Net Positive | Library Design 2017

Libraries are a key element in community ecosystems. Now imagine a library that actually is an environmental ecosystem of its own. The furthest reaching green building certification uses the metaphor of the flower—thriving within a given habitat by pulling nutrients from the soil, using sunlight for photosynthesis, and depending on the sky for rain—to describe the requirements for its green building program. Each element of the certification is called a petal, and each represents a major part of the eco­system: energy, water, and materials. The International ­Living Future Institute administers the Living Building Challenge.

Libraries are a key element in community ecosystems. Now imagine a library that actually is an environmental ecosystem of its own. The furthest reaching green building certification uses the metaphor of the flower—thriving within a given habitat by pulling nutrients from the soil, using sunlight for photosynthesis, and depending on the sky for rain—to describe the requirements for its green building program. Each element of the certification is called a petal, and each represents a major part of the eco­system: energy, water, and materials. The International ­Living Future Institute (ILFI) administers the Living Building Challenge (LBC).

LEADING BEYOND LEED The Chrisney Branch library, IN (far l.), and California’s West Berkeley Public Library (this page, top and bottom) are the first public libraries to be net-zero energy certified by the International Living Future Institute.
Top photo ©Kyle Jeffers; middle photo ©David Wakely Photography; bottom photo courtesy of the town of Chrisney, IN

Ups and downs of sustainable design

Some of the most sustainable structures were built hundreds or even thousands of years ago, as they had to respond to their surrounding environment and climate. The technology of recent centuries has made us lose that vital perspective. The energy crisis of the 1970s helped us remember those roots. By the late 1980s and into the 1990s, many had forgotten them again, and with the Silicon Valley tech bubble creating more and more ways to use energy, we needed to refocus once again.

We saw the emergence of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) as the green building rating system that certified libraries—and, of course, other buildings—as green and sustainable. Since the first LEED building went up in 2000, this brought on a great market transformation of products and design that significantly moved both architecture and libraries in the right direction. However, though LEED continues to adapt and help cross new boundaries, there has been a lull in participation owing to the Great Recession.

Although LEED remains an important measure of green building design and construction, a different rating system has evolved that measures not only the design and construction of the building but also its actual performance. LBC requires a building to operate for one year, proving, through a variety of measures, that the building functions at the level for which it was designed. Moreover, it aims not only to protect the environment from the impact of the building but, at its most ambitious, to give back, helping to heal existing damage.

Living Building compared to LEED

LEED is an important part of the sustainable design community. The improvements for LEED v4 (which raise the bar for baseline prerequisites and introduce higher levels of achievement for credits such as increased water use reduction, whole building energy use and metering, and increased transparency for materials) are changing the game again and making us stretch. LEED is a great measurement tool for the design and construction of a building. The LEED rating system provides a variety of options by which to achieve certification. Depending on the choice of credits to pursue, a certification can have a variety of emphases that may not require a significant energy use reduction below what is required by code.

LBC, however, raises the bar significantly in a variety of ways. Besides requiring the one-year performance period and an in-person audit before granting certification, a building that fulfills the energy petal must demonstrate net-positive energy. This means that the library produces 105 percent of the energy it uses on a net-annual basis. A building that fulfills the water petal must have net-positive water, and one that fulfills the materials petal must provide a Red List–free environment (chemicals known to be harmful to humans). Projects can choose to pursue the full LBC by meeting all three standards plus several other regenerative requirements, or pursue one or more of the seven petal certifications.

Just as a LEED Platinum certification was difficult to achieve and had increased cost implications in the early 2000s, the full Living Building Certification comes with barriers to confront. Yet just as we saw the market transform and the ease of achieving a LEED Platinum building come within reach over a ten-year period, so, too, will full Living Building Certification become more and more achievable for libraries. In the meantime, a library can choose what parts best meet its needs and pursue partial, or petal, certification.

People: the missing Piece

In a collaborative effort with the Salt Lake County Library Services, Architectural Nexus provided energy audits for several libraries that had LEED certification. In some cases, these showed that there was much room for improvement. One LEED Silver building in particular showed significant opportunities for progress. Teaching- and action-oriented training adjusted occupants’ behaviors in coordination with simply changing equipment settings. Using no capital maintenance funds and undergoing no construction or equipment replacement, the energy performance improved tremendously. So great was the enhancement from tuning this building and repairing its ecosystem that month-to-month monitoring and documentation showed continued upgrades that resulted in a $20,000 savings on utility bills in one year for this 20,000 square foot library.

To achieve LBC’s one-year performance requirement, all occupants must be properly engaged as a part of their eco­system. You can train your staff, but how do you influence the actions of the public? New ways to engage the inhabitants of buildings have been developed to answer this question. These include web-based apps that are customized for your occupants, such as those provided by Sustain3, which employs a gamification process to teach and incentivize action through friendly competition. This process is being used both in private commercial settings and in public settings such as university campuses.

LEADING BY EXAMPLE The Sacramento, CA, office of Architectural Nexus (AN) is targeting full Living Building Challenge certification, with such ecofriendly features as (from l.) a gray-water-fed green wall, composters, and outdoor cisterns. Librarians got a hard hat tour of the AN space (inset) last December during LJ’s Directors’ Summit, held in collaboration with the Sacramento Public Library.
Inset photo by Meredith Schwartz; All other photos by Josh Allred/Architectural Nexus

Firsthand experience

Because LBC is so new—launched only in 2006 with the first building certification in 2010—and the certification process is so forward thinking, only a handful of Living Buildings currently exist, though a handful more are seeking certification. Architectural Nexus built its new Sacramento office to meet the full challenge and is currently on track for full certification, which would make it the first Living Building in California and one of only a dozen or so in the world. (Attendees at LJ’s 2016 Directors’ Summit received a hard-hat tour of the work in progress.) The experience presented the architects with an understanding of the challenges involved and demonstrated how these technologies can best be used and operated in future libraries.

The construction of the building was completed in late December and is now into its one-year performance period. It is scheduled to produce at least 105 percent of the energy generated over a one-year period and collects enough rain water to provide for all of its needs on an annual basis, even during a major drought, as has been seen in California over the past several years. Being a net-positive water building requires composting toilets and use of gray water so that the building’s sewer connection is needed only as an emergency measure. The building uses its gray water to flush the toilets and then dispenses that filtered gray water to an indoor plant wall, eliminating the need for it to be disposed of through a sewer system. The building also has a filtration system that, when regulations allow, will be able to purify rainwater to be used for drinking.

The building also is Red List–free, having documented the ingredients of every building product used. The paint coating on the exterior metal panels was reformulated to be void of harmful chemicals and has now produced a formula that can be used on other future LBC projects. As more projects go through this process, there are lists of products generated for new work to use as a guide, and, more important, products are transforming to be Red List– free. (For more information, see “The Challenge of Finding Safe Stuff” below.)

What’s more, this is not a new structure. It is a retrofit of an existing building, potentially making it the first Living Building adaptive reuse project, greatly minimizing the material that would have gone to the landfill if the old building had been demolished. Occupants are signaled by a light on the wall to turn off the heating and cooling systems and open the windows for ventilation. It is also not uncommon for the office staff to receive an email indicating that they need to produce more gray water and encourage occupants to ride their bikes to work or exercise at lunch so they shower in order to feed the plant wall. The building occupants are an important part of the ecosystem.

Effort and impact

The effort to achieve the full building certification is significant in both time and dollars, taking more than double that of a typical building. The most difficult of the petals to achieve is by far the materials petal. Documenting the ingredients of every material and product that is a part of the construction of a building takes at least a full-time staff member the duration of the project, plus additional time from the general contractor and subcontractors. LBC projects are complex and working with a contractor that was invested in the purpose of the project, and not just the bottom line, was critical to making the collaboration work.

Having applied the learning curve to its own project, Architectural Nexus is now taking that experience to its clients who want to apply this knowledge to their own buildings through petal certification, and others that are evaluating the feasibility of pursuing the full certification. Lessons learned, such as a path to water reuse that navigates codes and jurisdictions and the experience of how to design and document with the Red List, are invaluable to pursuant projects. Libraries considering tackling the challenge should seek partners and consultants who have experienced the learning curve.

Decisions, decisions

Given the constraints of time, money, and stakeholder support and the day-to-day needs of libraries, you may feel that building something as ambitious as a regenerative building that creates its own flowering ecosystem is beyond your reach. However, keep in mind that most libraries a little over a decade ago felt the same about reaching LEED Platinum certification, and today there are over 5,800 LEED Platinum certified projects. (There are 706 LEED certified libraries altogether, 22 of which are LEED Platinum.) In time, you will see many Living Libraries, too. You can start today through existing building energy assessments and occupant engagement, or through choosing to participate in a petal certification such as net-zero energy. These are very feasible goals today: in fact, two public libraries have already met them: the Town of Chrisney branch of Indiana’s Lincoln Heritage Public Library and California’s West Berkeley Public Library are both net-zero energy certified by ILFI. Besides helping to saving the planet, either or both will save dollars from their operating budgets.

Jeffrey L. Davis is AIA, LEED AP BD+C, Principal, and Director of Sustainability for Sacramento, CA–based Architectural Nexus

The Challenge of Finding Safe Stuff

Of the seven petals of the Living Building Challenge (LBC)—Energy, Health & Happiness, Materials, Place, Water, Equity, and Beauty—three address the traditional concerns of environmental sustainability: energy, water, and materials. Of those, says Patti Southard, program manager, King County GreenTools, WA, materials is by far the biggest challenge. “We know everything we need to know about getting to net-zero energy,” she says, and “we could say the same thing about water,” although, she adds, local health department interpretations sometimes stand in the way of implementing plans to recycle black water.

The same is not true of materials, however. “Currently,” she says, “the biggest challenge is having a variety of materials to choose from that are Red List–compliant.” The Red List, available here, details the chemicals that cannot be incorporated into building products used in a certified Living Building.

Southard particularly cites CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) as an issue, because they are so commonly sprayed onto materials for fireproofing purposes; HFRs (halogenated flame retardants); and mercury, which is used in compact fluorescent lightbulbs. As with water, well-intentioned health and safety regulations that may not have kept up with the latest developments can present regulatory barriers to using alternative, more ecofriendly solutions.

The International Living Future Institute (ILFI) has an advocacy congress with regional chapters that is working on addressing code barriers, and King County, which has committed to building ten Living Buildings by 2020 (possibly, but not necessarily, including libraries) is working with a regional code collaboration effort to do the same locally. For more information, see the whitepaper.

Straight to the source

Of course, says Southard, the established practice of manufacturing in general is also a barrier—suppliers don’t change the way they’ve been doing business for decades at the drop of a hat. To encourage the development of more LBC-suitable materials, says Southard, ILFI is not just waiting, as LEED does, for implementation to drive the market. Rather, it’s working directly with manufacturers to develop suitable materials through the Living Product Challenge and has also developed the Declare program, whereby material-friendly labels identify where a product comes from, what it’s made of, and where it goes at the end of its life cycle. Unlike Living Product Challenge products, participants in the Declare program aren’t guaranteed to be suitable for satisfying the Materials petal of LBC—but at least they are a step in the right direction and provide transparency as to what would have to change to meet the requirements.

She also points out that one of the challenges of adhering to the Materials petal is that products don’t only need to be Red List–compliant, but a certain percentage of them also must be sourced locally, which can be an additional issue for those who don’t live near ecofriendly suppliers. However, overall, Southard is hopeful that the near future will see a dramatic increase in the ease of meeting the Materials requirements. Each completed Living Building project directly increases the list of suitable products by reporting back to ILFI those it finds, or negotiates with vendors to modify or create, as part of the certification process. Indirectly, each increases the word of mouth about the challenge and the market potential of offering products that rise to it. As a result, says Southard, King County is already seeing more materials that are eligible, and this will only increase. “I think in the next three to five years, the Materials piece is going to get easier,” she concludes. “Because there are so many projects using the Living Building Challenge protocol, it’s going to open up quite a bit.”—Meredith Schwartz

Red List Materials or Chemicals

  • Alkylphenols
  • Asbestos
  • Bisphenol A (BPA)
  • Cadmium
  • Chlorinated Polyethylene and Chlorosulfonated Polyethylene
  • Chlorobenzenes
  • Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs)
  • Chloroprene (Neoprene)
  • Chromium VI
  • Chlorinated Polyvinyl Chloride (CPVC)
  • Formaldehyde (added)
  • Halogenated Flame Retardants (HFRs)
  • Lead (added)
  • Mercury
  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)
  • Perfluorinated Compounds (PFCs)
  • Phthalates
  • Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
  • Polyvinylidene Chloride (PVDC)
  • Short Chain Chlorinated Paraffins
  • Wood treatments containing Creosote, Arsenic or Pentachlorophenol
  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) in wet-applied products


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