The Challenges of Creating a Living Building

At a recent Amazing Space presentation, a guest asked me what was in our contract with our general contractor to ensure that our Living Building Challenge goals are being met, and what the repercussions would be if the challenge wasn’t met.


As the project owner, our priorities are:

  1. Respect and integrate the Living Building Challenge throughout all aspects of the project. Achieve as many imperatives as the design team, construction team, and owner find feasible.
  2. All project team members are focused on quality customer service and high quality interactions.
  3. Nature and respect for the environment is held in the highest regard when making decisions.
  4. Be a true community project, by this community, for this community.IMG_20151208_122322189[1]

The Living Building Challenge provides a comprehensive framework for helping us meet those priorities. Our general contractor, Ryan Companies, and many of the larger subcontractors, were brought on as partners early in the process so they understood and took ownership of the standards set by the LBC. Products were preselected by the design team. We meet weekly, and sometimes daily, to address concerns/issues in a timely manner. There are a number of obvious places that may make it difficult to meet the challenge. A few that we are aware of:

  1. Our specification manual is 2.75” thick and details every single product and material used in the construction process. Given the thousands of materials used, and the need to review every product down to the chemical composition, a “standard” material may have slipped through the cracks (as the project manager, I haven’t read the whole thing yet).
  2. Our budget is limited. As part of this project, we allocated $1.4 million for sustainable and appropriate materials, above and beyond a “standard” construction product. Spending more than that would not be financially prudent, and a key part of organizational sustainability is financial.
  3. The long term performance of the project, from water usage calculations to energy usage calculations, from indoor air quality to annual rainfall, is based on estimated projections. They have been independently looked at, tested, and modeled, but they are just projections for a unique, ultra-sustainable, leading edge building. How the community uses the interactive space and how the weather shifts in the coming years will provide valuable information on how good our models were for the next project.IMG_20151124_103055115[1]

Ultimately, we would like the word “standard” to not have to be used when discussing building materials or stormwater management practices. The sustainable thing to do will have become the standard thing to do.  Building practices and material sources aren’t truly sustainable yet. Regardless of whether we meet all twenty imperatives of the Living Building Challenge, the framework set by the challenge and our early adoption will ensure that the building is as integrated and sustainable as possible, and that it will provide a valuable resource for architects, developers, contractors, and others for years into the future.

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Welcoming 2016

Snow has finally arrived. It has transformed the woods into a magical place full of wonder, and on a more practical note, I haven’t seen a tick in a few days. We’ll ring in the New Year quietly in the forest, celebrating the beautiful natural world around us.

The clouds are forming.
Bena Brook starts to freeze over.
Bena Brook starts to freeze over.
Windblown snow creates delicate patterns on downed trees.
Windblown snow creates delicate patterns on downed trees.



Usually I celebrate full moons, eclipses, solstices, and anything else I can think of outside walking with friends, followed by a little fire.

While the browns and greys of tree bark and leaf litter dominate the woodland winterscape, some of the smaller plants stay green all winter in the woods.
While the browns and greys of tree bark and leaf litter dominate the woodland winterscape, some of the smaller plants stay green all winter in the woods.

This season has been unusually hectic between Amazing Space (of which I love every moment, it just takes a lot of moments), the construction of the natural amphitheater, preparing the apiary for 2016, and everything else I normally do.

I've never known it to flood in December before. It is usually a light precipitation month for us, and the precipitation is usually in the form of snow, not rain. But Wood Duck Way and the silver maples in the floodplain are under water, as the Red Cedar River and Indian Creek spill over their banks.
I’ve never known it to flood in December before. It is usually a light precipitation month for us, and the precipitation is usually in the form of snow, not rain. But Wood Duck Way and the silver maples in the floodplain are under water, as the Red Cedar River and Indian Creek spill over their banks.

For this winter solstice, I opted to take a break and enjoy waldeinsamkeit. It literally translates into woodland solitude, and I find it is a beautiful way to connect with myself, and with the natural world around me. I actually had to visit waldeinsamkeit twice, once during the day and once after dark on the solstice. The warm temperatures, moist air, and clouds skittering across the moon were beckoning me back outside. Since English is based on German, why we didn’t we keep that word?

The unseasonably warm winter and frequent rains are supporting a prolonged mushroom season in the woods.



Structural Insulated Panels

Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) have arrived.

IMG_20151223_120718571[1]These panels go under the roof to provide insulation. The panels consist of expanded polystyrene, sandwiched between 2 sheets of oriented strand board.

IMG_20151223_120702840[1] By  prefabricated the panels offsite, they are made efficiently to the exact dimensions they need to be for installation.

IMG_20151223_095553108[1]This allows Ryan Companies to install them efficiently and minimizes waste. Combined with the standing-seam metal roof, they will provide an insulating R-value of 30.


What’s in the Wood?

The trusses of Amazing Space are going up.

Not only does that move us closer to being enclosed before cold weather, but it is a visible reminder that the environmental impacts of this project extend far beyond the building itself. Each beam and board purchased for the project meets high environmental, sustainable, and socially responsible standards set by the Forest Stewardship Council.


Once upon a time, the forests of the United States were clear cut for their lumber. Even before the invention of the chainsaw, companies would cut all of the trees out of an area and then move on to the next area. Ecological communities were devastated and mudslides were common. Modern equipment accelerated both the speed of the destruction and the areas that could be reached for logging. The old growth forests are essentially gone across the United States. Old growth forests are disappearing worldwide as developing countries cut and burn their forests to provide a place to grow annual agriculture crops or graze cattle, or cut their trees for milling without replanting.


The Forest Stewardship Council was founded in 1993 to provide a set of voluntary standards for timber companies to follow. This allowed consumers purchasing the wood to make an informed choice in how their lumber is produced, and created the market for sustainable wood.


When we made the decision to only purchase FSC wood, a requirement set by the Living Building Challenge, we were concerned about what that would cost. We were pleasantly surprised that the premium for sustainably harvested, certified lumber products has dropped significantly, and even with a wood frame building, quite affordable. What was more challenging was finding suppliers of FSC wood and FSC wood products. There is high demand for certified products, and most of the timber industry in the United States now practices some level of sustainable harvesting, as part of a sound business model. Replanting trees, for example, ensures a future for the industry.

There are 10 principles that must be met to receive the Forest Stewardship Council certification, ranging from protecting the rights of indigenous people to monitoring forests and replanting efforts over the long-term. The principles create a comprehensive, holistic approach to sustainably incorporate wood products into our lives.

A few of the Forest Stewardship Council’s Principles:

Principle #4: Community Relations and Worker’s Rights – Forest management operations shall maintain or enhance the long-term social and economic well-being of forest workers and local communities.

Principle #5: Benefits From the Forest: Forest management operations shall encourage the efficient use of the forest’s multiple products and services to ensure economic viability and a wide range of environmental and social benefits.

Principle #6: Environmental Impact: Forest management shall conserve biological diversity and its associated values, water resources, soils, and unique and fragile ecosystems and landscapes, and, by so doing, maintain the ecological functions and the integrity of the forest.

Bringing the Beauty of Nature Inside

Working in a 1932 dairy barn, the boundary a modern structure typically provides between us and the environment is…fuzzy. Mice live in the walls. Fox snakes shelter on the silo stairs and bask in offices. Leaves blow in through open doors and insects sneak in through open windows. When our offices and programs move into Amazing Space next year, maintaining a close connection with nature while taking advantage of things like climate control and screens on windows, is challenging.

In Amazing Space we want to ensure guests are still connecting with nature, without subjecting them to water dripping on their heads and wasps landing on their papers. We also want to make sure we take full advantage of the additional space the new building provides us. Enter…the inside creek. It’s not a real creek. A real creek with flowing water was discussed early on during brainstorming, but we decided it would cause many of the same complications we experience in our existing building, as well as being unsustainable financially to maintain.IMG_20151118_113553010

A replica creek, on the other hand, could provide a marvelous guest experience on a number of levels. First, by filling it with models of the plants and animals that live in the Iowa waterways but our seldom seen, guests would learn more about the creek outside and make their nature experiences more meaningful. Second, the soft curves of the creek break up the angular building corners and hard planes of construction, creating a far more natural feel. Third, having the model underground provides a unique interactive element for all guests, without inhibiting people moving freely through the building during large events.IMG_20151120_092747440

Casting the creek directly into the floor was a challenge for both the designers and the contractors-most concrete and construction equipment is designed for right angles, but the team rose to the occasion magnificently. Eventually, the plywood will be replaced with glass, the void underneath filled with rocks and dirt, replica crayfish and mussels. In the meantime, the gentle curves of the “creek” running through the building remind everyone working on the site that this unique project is ultimately for the environment.


Art in Nature


At our last fire, we decided to make some drawing charcoal. We took dried willow twigs and stripped the bark (stripping the bark should really be done when the willow is green, because it peels very easily then) to make a soft charcoal, and we split some thin strips of cedar to make hard charcoal. Each stick was about 8 inches long.


We wrapped them tightly in tinfoil. This allows the gas to escape, but prevents oxygen from getting into the sticks and actually combusting them. We tucked them down in the coals, let them sit for an hour and a half, and then fished them back out. 

A groundnut blossom
A yellow lady slipper orchid blossom

With everything outside reduced to greys and browns, and the darkness setting in so early, drawing is a great way to experience  and study the wildflowers. Often, the brilliant colors of summer overwhelm me, and I don’t notice the more subtle structure of the flowers themselves. Meanwhile, mother nature has been creating her own artwork.

The wind draws in the snow with little bluestem
The snow melted, the ground is not yet frozen, and the temperatures are vacillating between warm and chilly. We witnessed a rare phenomenon on some goldenrod stalks. Though the stalk is dead, it is wicking moisture out of the ground. The moisture then freezes in the air, creating an iceflower at the base of the plant.

Amazing Space, November 2015

IMG_20151022_124547289Conduit has been run and water piping has been laid.

IMG_20151103_143710940Around the perimeter, both vertical and horizontal insulation (pink) provides a thermal break. During the winter, the insulation prevents cold exterior air from entering the building through the ground. The vapor barrier (yellow) protects the slab from ground moisture.


The rebar provides structural integrity to the concrete, tying it together and adding strength as external forces (tensile strength) pull on it in various directions over time. This will reduce the potential for the concrete to crack in the future.

IMG_20151105_072840967 The floor of the building being created. So much of what has happened to-date has taken place underground and will never be seen. This concrete will be directly experienced every day by guests.