“Think about what we say when we say, ‘Throw it away.’ Where is the ‘away?’ The whole notion of throwing something away implies, ‘I don’t care where away is. It’s not my problem. It’s someone else’s problem.’”
Shan Arora is standing in the light-filled entrance of the Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design, which was built to actually produce more energy than it consumes. Arora is the building’s director, and he’s just getting warmed up. “Until there’s a market mechanism that doesn’t make it someone else’s problem,” he’s saying, “there’s a moral imperative to make sure it’s not someone else’s problem.”
Arora is talking about one thing in particular—the debris generated by construction and demolition projects nationwide, which in 2017 totaled 569 million tons, and the fact that the construction of the Kendeda building added barely any to that total—but he also could be speaking about something bigger. Which is this: We in America, we in virtually every industrialized nation on Earth, couldn’t be more aware of the existential threat that global warming poses to our children and their children, but we are so overwhelmed at the scope of the problem that we feel powerless, and so we change almost nothing. And with our dollars, and from our politicians, we demand almost nothing.
And so the Kendeda building—which opened last fall and is named for the philanthropy founded by Diana Blank, who funded its $30 million construction and operation on the Georgia Tech campus—is both a laboratory for ecosustainability but also a glimpse at a possible future that feels something like empowerment. Maybe even hope.
Which brings us back to the construction waste. The ceiling is made of alternating 2x4s and 2x6s nailed together (from a sustainable forest in Alabama, and from 25,000 feet recovered from demolished movie sets) and the shorn ends were not discarded but glued together to form the building’s stairs. This is one example of approximately 5,302 (only a slight exaggeration) in which the Kendeda building is doing things differently in its quest to become certified as a “living” building. From collecting rainwater in a 50,000-gallon cistern to generating electricity from the solar panels atop the roof, to composting human waste in a kind of sawdust-filled litterbox, to gathering honey from the beehives on the upper deck, the Kendeda building is an elaborate proof of concept that we have the knowhow (provided there’s the will and the money) to construct buildings that are not in conflict with the earth but in harmony with it. Or, as Diana Blank has put it, a building that will do “real good rather than just less harm.”
But ultimately, as Arora points out, the “living” part of the Kendeda building will be best reflected by the students who take classes there. “Right here, kids are going to have conversations, and those ideas are going to crosspollinate,” Arora says. “And the solution to the problems we face? It’s going to be from right here.”
• The Living Building Challenge, an international green-building certification program, is inspired by the flower. “They give more in the form of pollen, seeds, and then they disappear, leaving no trace that they’d ever been here except for more life,” Arora explains. To be certified, the Kendeda building must meet, over 12 months, criteria in seven areas: beauty, place, equity, water, energy, materials, and health.
• The 917 photovoltaic panels on the roof will generate 455 megawatt-hours a year, while the building itself will consume only around 330. Nearby buildings will use its excess energy.
• The Living Building Challenge requires that 20 percent of the site be devoted to urban agriculture. A roof deck will contain a pollinator garden, as well as beehives.
• Triple-pane windows keep out the winter cold, and automated blinds on the west-facing windows reduce the heat gain in summer The windows are glazed with a dot matrix pattern to reduce bird collisions.
• The solar panels are angled to direct rainwater into gutters, which flow into a 50,000-gallon cistern in the basement. Some of it is treated and reused as drinking water, the rest as irrigation.
• Back there, around that corner? Those are the elevators. “They’re hard to find on purpose,” Arora says. “We want people to use the stairs.” But what is front and center? The ramp. “It’s not an accident. The equity petal [of the Living Building challenge] forces us to think, ‘What does equity in the built environment mean?’”
• Looking for chillers on the roof? You won’t find any. Instead, the building is cooled by Big Ass fans (that’s the brand name) and by the hot or cold water flowing through pipes within the concrete floors, which warm or cool the air above them.
• Making cement for concrete produces up to 8 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. While the Kendeda building floors are concrete—the humidity and termites of the South rule out a wood foundation—the structure remains primarily wood and recycled brick. The concrete that is here contains captured CO2 from smokestacks. The CO2 was liquified and injected during the mixing. Instead of going into the atmosphere, it’s sealed within the floor.
• The Red List. These are ingredients that a “living building” must avoid in the materials that go into its construction. Some are obvious (asbestos, volatile organic compounds, heavy metals) but others may surprise you. The “VC” in PVC pipes, a staple of many construction projects, stands for vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen. And when PVC is thrown in a dump, it leaches dioxins into the soil. There is no safe level of exposure to dioxins. The Kendeda building instead uses HDPE, which has the added benefit of being flexible.
• The ceiling is built of panels constructed with alternating 2x4s and 2x6s. Besides its visual appeal, the uneven surface eliminates echo. The panels were built by participants in Georgia Works!, which trains formerly homeless people.
• Nature provides most of the daytime lighting but is augmented by LED lights. Sensors automatically detect the level of light needed and turn themselves off. Electrical outlets, meanwhile, can be hard to find—by design.
• Countertops were constructed from trees that had fallen down on the Georgia Tech campus. And the stairs (below) were built using shorn ends from the ceiling panels. Waste not, want not.
• The Kendeda building would be the 25th certified “living building” on the planet. To be certified, it must first meet a set of rigorous benchmarks over the course of 12 months.
• While it’s connected to municipal water and sewer, the Kendeda building is designed to never need them. The waste produced here is dealt with here. So, a lot of attention is paid to toilets. “The most efficient commercial toilet you can buy right now uses a gallon per flush,” Arora says. “Our toilet uses a tablespoon.” In fact, there is no flushing. Gravity pushes down a slow but steady mass of foam, which is activated by motion detectors.
• The tile in the bathroom is reclaimed from a leaky, century-old slate roof atop the Georgia Tech alumni house. “In a normal construction process, this would have been thrown away,” Arora says. “Just think about all the perfectly good stuff we throw away.”
• What goes down the toilet ends up here (above). “It’s a high-tech building, but this is low-tech,” Arora says. “It’s basically an indoor outhouse.” Within the bins are pine shavings and sawdust, which absorb the moisture of the waste. (And no, this room doesn’t smell.)
This article appears in our February 2020 issue.