Embracing sustainable design was an important step for the AEC industry. Originally, it meant making design choices that reduced the negative impact of what we make and build. Net-zero buildings—structures that balance energy use with energy production over the asset lifecycle—are one example.
Regenerative architecture goes a step further and aims to create buildings that give more than they take in terms of energy, water, and natural resources. The Living Building Challenge was started to bring attention to regenerative design approaches. A rigorous performance standard based on 20 different imperatives, the Challenge encourages the creation of buildings that create positive impact on human and natural systems while remaining within the resource limits of the site.
The Kendeda Building for Innovative and Sustainable Design at Georgia Tech is the first project in the southeast United States to attempt to qualify as a Living Building. It’s an educational hub with an auditorium, classrooms, teaching labs, and gathering spaces. It’s also a showcase for what regenerative architecture can be. Important features include:
- a canopy of 917 solar panels that generate 140% of the building’s power needs, meaning that it can contribute electricity to the grid;
- a 500,000-gallon cistern in the basement to collect and purify rainwater;
- a rooftop garden that provides food for students and faculty.
As the builder, Skanska received the 2020 AEC Excellence Award for Sustainability Innovation for their work on the project. Jimmy Mitchell of Skanska and Whitney Ashley of architecture firm Lord Aeck Sargent, one of two architects on the project, led an AU 2020 class about the topic.
Typically, architects, contractors, and owners look at projects from the standpoint of money and time, meaning that they ask themselves what impact a particular design or material choice will have on the budget and the schedule. With the Living Building Challenge, they looked at many other costs, from greenhouse gas emissions to landfill contribution to Energy Use Intensity (EUI). “Often, an idea to improve one imperative would negatively impact other imperatives,” Ashley said. “So we all had to get together. An idea had to help with four or five imperatives to make the cut. We worked to balance all the possible costs—not only for the budget, but for the environment, the community.”
Digital tools like Revit were essential to the process, enabling the team to compare multiple options and approaches based on simulation and analysis, balance tradeoffs, and iterate quickly. The team vetted four different approaches to the heating/cooling system they would adopt, and ultimately went with radiant floors due to the ability to use geothermal sources of heat and cooling and its moderate installation cost. When the team needed to shift the orientation of the building, rotating it by 90 degrees to change its exposure to sunlight, digital tools enabled them to make this change in a week, compared with several months if they had used manual processes.
The Kendeda Building worked with the Lifecycle Building Center in Atlanta to source 28 different construction materials, including 25,000 feet of lumber, that not only reduced the project’s footprint but also lowered costs. In a typical construction project, more than 40% of new materials purchased can be sent to the landfill as waste, even while an estimated 30% of that material is still usable.
Building to better
Before awarding certification, the Living Building Challenge requires that a project meet strict performance criteria based on 12 months of operational data. The Kendeda Building is currently gathering that data. If the building performs successfully, it will become the first LBC 3.1-certified building in the southeast United States. Learn more.
Mitchell acknowledges that not every project can feasibly meet the criteria of the Living Building Challenge, but the promise of regenerative design remains an important goal for everyone in the industry. Even a single, visionary project can be an important step by showing what’s possible. According to Shannon Goodman, executive director of the Lifecycle Building Center, “People may not think that the way we design a building can change the future, but it truly can.”
You can find more AU resources about sustainable design whenever you’re ready to learn.