into the Living Building Challenge last year, and the Hitchcock Center in Amherst has one in construction. All that would make Western Massachusetts the most dense spot for Living Buildings outside the Pacific Northwest, where the concept originated.

“It is a little bit unusual,” says Amanda Sturgeon, director of the International Living Future Institute, which runs the Living Building Challenge. “We do tend to see that one project spurs inspiration for another.”

Since the challenge began, Sturgeon says the bar has become easier to meet. Solar power is cheaper and more accessible. And the more builders brainstorm ways to meet the challenge, the more the industry changes.

“We’re sort of tugging the whole market forward,” she says. “We’re helping to create new products, for example, those that don’t contain toxic chemicals.”

Yet builders still get tripped up by the Living Building rules. Hampshire had to delay window construction by five months because it couldn’t find highly efficient glass made within 500 miles. Since every piece of material — down to the duct tape — has to be non-toxic, Bertone-Johnson says Smith College spent thousands of dollars extra for lighting fixtures they could prove did not have black-listed ingredients.

And then there’s negotiating with government regulators around unfamiliar things, like composting toilets.

“Initially we failed our public health inspection because they couldn’t find the exhaust fan,” Bertone-Johnson says. “But it just took a little bit of education.”

Smith and Hampshire estimate spending about 10 percent more on their Living Buildings than a typical construction project. Hampshire President Jonathan Lash says it’ll all pay off in the end. The college will save on utility bills and promote its green principles. It already helped with fundraising.

“What excited the donors was that the building was way out there at the cutting edge,” says Lash. “If we’d done something that that was just pretty green but nothing special, it would’ve been much tougher to raise the money.”

That’s actually one reason some people are wary of the Living Building challenge.

“Extremes sell. Just good buildings that will last a very long time and use very little energy and very little water — they just don’t sell,” says Emmanuel Cosgrove, who runs Eco Home, a Canadian green-building organization.

Cosgrove is someone you’d expect to love the Living Building concept. He describes himself as a “wacko environmentalist.” His own townhouse in Montreal was among the first in North America to get LEED platinum certification. He built a garden on his roof to process gray water from showers and dishwashing.

But as for the Living Building Challenge, he says, “There are a lot of great ideas that have the best intentions behind them, but can have reverse repercussions.”

For example, he says putting up solar panels building by building can be less efficient than plugging into a public grid that already uses hydro or wind power. Same with water. He says his organization analyzed the environmental impact of collecting and treating rainwater, and — considering the equipment involved — found it was worse than just using a municipal water supply.

“That really bursts our bubble, you know. We don’t want to hear that,” says Cosgrove. “But when we’re doing this to truly make our collective environmental impact lesser, we have to listen to what science tells us.”

Another environmental building consultant, Nadav Malin, of the Vermont company Building Green, prefers to look at energy conservation from a neighborhood or city-wide perspective.

“So if we keep our eye on the bigger picture of climate change,” he says, “trying to make an individual building net-zero may not be the most effective way to get there.”

But Malin does agree with the argument, made by Living Building advocates, that the extreme green challenge lifts the environmental bar for everyone, inspiring others to move in that direction. Cosgrove, however, is not so sure. That approach might work for universities, he says, but it’s likely to intimidate the average homeowner or builder.

“They’ll say, ‘Whoa, that sure ain’t for me,’” says Cosgrove. “All we can hope for is it won’t deter more people than it draws into the sustainable building movement.”

The Living Building Challenge does allow projects to win a “partial certification” if they can’t meet all the criteria. And fans of this movement say striving for an ideal doesn’t have to derail more modest improvements. Leaders at Smith and Hampshire say the Living Building standard has inspired them to make the rest of the campus — including the oldest, most inefficient buildings — at least a little bit more green.

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Hitchcock Center for the Environment