A Living Building Q&A: in Atlanta, pushing the boundaries of sustainable construction

What if building design and construction could contribute to making the world a better place? That’s the goal of the Living Building Challenge (LBC).

1 / 5 The Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design is projected to become the first Living Building Challenge 3.1 certified facility of its size and function in the Southeast.
2 / 5 The Kendeda Building has 917 solar panels which are expected to generate more than 455,000 kWh a year.
3 / 5 The Kendeda Building is the first example globally of salvaged wood in a mass timber project.
4 / 5 Skanska partnered with Georgia Works!, an organization that trains chronically homeless individuals and helps them find jobs. During the construction of The Kendeda Building, they helped assemble nail-laminated timber 2x4s that were salvaged from dismantled movie sets around Atlanta.
5 / 5 The inside of The Kendeda Building. An open house was held on October 24 that celebrated completion of construction and allowed members of the community to take tours of the facility.

While Living Buildings are gaining popularity around the globe, there are still only a handful that are fully certified. That’s because the LBC is the world’s most rigorous performance standard for buildings. One building that has just completed construction by Skanska and will start the LBC 3.1 certification process in 2020 is The Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design (The Kendeda Building) on the Georgia Institute of Technology’s campus in Atlanta, Georgia. The Kendeda Building is one of our most sustainable projects to date.

We sat down with three Skanska employees who worked on The Kendeda Building—Jimmy Mitchell, sustainability engineer; Megan O’Connell, project manager; and Matt Williams, project manager—to learn about what it was like to work on a Living Building project, how these facilities are pushing the boundaries of sustainability, and how The Kendeda Building will impact the Atlanta community and the Southeast.

What is the Living Building Challenge and what is its purpose?

Jimmy Mitchell (JM): The LBC is the most stringent building certification program that we have in the market. It’s centered on the concept of regenerative design: How can our buildings actually regenerate our ecology and make things better?

Megan O’Connell (MO): The LBC is a green certification with some similarities to LEED®, but also many differences. Where LEED has credits to choose among, LBC has imperatives, which as the name suggests, are mandatory. To achieve full LBC, the building must have net-positive energy, meaning you have to generate all of your energy onsite from renewable sources. You have to use rainwater or groundwater, water that is from the site, for all of your water uses. Some aspects of the design simply focus on beauty and enhancing the human experience.

Why is the Living Building Challenge considered the world’s most rigorous proven performance standard for buildings?

MO: “Proven” is the key word there. We must show over a year-long monitoring period that this building meets the design expectations. This requirement makes the design team and owner think about how the building is going to be used in the future, which creates a very robust challenge. That’s why it’s looked at as the peak for certification.

Why is it important that we build Living Building projects?

MO: Our global population and standards of living are increasing, and as more countries are developing, resources are being used at a much higher pace. We have to be realistic about that and realize that we need to find alternatives to protect our resources. The LBC challenges our industry to think a little differently about how we do things.

How are Living Buildings helping to reduce global carbon emissions and make a difference when it comes to climate change?

JM: Buildings generate about 40 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. One of the imperatives of the LBC is negating embodied carbon, which is the carbon emitted during the extraction, manufacture, transport, and installation of materials through construction. The LBC requires that we purchase carbon offsets to make the building carbon neutral. On the energy side, the building is going to generate more energy annually than it uses, so that’s carbon positive.

MO: The local materials requirement helps us reduce some of the embodied carbon that’s in the building due to transportation of materials. The regional material requirements are pretty intense—50 percent of your materials have to come from within 600 miles, so when you’re designing the building, you need to use local materials. In designing it, you want to minimize the total carbon going in it, so you use materials that have a lower carbon footprint, like local or reclaimed materials.

What are the petals associated with the Living Building Challenge?

JM: The LBC has seven categories referred to as “petals” which are based on a flower metaphor. Some of the petals are engineering-based and some are design-based. The petals are further broken into 20 imperatives. One of the unique things about the Challenge is that you can’t pick or choose imperatives—if you’re doing the full certification, you must do them all. When you’re problem solving during the design phase, you’re not thinking about how much something costs, you’re focused on if something positively impacts enough of the imperatives to justify it. During the construction of The Kendeda Building, if an idea didn’t positively impact four or five imperatives, it didn’t make it on the project. You can’t address one thing at a time.

What is the red list and how did it impact our work?

MO: The red list was compiled by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), and it’s a list of materials and chemicals that are harmful to humans and are not allowed in a Living Building. Some red list materials are obvious, like asbestos and mercury. But there are also materials on the list, like chromium-6, which our team wasn’t as familiar with and required research on our part. Our team had to provide a letter or some type of indication to IFLI that lists 100 percent of the ingredients in the building. Over the last seven years, we’ve seen alternatives for red list materials become more readily available without a huge difference in cost. It’s clear our efforts are making a difference in the industry. Manufacturers are listening and trying to make better materials.

How long does the Living Building certification process take? What is the process like?

Matt Williams (MW): Certification begins once the building is able to start performing as it’s designed. There is a required 12-month performance period where the building has to report as net-positive energy and net-positive water and have associated documents already turned in. If there is a hiccup during the performance period that requires rework or something to be changed, it could either pause or restart the whole performance period.

What impact will this project have for Georgia Tech and the Southeast?

MW: The Kendeda Building proves that this kind of construction can be done in the Southeast. Living Buildings are rare but more prevalent on the west coast and in the mid-Atlantic region. The mindset and climates in those regions are more supportive of this kind of building—the Southeast not so much. Georgia Tech wants to inspire the Southeast to step up to this challenge. They also want their students, departments and facilities to think broader and challenge current standards when it comes to design and construction.

How does The Kendeda Building compare to other Living Buildings around the world?

MO: It’s much, much larger than the majority of existing Living Buildings. This project is so important because it shows that a Living Building can be designed and built at this scale and at a price point that is competitive. One of Georgia Tech’s values was to make it a learning experience that could be repeatable. They were looking at techniques, materials and technology that other buildings in Atlanta could use—they aim to be a role model for the Southeast.

What is your favorite sustainable aspect of The Kendeda Building?

MW: I like the water systems. The rainwater reuse and the greywater treatment onsite, coupled with the storm water that’s captured, are really interesting aspects. Rainwater will be harvested from the 917 solar panels, roof deck and green roof to supply drinking water for the building. The greywater, which will be collected from shower drains, sinks and water fountains, will be infiltrated on site and then recycled to a constructed wetlands on the south side of the building. The storm water, which is water from rainstorms that is not captured for drinking needs, will be infiltrated back into the natural aquifer through rain gardens and pervious paving surfaces. This water is then stored in an underground Pipe-R system until it can be absorbed into the earth over time instead of leaving the site as storm water runoff.

JM: Globally, I believe this is the best example of salvaging materials in a building.

We have nail-laminated timber (NLT) for the flooring and roofing system that is absolutely beautiful. Our team nailed FSC-certified 2x6s and 2x4s into 489 roughly 6 feet by 10.5 inch panels out of the 25,000 linear feet of 2x4s we salvaged from film sets across Atlanta. It’s the first example globally of salvaged wood in a mass timber project.

Salvaging materials has even added a bit of local history to the project. For example, a few years ago, the Georgia Archives Building was torn down to build a new Georgia Supreme Court building, so we went in there and grabbed some granite curb before they demolished it. That granite curb makes up some of the project’s hardscape.  We also salvaged slate tiles from the 80-year-old roof of the Alumni Association House at Georgia Tech. That slate tile was used to tile the bathroom walls.

Did we involve the community on this project?

MW: For one self-perform aspect on the project, we partnered with a company called Georgia Works! that provides jobs to chronically homeless individuals. We had several gentlemen from Georgia Works! help build the NLT panels that make up the floor systems for the level two floor structure and roof decking. 

We also engaged Georgia Tech students. For example, we involved them early on by inviting them to a biophilia charrette that kicked off the design. We wrote down their ideas, some of which were carried through the design process. Oliver Smith, with our virtual design in construction (VDC) group, held a drone flying session with their VDC students. We also hired a Georgia Tech civil engineering student as an intern to help us out on the project for a year.

What did Skanska bring to the project that no one else could?

MO: Our expertise in sustainable construction and, specifically, our experience constructing Living Buildings and the network that has evolved from that work. On a national level, we have many people with great connections to architects, manufacturers and certification bodies. Stacy Smedley, director of sustainability in our Seattle office, talks on a regular basis with members of ILFI. Steve Clem, senior vice president, helped us estimate for various Living Building Challenge projects, including The Kendeda Building. Chief Sustainability Officer Beth Heider and Project Manager Myrrh Caplan are on the front line with ILFI and USGBC. Even on an international level, Skanska operates in 11 different countries, which means a lot of sustainability knowledge sharing happening across various business units. When something new comes out, we’ve usually already seen it or we’ve been in discussions about how to improve it. Our people are helping push the industry forward, and I’m proud of that.

Last updated: 11/15/2019