Washington school on track for Living Building status

Seattle, Washington: known for the Space Needle and the original Starbucks.

But did you know it’s also home to a pretty unique school whose new, sustainable science wing is on track to be the state’s first Living Building?

Bertschi School is no stranger to green building.  In 2007, its Bertschi Center became the first LEED Gold-certified building on not only the independent elementary school’s campus, but in the Pacific Northwest region.  Another part of the master plan was the science building, and this time, the school was interested in going after more than LEED certification – it wanted Living Building status.

Bertschi Center

Living Building status defines the most advanced measure of sustainability in the built environment and has gained global recognition as the most radical and revolutionary green building standard.  Based on actual performance rather than modeled or anticipated outcomes, a project receives certification as “living” only after it has performed as modeled for one full year of occupancy.

In 2009, the Restorative Design Collective, a newly formed group of Seattle-area, green-minded design professionals at the forefront of the sustainable building movement, was introduced to the Bertschi School through a tour of its LEED Gold facility.  Headed by founders Stacy Smedley and Chris Hellstern of KMD Architects, the group also included members from multiple design and construction firms, such as Skanska. In what Smedley called the “perfect storm” of a planned project and the right people with the right ideas, the project was off.

Kids working collaboratively with design

The Restorative Design Collective contributed its services pro-bono to gain experience designing and constructing a Living Building.  Initial concept to building completion was just a year and a half, with donations amounting to more than $500,000 in professional time and building materials, and the science wing opened its doors in February of this year.

One of the keys to such a condensed timeline?  Collaboration.

The project “was an excellent example of getting all of the players in the room and working collaboratively to put systems and ideas in place,” said Skanska’s Kris Beason.

And the school was a huge part of this collaboration, as students and teachers contributed their ideas and support from the beginning.

“I think a lot of times when we get in a room and start with a charettes process, it’s ‘Here’s what’s holding us back,’ and this group definitely didn’t approach it that way,” Beason said. “It wasn’t ‘No we can’t do that;’ it was all very positive, and everyone was trying to figure out how.”

Students were responsible for some of the most unique features in the classroom, such as the indoor river and living plant wall.

“When it rains, the kids actually see a river running through their floor,” Smedley said, explaining that rainwater is collected from the roof and comes down through a downspout, which is channeled in a concrete slab running through the science classroom.

The students can’t wait for it to rain so they can see the river running, she said.

Hellstern noted that greywater must be treated on site, so it is pumped through the plants growing on the living wall, and the plants naturally clean the water.

Water treatment on-site

“One of the important pieces is education for future generations,” he said.  “All of these features are exposed for the kids to see and use and include in their curriculum … increasing future generations’ knowledge of how these buildings can operate.”

Another way students are involved, according to Smedley, is by tracking their energy and water consumption to ensure it’s net-zero:

“Kids are populating the data for us – they’re invested in and responsible for the building’s function,” she said.  “And they’re able to understand net-zero energy.”

Beason also noted that populating the data goes hand in hand with behavior changes.  If the data isn’t reflecting net-zero energy, they can modify their behavior to achieve the desired results.

Living Building certification is expected to be achieved by early Summer 2012, Hellstern said.

For more information:

All photos courtesy of KMD Architects.

This article also published in The Green Schoolhouse Series blog.

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