Georgia Tech Living Building Challenge: What We Learned

Georgia Tech Living Building Challenge: What We Learned

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The Georgia Institute of Technology, supported by the Kendeda Fund, invited architects across the country to participate in a competition that envisioned a Living Building at Georgia Tech. As one of three finalists, we joined forces with engineers, landscape architects and a cost estimator to realize Georgia Tech’s vision for a new exemplary building that meets the highest standard of beauty, sustainability, and replicability.

The Living Building Challenge (LBC) represents a transformative shift in our approach to how buildings are designed, built, and inhabited.  Instead of merely trying to ensure that buildings are safe for occupants, or that we try to reduce the negative environmental consequences of how they are built and operated, LBC asks, “Instead of making buildings ‘less bad’, how can buildings be ‘good’?” How can we make the act of building to be restorative, with net positive impact on the environment and on human health?  What would be required for buildings to take nature as their model, living off the sun and rain falling on the site, to incorporate no materials that threaten health, to reject the very notion of ‘waste’?

With goals this high, it’s perhaps not surprising that only a handful of buildings by 2015 had achieved full LBC certification.  Not to mention you also have to prove that you’ve met these goals by submitting operational data after 1 year of occupancy. The projects that make it to the finish line have often been small, located in mild climates, with relatively low energy intensity uses, and had the good fortune to be occupied by highly engaged users, committed to adjusting their behavior and even their clothing in alignment with the limitations of the building.

For LBC to become not just an inspirational special case but the new normal, we need to show that it can work in large buildings, in urban settings, in challenging climates, supporting a wide range of energy intensity uses, and be a building that invites occupant engagement but can be occupied by mere mortals, not saints.  We need an affordable, replicable template.

In late 2015 early 2016, the Georgia Institute of Technology conducted an ‘Ideas Competition’ that explored how to make Living Building Challenge certified buildings affordable and replicable in the hot, humid South. Given an entire precinct of campus as a potential site, the three final interdisciplinary design teams  were challenged to produce specific design proposals testing how a building providing labs, classrooms, and offices could be integrated into a restored landscape on a modest budget. Georgia Tech’s staff, faculty, and students observed the process while the School of Architecture’s design studios paralleled the competition.

For 90 intense days, we collaborated with architects from two other firms (Collins Cooper Carusi and Hellmuth & Bicknese), landscape architects from Andropogon and HGOR, engineers from Newcomb & Boyd, Point Energy Innovations, energy consultants pattern r+d, Sherwood Design Engineers, Long Engineering and Uzun+Case, and perhaps most crucially the cost estimators of the Palacio Collaborative.

Challenged to think differently with such a diverse group, the team used new collaboration tools like online meeting spaces and blogs to collect research ideas. Our team created new tools, such as The Hive and the Materials Petal Database — a crowdsourced collection of materials for the Living Building Challenge — for both developing and evaluating the design. At the end of the competition, the team presented two design concepts to form a dialogue of ideas.

By sharing what we’ve learned, we hope it can be transformative for you.