How a Seattle school became the region’s first ‘Living Building’

Via Puget Sound Business Journal, May 10, 2013

When it rains hard, a stream of water gushes through a Seattle elementary classroom.

Teachers don’t mind. Nor do the students, who had a hand in designing the classroom, which is in the West Coast’s first certified “Living Building” at Bertschi School on Capitol Hill.

The water runs off the building’s roof, through a covered channel in the classroom, and into a cistern. The water is used to irrigate plants and flush the building’s compostable toilet.

It’s part of the Living Building Challenge, which requires buildings to capture and treat water. Among other things, Living Buildings also have to generate all of their own energy.

This spring, the opening of another Capitol Hill building, the much larger Bullitt Center, also designed to be a Living Building, overshadowed the Bertschi’s accomplishment of actually being certified. A building must be open for a year and pass an independent audit before it can be certified as “Living.”

At Bertschi, a private school with 235 students from pre-kindergarten through grade five, certification of the science wing almost didn’t’t happen. The nearly 3,400-square-foot building opened in early 2011, and students realized last spring that the building wasn’t’t producing enough energy.

“The flags went up and we had a good discussion about energy use, and [how] we would have to change,” said Brigitte Bertschi, head of the 37-year-old school at 2227 10th Ave. E.

Fifth graders, who discovered the energy shortcoming, shared their findings with fourth graders, who are now in charge of energy monitoring. Working with consultants, the students and school officials decided to buy more solar panels.

“The minute school was out, we installed those,” Bertschi said. It worked. “We had such a great summer last summer and we created tons of energy.”

And Bertschi Living Building Science Wing was certified, becoming the world’s fourth fully certified Living Building.

The science wing cost $935,000, which is high for a building of its size. Bertschi, the school’s head, said the value comes from the educational opportunities, not just for students but others.

Students presented a program with architects about the project at Living Building Future Conference in Vancouver, B.C. “They are totally fluent [about] what the building does and why we have done it,” Bertschi said of the presenters. The students “really are the stewards” for the building.

The same conference will be in Seattle next week, and up to 50 people have signed up to tour the science wing.

“We have tours almost every week,” said Bertschi, who added people come from around the world to see the school, which designed the wing with the Restorative Design Collective, a multi-disciplinary team that Seattle-based KMD Architects led. Members of the collective contributed their design services pro bono.

KMD’s Stacy Smedley, co-founder of the collective, said the building is a story of a group of people who took a leap of faith and ended with a real-life example of what’s possible.

“It’s being a part of something that started as a crazy idea and rather quickly went from ‘what if’ to ‘why not,’” she said.

Living Buildings are part of the Living Building Challenge, a green building certification program of the Living Future Institute.

In addition to generating all of the energy they use and capturing and treating their own water, Living Buildings must be built with non-toxic materials that come from no more than 2,000 kilometers — or 1,240 miles — from the job site.

The Seattle office of Skanska USA, a builder and developer, was in charge of sourcing the materials.

In addition to the solar panels and cistern, the science wing has an “ethnobotanical garden,” which serves as an outdoor classroom. With indigenous plants, students learn about native culture and history. They also use berries to make paint dyes and turn grasses into paint brushes. Food from the garden teaches students about organic farming.

Building the West Coast’s first certified Living Building entailed “a huge amount of work” and it was “a huge challenge,” Bertschi said, “but it was worth every bit of it.”