by Melissa Marsh
“A Tale of Two Futures: The Living Building Challenge” was explored through the Willow School in Bedminster, NJ, designed by Michael Farewell, FAIA, LEED AP, principal, Farewell Architects, and Viridian Future, an Upper West Side townhouse renovation by design and building contracting collaborators Abel B’Hahn, the owner, and Robert Politzer, LEED AP, president and founder of GreenStreet, Inc.
The conversation kicked off with a persuasive introduction by Jennifer Preston, LEED AP BD+C, associate sustainable design director at BKSK Architects, and co-founder of Living Collaborative NYC+NJ. Preston described the pioneering nature that is inherent to the Living Building Challenge and its close relationship with these two projects, one a center for primary education and learning about the surrounding world, the other a private residence (with its own website) doubling as an advocacy platform for the features and contributors to the project. Preston summarized the Challenge as “the uncomfortable and exciting edge of what is possible. Where nothing is optional and everything is mandatory. Not modeled, just actual: site, water, energy, health, materials, equity, and beauty.”
The story of design and development – now 60% complete – was begun by Casey Cullen, LEED AP BD+C, currently completing her MS degree in Urban Sustainability with an Engineering/Environmental Science focus at City College of New York.
The Willow School is a small, independent coeducational day school for students in preschool through eighth grade. The school is self-described as “committed to fostering academic excellence, a passion for learning, and the development of an ethical approach to all relationships – including humanity’s relationship to the natural world, of which it is both a constituent part and a chief steward.” Cullen described the relationship between the educational approach of the school and the importance of demonstrating these values in each element of the building and landscape, from the visual connection between landscape and classrooms, to the visual reflection of local topography in the form of the building.
As Farewell, architect of the Willow School, presented the technical complexity of achieving the Living Building Challenge. The building’s skin is designed to operate much like human skin; breathable but only allowing moisture to pass in one direction, making construction techniques and the avoidance of penetrations critical. It comes as little surprise that we are discovering and innovating with new technologies.
Cullen lamented both the absence of transparency in product content/material specifications, as well as the complexity of reaching agreements with public institutions, especially for reuse of grey water: “Water recycling onsite is one of the hardest things for living buildings,” she said. In both the supply chain and regulatory arenas, there are heroes who help at every turn, and obstructionists who make it a full-time job for those seeking material content clarity. Cullen was thankful that the NJ Department of Environmental Protection “allowed for constructed wetlands” as part of a topo-philic design concept.
Abel B’Hahn, co-owner of the Viridian Future project at West 95th Street in Manhattan, started the conversation about this unique project. He described his journey from a budding informal interest, to a formal education and a growing passion for sustainability and Living Building Challenge features. “Architect and contractor were concerned initially,” he said. “One of the reasons it is called a challenge is that it is exactly that. Part of it is the process – going forward, meeting with others, giving a leg up to those who come after. ” He reiterated Cullen’s comment that water is one of the most difficult issues from a regulatory perspective. “We want to recycle our water. We don’t want to pump rain water across the streets and into the ocean. So that is an important part.” However, the city’s physical and legal infrastructure is ill-prepared to accommodate these approaches.
This clear positioning of the purpose and intent of Viridian Future was aptly followed by the practical development and design-build approach of Robert Politzer and the GreenStreet delivery team. Politzer explained the organic evolution of his own practice, observing that “any green building project has similar characteristics: always an energizing champion. It was always this person that invariably did not have enough money to do what they wanted to do.” Politzer was challenged by the need to “manage time, quality, and price,” but always needing to get more than two out of three. Politzer’s point is that a key aspect of achieving Living Building and other design challenges is really cost management – balancing what is important and most valuable as an investment.
Questions from the audience ranged from the practical – how did Farewell ensure that building skin penetrations were avoided? – to the philosophical – how might the Living Building Challenge be seen as political art intended to expose the systems that prevent better solutions, like a work by Christo and Jeanne-Claude?
n.b. architecture of the B’Hahn-Davis home/Viridan Futures project is credited to Jason Kliwinski of designs4life , but was not part of this program.
Melissa Marsh is a workplace strategy and change management consultant with a passion for social research and architectural education. She is delighted to be celebrating the one-year anniversary of founding Plastarc, Inc. She is a regular contributor to e-Oculus, and can be reached at email@example.com.
Location: Center for Architecture, 11.18.13
Speakers: Michael Farewell, FAIA, LEED AP, Principal, Farewell Architects – Architect – Willow School; Casey Cullen, LEED AP BD+C, Co-Founder, Living Collaborative NYC+NJ – LBC Coordinator – Willow School; Abel B’Hahn, Co-Owner, Viridian Future, Robert Politzer, LEED AP, President, Greenstreet Construction – Contractor – Viridian Future; and Jennifer Preston, LEED AP BD+C, Associate Sustainable Design Director, BKSK Architects, and Co-Founder, Living Collaborative NYC+NJ (moderator)
Organizers: AIANY Committee on the Environment (COTE)