What could be one of North America’s greenest buildings opened May 29

Certification by one of the world's most stringent green building rating systems could occur next year

An opening ceremony for what could be one of North America’s greenest buildings — a flagship building on the cutting edge of sustainable design and energy efficiency — was held May 29 at Washington University in St. Louis’ new Living Learning Center at the university’s Tyson Research Center.


Tyson, located 20 miles southwest of the Danforth Campus, is 2,000 acres of woods, prairie, ponds and savannas where dozens of WUSTL faculty and students predominantly do environmental research.

The Living Learning Center is a 2,900-square-foot facility built to meet the Living Building Challenge — designed to be the most stringent green building rating system in the world — of the Cascadia Region Green Building Council (CRGBC). No building has met its standard yet, but the Living Learning Center is in the running to be the first in North America.

Joe Angeles/WUSTL Photo

The Living Learning Center

The center is designed to be a zero net energy and zero wastewater building — both among the 16 requirements to earn “living building” recognition from the CRGBC. The CRGBC is a chapter of both the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and the Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC).

The Living Learning Center will capture rainwater and purify it for drinking and will be powered so efficiently by solar energy that the building often will pump energy back into the electric grid to be purchased by the local energy company.

Other requirements include diverting a high percentage of construction waste (80 percent or more, depending on the material) from landfills and obtaining materials from within a certain mile radius of the construction site to reduce carbon emissions from travel and shipping. Occupational spaces also must contain operable windows to provide access to fresh air and daylight.

“Since Living Building Challenge was launched in November 2006, more than 60 project teams throughout North America have opted to pursue certification,” said Eden Brukman, the CRGBC’s research director. “The Tyson Living Learning Center is one of the first two of these projects completing construction in May, and there are many people throughout the country — and the continent — watching with eager anticipation.

“Living Building Challenge is a rigorous performance-based standard. All 16 stated characteristics must be integrated into a successful project, such as net-zero energy and water, habitat exchange, nontoxic materials and beauty and inspiration,” Brukman said. “In order to be certified as a Living Building, it must be fully operational for at least 12 consecutive months; this program demands proof that the occupants engage the project as anticipated. After all, an empty building serves no purpose.”

Brukman noted that the Living Building Challenge is not meant to compete with the USGBC’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System™, which is a nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction and operation of high-performance green buildings.

“The Living Building Challenge is instead viewed as an additional outlet to promote the goals set by the USGBC and CaGBC — it establishes a vision for a project’s environmental and social responsibilities from a new vantage point,” Brukman said. “In fact, both national organizations have endorsed Living Building Challenge.”

Ongoing teaching tool

Many of the Living Learning Center’s features contribute to the building’s net-zero water and energy use, said Jonathan M. Chase, Ph.D., director of the Tyson Research Center and associate professor of biology in Arts & Sciences. The rainwater that will fall on the building will pass through a filter before it will be stored in a 3,000-gallon underground cistern.

The pavement surrounding the building is porous and will absorb almost all storm runoff. Waterless composting toilets will eliminate a major use of water and enable the collecting of waste that will be used as fertilizer for the surrounding grass. A 17-kilowatt photovoltaic system will power the facility.

The exposed exterior and interior wood used to build the center, including the cedar siding, came from Tyson grounds — either from fallen trees or from trees slated for removal. The structural wood came primarily from Pocahontas, Ark., approximately 200 miles away — well within a 500-mile requirement to reduce carbon emissions associated with the transportation of materials.

The structure, which was designed by Hellmuth & Bicknese Architects with Bingman Construction Co. of Pacific, Mo., serving as the general contractor, also will feature a “bat house” built into the building’s eave, complete with two “bat cams” for observation of the creatures.

The Living Learning Center will be available to members of the WUSTL community, as well as other local institutions, and house a seminar/classroom for several WUSTL classes, including a seminar for undergraduate and graduate students and local environmental researchers this summer and three environmental courses this fall.

It also will serve as the base of operations for a summer high-school outreach program that is co-sponsored by the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Shaw Nature Reserve and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

According to the architect, the building’s most important feature is its ability to be used as an ongoing teaching tool — another one of the 16 requirements to be named a “living building.”

“The curriculum for the summer program is already being developed using some of the building features, which can all be analyzed as a biological process,” said Dan Hellmuth, a principal and co-founder of Hellmuth & Bicknese Architects.

“The PV (photovoltaic) output is monitored in the lobby via a touchscreen monitor and over the network, showing how much power the building is producing and how much CO2 is being avoided,” Hellmuth said. “This monitoring system can be built on over time to look at water consumption, energy use, etc.”

According to Hellmuth, there were many challenges associated with constructing a “living building,” including obtaining permits for rainwater potable water and composting toilet systems and finding certified framing wood within a 500-mile radius of Tyson, which is located off I-44 at the Beaumont-Antire Road exit.

“I don’t think any of us knew the challenges this would bring, including Washington University, our design team, the contractors or the folks at Tyson,” Hellmuth said, “but throughout the process we have continually met them in a seemingly endless gauntlet.”

Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton; Ralph S. Quatrano, Ph.D., the Spencer T. Olin Professor and interim dean of Arts & Sciences; and Chase participated in the ceremony.

“The opening of the new Living Learning Center is an exciting event for Washington University,” Quatrano said. “It demonstrates not only the university’s emphasis on sustainability but also its commitment to teaching, research and community outreach. We have been building faculty strength in ecology and environmental science, and this structure will help in our educational mission and commitment to student research and instruction.”

“Tyson is in the midst of a major revolution and is a cornerstone of the environmental research and education initiatives of Washington University,” Chase said. “The Living Learning Center will provide much-needed space for our growing programs and also will serve as focus for research and education itself.”

Eighteen St. Louis-area high-school students are among the first to use the Living Learning Center beginning June 1 as part of the NSF collaborative grant for the Shaw Nature Preserve and Tyson to instruct the interns in ecological research.

Last summer, the students went out to Shaw to learn basic skills and research techniques in the part of the program called SIFT — Shaw Institute for Field Training. This summer, those same students will ply their newfound skills on research projects with WUSTL faculty and graduate students as part of TERF — Tyson Ecological Research Fellowship.

Washington University is in the process of finding support for the Living Learning Center, and several naming opportunities are available, including the center itself and its combined lab and classroom, computer lab and outdoor teaching deck.