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Going green in Eureka: Washington U's Living Learning Center leaves small carbon footprint

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 10, 2009 - A learning center in Eureka may soon be recognized as one of the greenest buildings in North America.

The cedar-sided Living Learning Center sits on the grounds of Washington University's Tyson Research Center at the end of a winding road, within 2,000 acres of forest, prairies, ponds and savanna. The center, built at a cost of $1.4 million, is poised to be the first building in the United States and Canada to meet the strict standards of the Living Building Challenge.

The challenge was launched in November 2006 with more than 60 teams seeking certification. "The Tyson Living Learning Center is one of the first of these projects and there are many people throughout the country -- and the continent -- watching with eager anticipation," said Eden Brukman, research director of the Cascadia Region Green Building Council. The Cascadia Council first developed the challenge.


The Living Building Challenge isn't a competition. It's a set of guidelines for environmentally friendly construction. For example, a building must be self-sufficient in the production and use of energy. Ecologically unsound products, such as PVC, mercury and cadmium, cannot be used. Wood, used in construction, must come from within 500 miles of the building. Even the consultants work under restrictions and may not travel more than 1,500 miles. All these constraints are intended to reduce the project's carbon footprint.

"The really neat thing about it is it gets everyone, from the architect all the way down to the subcontractors, starting to think about every component they use," said Kevin Smith, associate director of the Tyson Research Center. "They have to make sure their nails come from within a certain distance. They can't come from all the way around the world because they're cheaper, because that has a huge carbon footprint."


The Living Learning Center is a net-zero building. Through solar panels and water collection, the building produces its own energy and water.

A 17-kilowatt solar panel array on a south-slanted roof gathers sunlight for conversion to electricity. A meter on the front of the building shows the source of its electricity. An arrow pointing left appears when the center is using self-generated energy or when excess energy is being produced. An arrow pointing right appears when the building is purchasing energy from the grid. Extra energy is produced in the summer, which is sold to Ameren. In the winter, the center will buy that electricity back.

The slant of the center's roof helps gather rainwater. The collected water is filtered and stored in a 3,000-gallon underground drum. If full, the tank will last 60 days during a drought. (By comparison, a family of four can use between 7,000 and 8,000 gallons of water in a month.)

Flushing and filling toilets consumes the greatest amount of water in a building, according to Smith. Waterless, composting toilets replace standard toilets in the Living Learning Center.

The center has red cedar siding, cut from the surrounding woods. Cedar is an invasive wood in the area and would have been removed anyway. "To make sure we were minimizing the effects of the wood we were taking, all of the other wood (except for the maple that is also an invasive species) is from trees that were windblown. It's wood that would have rotted anyway," Smith said. The windblown wood includes black walnut and ash.

The only wood that didn't come from the Tyson Research Center's land is the structural wood. It came from Pocahontas, Ark., some 200 miles away.


The architects and contractors found the challenge, well, challenging. "We found out the hard way that you can't just go to Lowe's and get what you needed," said Neal Schaffer, project manager. For instance, a rain chain was needed to channel rainwater from the gutter on the flat roof to the rain barrel on the ground below. The team could find only chain made in China. In the end, they commissioned a local artisan to craft one.

Many materials were reclaimed items, such as locks from an old Washington University dormitory and old doors purchased from the City Museum.

"One of the other important requirements of the living building challenge is that the building really fits in with its surroundings," Smith said. "It's the difference between having a building to shield people from the environment and having a building where people feel like they're part of the environment."

In addition to meeting the rigid standards for construction and ecological conservation, a Living Building needs to be used for educational purposes, including environmental design. The center has classrooms, a seminar room for meetings and presentations, multi-purpose laboratory space and a computer laboratory.

Among the first people to use the new Living Learning Center will be 18 St. Louis-area high school students in a "near-peer mentoring experience," Smith said. The high school students will work closely with Washington University students and faculty in biological and ecological research. The summer program is sponsored by the Missouri Botanical Garden's Shaw Nature Reserve and funded by the National Science Foundation.

"When you get down to the nuts and bolts, it's such an amazingly complex project and it's really come together beautifully," Smith said.

Sarah Scully, a student at the University of Missouri, is an intern with the Beacon.