Seeing the Future at The Living Learning Center in St. Louis

By Ryan Spies

Ryan is an Engineer, MBA, and a LEED Green Associate. After graduating from the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis in 2011, Ryan’s career has focused on global market understanding of the solar industry, while demanding an ever growing role within his company’s sustainability program. He loves burritos, video games and the St. Louis Cardinals.

Nov 27, 2012 | Smart Cities | 2 comments


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The Living Building Challenge has been in existence for a few years now, and its goal was to strive past LEED in terms of exceptional performance for the built environment.  Last week I had the opportunity to see the first of two buildings ever to complete the challenge.  I didn’t have to go far… for right here, in the middle of carbon country, just down the road from Peabody “Energy” and Arch Coal, stood one of the finest additions to modern architecture in our lifetimes, and it’s purpose, among many, was to make those companies obsolete.

The Living Learning Center sits among the woods in St. Louis County, a place not known for a simple climate or immune to extreme weather. Yet this building was created to ensure it could withstand it all, without the need for the city or system around it.  That is what the challenge is all about.  The Living Learning Center must create all of its own electricity, harvest all of its own water, process all of its own waste (Yup, even that waste), and do it all while maintaining a sense of beauty.  I can assure you, it does all of these things with ease.

It has 2 composting toilets that use no water or chemicals. It has half of its roof covered by solar panels. Its rain garden and pervious pavement allow for zero runoff.  It is made with wood from around the region, a lot of it from fallen trees on the Tyson Research Center campus. It has clean lines, fresh air, and issued for graduate research, teaching, and stands as a symbol of progress.

Looking for inspiration

I visited the site to gain some otherworldly inspiration, to relive the feeling I had at Greenbuild just a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, I have to admit, it almost inspired the opposite reaction.  While the building itself was a feat of immense consideration and planning, it was completed a full 3 years ago.  While it was beautiful and functional and modern, it felt dated and lackluster compared to my imagination.  I think it did those things because while it was an amazing step forward, it serves as a reminder that we haven’t kept the momentum going, at least not here in the Midwest.  It is the only living building in the state, and I don’t know of any plans for any more. It proved that a self-sustaining, environmentally positive building could be built without incredible expense, and yet we just stopped there. I felt deflated.

My graduate alma-mater Washington University in St. Louis hailed the building at its ribbon cutting, but then went back to building to LEED certification. It’s as if, to use another sad analogy, we landed on the moon, and then when back to building satellites. Not that there is anything wrong with satellites, or LEED (especially the upcoming LEED V4), it’s just once you know we can do more, why aren’t we?

My question to you is, why aren’t we going to Mars? Or rather, why aren’t all of our buildings being built this way? Learning from the lessons of natural lighting, composting toilets (check out the picture…it looks..European?), and harvested rainwater? Why aren’t our own roofs covered with solar panels, our own lights turning off when we leave the room, our own floors made with recently felled wood? It seems so straightforward to me.  Anyone can plainly see that while the upfront costs are higher, they serve as investment in the future. These choices can’t just be made for research any longer (although I praise Wash. U.), they need to be implemented every day, with every building.

But how can we accomplish things like this on wide scale, not just at institutions of higher learning?

How can we make our “best practices” better?

Certainly updated building codes, laws and regulations would stir the construction industry into better practices…but that’s just the old stick method. What about the carrot? What about people demanding buildings be built like this, because they can see the impacts? That’s where we’ve failed the general public.

Stop hiding these buildings in the woods on a research center that demands an appointment to visit.That’s where the Living Building Challenge can and is making a difference. Check out the International Living Future Institute’s plans to for their new HQ in the middle of downtown Seattle.  Stop hiding these buildings in the woods on a research center that demands an appointment to visit.  Stick them in the middle of cities, towns, neighborhoods and hail their success.  Show your neighbors the incredible savings they’re missing, the dirty air they’re breathing, and the chemical compounds they’re surrounding themselves with. Because that’s what we’re missing. We’re missing the center city display, the coordinated message that all of our lives will be better if we live and build in a different way.  Again, at least here in the Midwest.

I can tell you right now, the air in that building was glorious.  The sunshine on my face was enlightening.  The water I drank was more pure than out of the bottle. It was an inspiring place. It inspired me to drag my Mom along. It inspired me to tell my local friends, who are clearly unaware of its existence, to visit it. It made me happy for my alma mater, that they did invest in the process. I just want us all to keep going.  To keep taking steps forward. I want to visit that place with my children someday and say this, this is the place it started. This is the place that taught us we didn’t have to do things the old way. This is the place that showed us it was possible.

Take an afternoon and visit your nearest Living Building. They are achievements in architecture, design, and thoughtfulness, and hopefully, they are just the first step.

 

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2 Comments

  1. Just a quick note – Wash U and the biology department made it easy to make the appointment and were truly gracious hosts, I don’t mean to disparage them, just the necessity of the whole process.

    Reply
  2. Agreed, there should be many more LBC certified buildings. I understand there are about 120 registered in the pipeline to become certified. While all will not make it; because this is quite difficult as evidenced by the fact that only 4 or 5 are currently certified.

    We have a project under construction, a student residence hall for 120 at Berea College in Berea, KY, that is expected to be certified LEED Platinum and achieve LBC Petal recognition; meaning it will not be fully LBC certified but will make most of it, just not net zero energy or water. The State of KY just wasn’t ready to accept some of what we wanted to do to achieve net zero water and other there are reasons for not achieving net zero energy having to do with the College’s desire for a traditional looking building. Nevertheless it will fortunately have a very small energy footprint.
    Washington University is planning a new building for their Brown School on the main campus that would be visible. I understand design is already underway. There has been some talk of the possibility it could at least make LBC Petal Recognition. That is a start worthy of support.

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