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.

IMG_20151230_111904041 (1)

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.


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.


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.

Planting a bioswale, part 1

Walls are going up.
Walls are going up.
Septic system is nearly complete.
Septic system is nearly complete.

Amazing Space is progressing quickly, both above ground and underground. Three of the bioswales are complete. Finishing them early allows us to protect them with silt fence immediately and re-establish permanent native prairie in the same season they were initially disturbed. We started dormant seeding already to provide the seeds a natural cold, wet stratification and good soil contact for spring germination.

Planting the bioswale with a seed and sand mixture.
Planting the bioswale with a seed and sand mixture.

In a few days, the more traditional annual oat cover crop will be planted. If these warmer temperatures hold, they should establish roots yet this fall to protect the soil, and they will die back over the winter. The site will also be mulched, to protect the bare soil.

Prairie seed is expensive, and local seed is the best, so we have been busy collecting. Paper bags are better, but we didn't have any on hand when this culver's root presented itself.
Prairie seed is expensive, and local seed is the best, so we have been busy collecting. Paper bags are better than plastic, but we didn’t have any on hand when this Veronicastrum virginicum presented itself.

Because these are bioswales, they are designed to move water through them. While it will be a lot of water, it won’t be standing and puddling. The species we plant need to be able to withstand drought far more than they need to be able to withstand flooding. For this first round of planting, we used: common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa*), white wild indigo (Baptisia alba), river oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), cream gentian (Gentiana flavida), sweet pearly everlasting (Pseudognaphalium obtrusifolium), grey coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), wild rose (Rosa arkansana), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), late horse gentian (Triosteum perfoliatum), culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum),  purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), and narrow-leaved coneflower (Echinacea augustifolia).

wild coffee
Triosteum perfoliatum

As fall harvesting continues, so will the number of species we plant. For species that we don’t have a lot of already on-site, such as white prairie clover (Dalea candida) and rough blazing star (Liatris aspera),  we will purchase. Due to the support of Rockwell Green Communities, we also have a number of established plants started in the Butterfly Hoop House to transplant.

Butterfly weed ready for transplant.
 Asclepias tuberosa ready for replanting outside.

*It’s worth learning the Latin. I recently had a great conversation with a volunteer interested in helping us establish more pleurisy root on the property. Never having heard of pleurisy root, I had to do a bit of research to determine if pleurisy root was native (it is) and if it fit within our land management plan (critical to the plan, in fact).  I was also initially introduced to Triosteum perfoliatum as wild coffee, no Latin provided. I had to key that out in a guide book to find its Latin name, because what most people call wild coffee isn’t native here…

A stable foundation

A significant part of what goes into a sustainable building will never be seen after it is installed. People use the “good foundation” analogy a lot for everything from business practices to personal relationships. In terms of real structures…a good foundation starts with a trench.IMG_20150915_081423486

Ultimately, the building will stand on this spread footing. Ryan Construction reuses the wood for the footing on multiple projects, until it eventually disintegrates. All wood from this project that is damaged or cannot be reused will be recycled. As it is not green treated, it can be ground and used for mulch in a variety of applications.


Throughout construction, independent inspectors will be verifying and testing everything. At this stage of the project, those inspections are verifying that the concrete is structurally sound and that the rebar is placed correctly.


The foundation wallforms, laid out here and ready to be placed, are also reused on multiple projects. The orange toppers on the rebar protect workers from hurting themselves on the spikes.


The pump truck, in the background, allows the concrete to efficiently be poured into the relatively narrow wall form, and minimizes spillage and waste.


The foundation wall is done!

Lindsey and Andrea on the wall

Water on a Construction Site

Infrastructure in general, and parking lots in particular, are notorious for causing water problems. During a rain storm, a variety of factors coalesce to devastate local waterways. The rain water picks up contaminants, such as spilled oil and gasoline, and carries them into the environment, be it neighboring vegetation or rivers.

Rainwater is frequently channeled off of the surface through piping. This creates fast moving, focused torrents of water that erode the surrounding soil, carrying silt into the rivers and creeks. Cloudy water makes it impossible for some fish and other wildlife to live.

The Indian Creek Nature Center is taking a number of steps to decrease those problems on its new site. The goal is to keep 100 percent of any runoff on its own property-even during construction. Areas were excavated to temporarily hold any rainwater during the project. We had five inches of rain last week, and the dirty water stayed where it belonged.


For the parking lot, the “net zero water” started with a complex underground design. The entire parking lot will be filled with large, clean rock that has significant void space. This allows a lot of water to stay directly under the parking lot, and the contaminants-whether its leaking oil or dirt from tires-to settle out before the water moves on.

IMG_20150915_082730459On top of the rock, the driveway will be concrete and the parking spaces will be permeable pavers that allow the water to drain down, not off. Below are the individual cells, or series of underground ponds that hold and slow the water, taking shape.


Ultimately, any extra water will make its way into bioswales, where it will support native plants and can infiltrate back into the soil as clean, cool water.

Indian Creek Nature Center’s Living Building Challenge

When I think about nature, the impact it has on me, and the relationship I have with it, I tend to think about the joy of being in nature, and that all-encompassing sensory experience that we can only barely begin to understand. But I suspect, if nature were to think about me, the relationship is less positive. I drive on paved roads; I put things in the landfill that will never decompose; some of the products I use leach toxins into the water; and, I predominantly burn coal for my electricity. Now, I also work full-time to care for the environment, I am making great improvements in the products I choose, and I am conscientious about my energy use. But that doesn’t change that homo sapiens are by far the most ecologically invasive, permanently destructive species on the planet-and I am part of that problem.

The solutions are often neither obvious or easy.  So I am thrilled to be part of Indian Creek Nature Center’s new construction project that is rising to meet the standards set by the International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge. Not obvious and not easy (and my posts are likely to be far less frequent). But being on the leading edge of the green construction revolution will help us-all of us-live in better harmony with the environment and sustainably care for our natural resources.