Anything but Luck: Achieving the 13th Living Building Challenge Award

On May 20th, the DC Chapter of the International Society of Sustainability Professionals, along with our partners, Leaders in Energy and USGBC-NCR, held an event at a newly certified Living Building Challenge facility at the Alice Ferguson Foundation (AFF). The panel of experts on green and living building standards, benefits, and challenges, included:

  • Lori Arguelles, Alice Ferguson Foundation Executive Director
  • Sandy Wiggins, Principal of Consilience, LLC, a consultancy with a mission to foster environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable communities
  • Merrell Ashley, Principal & Director of Sustainability, rand* construction corporation (who oversaw the AFF project)
  • Molly Simpson, Program Analyst, Green Affordable Housing, DC Department of Energy & Environment
  • Panel discussion moderated by Daniel Pedersen, PhD, VP of Science & Standards, Green Seal

The ISSP-DC Chapter’s goal was an experiential event that enables participants to have hands-on interaction with sustainability projects. We kicked off with an in-depth tour of the building where those involved in its design, construction, and operations showed us behind the scenes and shared details of building elements that were particularly fascinating or problematic. After the panel, we were treated to a tour of the scenic AFF grounds and Hard Bargain Farm

The following is a recap of some highlights from the hour and a half panel discussion.

The living building CHALLENGE

It started more than 10 years ago with a simple question: “Is that all we can do?” That was the pivotal question that lead to AFF receiving the world’s 13th fully certified Living Building designation. Achieving this was anything but luck!

When the planning team reviewed green building standards in 2006 and pushed themselves to take their commitment to environmental stewardship to the next level, they became only the third project to sign up with the Living Building Challenge (LBC). Entering unchartered waters required a great deal of courage and commitment. Lori Arguelles explained “the main tenant and mission of the Alice Ferguson Foundation is embodied in this building…connecting to nature, understanding what that means. It’s about advocacy, stewardship, and education.”

Merrell Ashley reminded us that while a green building is aspirational, the traditional concerns of a construction project – cost, quality, schedule – are still important. When approaching a project like this, you don’t know what you don’t know. Ashley explained that on one project they “lost 4 months before the project, and 4 months during the project” just to do research. Invest more in the planning and design phases of a project.

Understanding the usage of the building and planning accordingly was key for the AFF project. Usually, adding equipment or devices is just a question of plugging in and pulling from the grid, but in a fully certified living building, the goal is to be net positive energy. The AFF team admitted it was challenging to determine the right energy budget – for today and for the future vision of a system of buildings. This process necessarily requires trade-offs, and inevitably leads to adjustments. An example of the former was a decision not to have an ice maker; an example of the latter was the need to install an additional set of lights at the front of the room to illuminate the area where presenters stand at events.

Sandy Wiggins emphasized the importance creating awareness of relationships between people and the places they’re in through education, feedback, and accountability. A great tool for this is the building management system, which helped the team troubleshoot unexpected results in the early months of operating the building. At the event, we were able to see the system firsthand, but so can you at AFF’s online building management dashboard.

The “green moss” moment

Wiggins, who was part of the original AFF LBC team, shared some of the challenges they faced when deciding where to build on the property. One issue was footprint: build on undeveloped land in the sun or build where the old existing building was in the woods? One of the architects went to the shaded area and sat on the ground and looked down at a mound of beautiful green moss and realized we have to learn to build green buildings everywhere. So a long-term plan, for an ecosystem of buildings, was hatched. The grass land provides energy, and the moss land provides water. (Living Building allows for this through ‘scale jumping’.)

Lori Arguelles emphasized the adage of not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. “Just because you can’t do everything, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do the things you can,” she reiterated during the panel. 

Navigating standards

The panel discussed the merits and trends related to various green building codes. Lori Arguelles remarked, “LEED is great, but it’s about mitigation. The Living Building is about regeneration.” LEED is more reflective of where the market is, while LBC is aspirational. This does not discount the importance of LEED in promoting green building standards. In fact, the AFF project is also a LEED Platinum building.

Molly Simpson illuminated the importance of green building codes in affordable housing in DC. Since 2006, green standards have been the minimum code in DC for certain types/sizes of projects, but in 2015 the DDOE added “preference points” for features such as net zero energy and passive house. DC has the first PHIUS+ certified multi-family retrofit in the country. Simpson added, “we really see this as an opportunity to move the market.”

As standards and codes evolve, the knowledge base to support these projects matures.  Simpson noted, “It really has changed the market…the question used to be ‘why do we have to do this? I don’t understand.’ Now they have very specific questions about [green building features.]”  

The “means and the method” wall comes down

To be a fully certified project, the team had to complete all 7 of the Living Building Challenge petals. One of the most difficult was the materials petal. There’s a “Red List” of materials you cannot use but are ubiquitous in building and materials. (Learn more about all AFF did to be fully certified).

Merrell Ashley explained that “means and methods” is how buildings get built and tends to be a point between architects and general contractors at which the decision about how to do something transfers from one to the next. Not everything is specified in design; however, in a living building project, everything matters when you’re going for the materials petal. Examples listed by Ashley and Arguelles included: What’s in the coating on dry wall screws? What’s in the dusting compound used on construction sites? What’s in the O-ring in your sprinkler pipes? What are in the components of the low-flow faucet you have chosen? What’s in the flux that you’re soldering? How do you get a concrete mix without formaldehyde? Imagine being on a job site and constantly saying “stop, what is that? What’s in that?” Everything must be vetted.

A common thread throughout the panel was the challenge of working on a project where few or no products exist, at least off the shelf, that meet these high standards. Ashley’s favorite example was metal studs, which usually have a petroleum coating that serves the purpose of easier transport and handling, but is on the LBC Red List. A regional stud manufacturer (Clark Dietrich) offered to shut down their plant, clean their machines, and run a special set of studs. Arguelles shared an example of a manufacturer of acoustic padding material that agreed to permanently remove formaldehyde from their products.

Sometimes there are unintended consequences of these relatively untested new product formulations. For example, uncoated studs take a lot longer to pull apart, much to the consternation of construction workers. Ashley shared one amusing example (from a different project) in which a particle board made of sunflower seeds was installed next to a sink. A few weeks later, they were called back because the countertop had gotten wet and begun to sprout!

Future opportunity

The panel also discussed opportunities for improvement, particularly with regards to infrastructure and policy, which make it tough to meet the criteria for the water petal. When combined with the Red List from the material petal, a project must find an alternative to chlorine for treating water. AFF could achieve this because they are on well-water and not connected to a municipal system; however, projects in cities with regulations related to water treatment, may not be able to achieve such standards until both infrastructure and policy enable it.

The context of an educational center in a rural area is quite different from downtown DC, in terms of what’s feasible. Molly Simpson observed “Composting toilets, while great in a setting like this, are probably not optimal in an urban environment.” But this doesn’t prevent the DDOE from seeking alternatives to make the district more sustainable.

There were so many more words of wisdom and interesting stories that we didn’t have room to share here. If you were at the event, please post your favorite takeaways in the comments. And if you were not at our event, please check out ISSP’s website for future events in DC or at a chapter near you.