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Upon its completion in two years, the Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design at Georgia Tech is expected to be the most environmentally-advanced building of its form and function in the Southeast. 

At the Higher Ed Facilities Forum, Howard Wertheimer, Institute Architect at Georgia Tech, shared lessons learned thus far in the school’s journey to achieve the rigorous Living Building Challenge 3.1 Certification. Requiring net-positive energy and net-positive water, Living Building Challenge standards go above and beyond even the highest level of LEED. The intent isn’t just to construct and operate a building that does less harm to the environment, but rather one that is actually restorative and gives back to the community.

The ultimate goal, come 2020, is for the 40,000 sq. ft. building to serve as a living laboratory emulated by people around the world.

Setting the Bar High for the Southeast

Even though about a dozen Living Buildings currently exist in the US, the majority are located in the northwest or northeast. Thanks to a $30 million grant from The Kendeda Fund, a private grantmaking foundation, Georgia Tech is trailblazing a movement below the Mason-Dixon to help an entire region learn what’s possible, as well as provide an example that can be replicated in similar environments worldwide.

The building will house classrooms, labs, offices, an auditorium, and collaboration zones, and feature sustainable features such as a green roof and canopy made of solar panels.

“Our desire is to help create an opportunity for replicability; if we can be that pebble in the pond, other schools can apply innovations from this project in the future,” Wertheimer said. “We hope to use ordinary materials in extraordinary ways and demonstrate the viability of a net-positive, urban, and sustainable building.”

Performance Areas

Certification requires actual (not anticipated) performance, and is comprised of seven performance areas: Materials, Site, Water, Energy, Health, Equity, and Beauty. Each area must be measured for 12 consecutive months after completion before receiving certification.


Wertheimer assumed that materials would be a relatively easy facet of certification; it turned out this was not the case. The LBC requires that buildings ban all Red List materials, which are known to be the worst offenders in the construction industry (lead, mercury, phthalates, and beyond).

To rise to the challenge, Georgia Tech is employing many creative techniques. For one, they’re taking advantage of the booming local movie industry to partner with a nonprofit that salvages movie set waste to capture wood for the building.

They also identified a need for an urban wood reuse program to recycle the wood produced by the pruning and felling of trees on campus. “Tree-cycling” goes beyond sustainability to truly connect the building to nature as well as a piece of the campus. Other efforts include salvaging materials like slate from an old roof for restroom wall tile, old joists as stair treads, and granite from the foundation of the deconstruction of a nearby building.

To track resources (and share this knowledge with others), the team is using Portico, a pilot database developed by Google and the Healthy Building Network.


LBC certification requires net positive water, which means that a building must produce more water than it consumes on an annual basis. Excess water may be used by the community, and the building shouldn’t be tied into the municipal water system. The goal is to reduce stormwater runoff and municipal water usage and also recharge the aquifer.

With some of the highest water rates in the country, Georgia Tech decided to work with regenerative design firm BioHabitats to see how to capture and then utilize rain in the building. One issue still being tackled is around making rainwater potable (they are in the midst of working out a policy with the City of Atlanta). The decision was also made to install composting toilets for the first time due to their low energy and water requirement, simplicity to maintain and inexpensive lifecycle cost.


Georgia’s humid climate--and the subsequent need for air-conditioning--makes achieving net-zero a big challenge. The team explored various options: ground source heating and cooling wells, radiant flooring, and photovoltaics.

“We had to develop an EUI and calculate all the plug loads in the building over the year,” Wertheimer shared. “We are targeting 33 kBTU square-foot per year, which is 66% more efficient than the average building of the same size and occupancy.”

The team is still considering the best options for harvesting more energy than it consumes, as even something as simple as operating a coffee cart impacts the building’s performance.


According to Wertheimer, equity is about more than just mobility and ADA; it’s about creating universal access and place for everybody. Achieving equity is key to achieving sustainability, and of course, a greater diversity of people increases innovation for everyone at the table.

“Equity was a big component of our design and ownership conversations,” he said. “We also strive to make investments in just organizations. Being a public university, it’s up to us to lead the innovation in being as equitable as possible.”

Georgia Tech achieved Living Building Challenge 3.1 Certification

Work Groups & Pilots

With such a significant undertaking, Georgia Tech has been forced to rethink their typical approach. First on the checklist was scratching a traditional design competition in favor of an ideas competition.

Three cross-functional teams brought together multiple disciplines, from design, landscape architecture, plumbing, engineering, hydrology, and beyond. For two days, Georgia Tech observed the teams’ collaborative chemistry and problem-solving abilities: the team lead by Lord Aeck Sargent and the Miller Hull Partnership were ultimately chosen as the winners.

The Living Building project team as a whole consists of four separate but connected workstreams, all with distinct goals...

1- Building Performance Management

Goal: Operate the building to LBC standards and engage the campus community to improve building performance.

2- Design & Construction

Goal: Develop a fully certified Living Building.

3- Leverage

Goal: Develop strategies and lead community outreach and education on the project.

4- Academic & Research

Goal: Develop the academic and research focus of the Living Building.

Georgia Tech is also leveraging their existing pool of talent to test concepts on campus before committing to them.

“I cannot emphasize how important pilots have been on taking deep dives into these innovative ideas; projects have been enacted for building level composting, human comfort testing, plug load monitoring, net-positive landscaping and more,” Wertheimer said.

In order to manage expectations and address challenges with cost and schedule, Georgia Tech implemented a 5D platform.  

“Essentially, you embed the 3D BIM model into another program which enables you to perform live cost estimating and scheduling in real time,” Wertheimer explained. “Say you want to change the percent of glass, for example; you can then see the impact on other parts of the cost model.”

In addition, the Facilities Management department is currently working on developing a comprehensive manual to educate the community and assist staff once the building is fully operational.

Campus-Wide Engagement

“It’s really important to us that the building tells a story and serves as a tool for the pedagogy,” Wertheimer said. “In its truest sense, the Living Building Project could be a vehicle for the articulation and advancement of the most ambitious institutional ideas connected to sustainability.”

To help teach the next generation and bring the LBC into the classroom, a Living Building Research Council was created to align the principles of the challenge with academic and research efforts.

Georgia Tech isn’t solely engaging design and architecture students, either. For instance, engineering students worked on a unique urine segregation project where they discovered opportunities to repurpose what is typically a “waste product.” By separating approximately 50% of the urine with creative toilet designs, new fertilizers are created with cleaner water for the gray water system as a result.

Howard Wertheimer, Institute Architect at Georgia Tech

Looking to the Future

Given the unique complexities of the project, things have taken a little longer than expected. Nonetheless, Georgia Tech’s goal is to be fully certified in 2020, which also happens to be the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

“In a few years, people will forget if your project was a little over-budget or a little behind schedule; but metaphorically, if you put the front door in the wrong place, no one will ever forget that,” Wertheimer said. “It’s important to be very deliberate and get things right.”

Wertheimer concluded that the LBC has been much more than “just a building” but rather a movement, and shared his final lessons learned:

  • A Living Building is much more than a building!
  • Campus-wide engagement is critical, especially with Operations and Maintenance staff.
  • Invest in Pilot Projects to see what works (or doesn’t work).
  • It’s complicated...be patient and be deliberate!
  • Commitment is required up and down the organization.
  • You can’t unlearn what you’ve learned...apply this knowledge to all campus projects where appropriate.
  • Be transparent.

For more on innovation in campus facilities, join us at the Higher Ed Facilities Forum, taking place April 7-9, 2019 in Hollywood, FL.

Hannah Chenoweth

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Hannah Chenoweth is a writer for influence group. Passionate about collaborating with thought leaders in real estate, design, construction & facilities management.

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