The Living Bulding Challenge Reflected in Quaterfield Elementry School

The Future of Sustainable Architecture

Reflecting the Living Building Challenge Imperatives of Passive Design in Quarterfield Elementary School Retrofit Proposal

Three Extra Photographs:

Climbing out of the all-terrain Toyota Highlander, I was met by a shock of sweltering stagnant air as my feet landed on the cracking earth. A humid breeze would blow here and there, giving the people of Mali a moment when the vibrant sun’s heat didn’t feel so oppressive. This is real Africa, which finds no visitors. There are no safari parks or other tourist areas where the world congregates to caper about and spend money. Standing behind their mothers, curious children stare and point at me. “Tubabou!” they shout in their native tongue. “White man!”

I had just arrived in the small village of Kenieroba for the third time. Before me stood my father’s malaria clinic, an open concrete structure filled with quiet children under a corrugated metal roof. At the entrance, a tattered bike drooped forlornly in its corner. Even with its crooked wheel, missing pedal and lack of brakes, this contraption had taken me far in previous years. After packing my bag, I biked along the dirt path through the village. My first stop?  The woodcutter’s shack.

The previous year I photographed the people of Kenieroba, promising to return with prints for each individual in them. Nearly falling off the bike while coming to a stop, I was greeted by my friends, a couple of men sawing huge chunks of lumber. Dozens of children surrounded me as I sat down in the shade of a baobab tree with my pictures and bags of sweets. From my bulging pockets I passed out “les bonbons américains” to the eager, empty hands. Feeling the world slow down, I glanced around in a paused state of happiness and smiled. The children hugged me from all sides and thanked me in what little French they knew.

While passing out the photos, my fingers soon held a picture of seven men laughing with me. Their sweat dripped from their faces onto ripped clothes and their sun-baked arms wrapped around me. On my first visit to Kenieroba, these men took me through the village and into the fields. Although few words were spoken, silent friendships emerged that day. Recovering from these thoughts, I looked past the crowd of children expecting to see all of them standing there, but some were missing. So I held up the picture, pointing to the missing men.

There is a spellbinding feeling as one quietly stares out the plane’s window, leaving the arid landscape of Mali. It comes from giving candy to crying children being treated for malaria, working with a group of women to harvest food for their families, and eating succulent mangos in a baobab tree. But mostly it comes from holding the extra photos of me and my laughing friends, three of whom passed since my last visit. As in every other Malian village, life goes on in Kenieroba.

The world is a resplendent place and has more than its fair share of troubles. We are slowly creating an environment where soon people, far removed from our modern society, in their cultural bubble, will not only be forced to endure their original problem but, also the problems that arise from the environmental choices we make today and made 50 years ago. Our impacts are no longer local and everyday we stretch more to a global scale. It is of utmost importance that we understand the influence architecture has on creating a world that reflects wellbeing, productivity and overall happiness. Life should not just “have to go on,” it should be filled with opportunities to both sustain and thrive. The time to make an impactful change was yesterday.

The Importance of Sustainability in Architecture:

Most of our global trends are bound inherently by the exponential equation. Dr. Albert A. Bartlett, 1981 Robert A. Millikan Award Winner, once said that “the greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” It's easy to look past this quote but, fully understanding its meaning imposes a revelation of extreme magnitude and concern. A 6.5-7.5% growth yearly may seem like a low rate of change, but mathematics has the ability to surprise. A quantity growing at 7% yearly has a doubling time of a decade.

n = (ln2)/[1+(r/100)]

where “n” is equal to the doubling time (years) and “r” is the growth rate (percent per year)

The equation can be approximated by

n = 70/r

Unfortunately our world energy needs average out to that 7% growth per year. This means the amount of used energy each decade is greater than the total amount of all the preceding decades, combined. If we cannot devise new ways of energy use and reduction, we soon won’t be able to sustain our ways of life. There is a unique challenge when linking sustainability to architecture in that buildings consume a tremendous amount of energy; about half of the annual energy consumption and emissions specifically in the United States. With our built environment growing at such a rapid pace, Architects have been gifted with the ability to bring trans-formative change. With US Building Stock increasing by 3 billion square feet annually, it is imperative that sustainability becomes mainstream. So where are we now?


The State of Net Zero Architecture:

The highest sustainability rank that a building can achieve is Net Zero. This means that the building or structure relies completely on exceptional energy conservation, on-site renewable generation and material efficiency to meet all of its heating, cooling and electricity needs. The term Net Zero is broken into two major categories, Net Zero Impact and Net Zero Energy; where the former refers to a holistically embodied site and the latter where the building's yearly assessed energy production is in equilibrium with its energy intake. With very few of these structures in existence, building a Net Zero building is by no means an easy task. Currently, there are many challenges to overcome when designing a hyper efficient building from lack of efficient technology to political restrictions. On the positive note, much of these obstacles are relatively easily to overcome given the drive to make the change.

We are entering a world of peak oil, peak water, peak phosphorus; a world that is "globally interconnected yet ecologically impoverished". A world with seven billion people and counting. A world where every single major ecological system is in decline and declining exponentially. A world where global temperature increase means shifting rainfall distributions, acidified oceans, and potentially catastrophic sea-level rise. We must remake our cities, towns, neighborhoods, homes, offices and all of the infrastructure spaces in between. This part of the reinvention of our relationship with the world is imperative to preserving it. The future of Architecture will rest in our ability to not create from scratch but, to refine and re-polish the existing built environment. There is still much value in existing structures and by not demolishing these buildings to just start over, we are able to use the funds and resources to enhance the experience. Creating structures that have impact both environmentally and psychologically is the next step. As the world becomes more urbanized and people are spending a majority of their day in buildings, we will need to rebuild the older infrastructure to take care of us.

We are struggling to create architecture that is cable of sustaining us yet there is one organization, The Living Building Challenge, that aims to push us one step even further in creating a built environment that thrives, paving the way towards a vibrant future with a Net Positive infrastructure. Going way beyond a green building, there is a holistic approach in Net Positive design where the materials and structure are tracked for their entire lifetimes all while putting people first in the design process. These are important concepts to think about when determining the future of Quarterfield Elementary.


Quarterfield Elementary School:

This semester I am taking a seminar/project based learning class, ARCH418A, looking at Zero Energy and Zero Impact Building Design in relation to Quarterfield Elementary School in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Over 50 years old, Quarterfield Elementary School is next in line for a public school renovation. Currently, the school has many problems in regard to energy use. The building's enclosure system is poorly insulated with single paned glass, the lack of efficient cavity walls with thin walls and roof, and all around low "R" value materials for both the walls and the roof. Due to the poor insulation, the indoor environment is in need of improvement with measurements for indoor air, temperature and lighting fluctuating and not consistent. With information from high performance building design, simulations and life cycle analysis, we as a class are tasked with the opportunity to submit a proposal determining the approach for re-evaluation of the site and produce a set of design strategies, recommendations and methodologies to move forwards with. Our first main decision is determining whether it would be most efficient from both an economical and environmental perspective to demolish the existing school or to retrofit it. In my opinion, while it's easy to promote the demolition of Quarterfield, I believe that we should move forward with a plan to retrofit the existing structure under the principles of the Living Building Challenge. Given the well built but, not well insulated construction of the site, I see a tremendous benefit to re-purpose the money that would be use in the demolition and use it to provide an enhanced education experience on top of the standard energy efficiency solutions. This is the role of the modern architect, where we are able to celebrate the existing moments and ensure an increased quality of the renovated construction, quality of resources and quality of life.


The Living Building Challenge Vs. LEED Rating System:

The Living Building Challenge was created by the Living Future Institute. This program sets goals for a designer or architect to re-imagine a world of living and interconnected structures. The Living Future Institute imagines a world where by building a diverse environment with quality placemaking, we will be able to create spaces that people value and respect. As with prized possessions, communities would be more likely to be proud of their environment leading to an increase in their overall health, productivity and happiness. The challenge mandates that design professionals, contractors and building owners must strive to create a foundation for a sustainable future. Politician and government officials are urged to remove barriers to systemic change and realign incentives and marketing signals to protect the health, safety and welfare of people and all beings. Everyone needs to reconcile the built environment with the natural world to create greater biodiversity, resilience and opportunities for life with every adaptation and development.

Unlike the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED Rating System, the most popular building rating system in the world, there are no compromises in the Living Building Challenge. LEED is a point system where based on building performance and other metrics, a total amount of acquired points can be determined to get a LEED “score.”  While there are many benefits of using the LEED system and they have created a dedicated community passionate about creating an interconnected, resilient world, there are many loopholes than can be exploited. While we run on an economy that is driven by profits, sustainability is not a joke and ideally should not be a choice depending on available funds. While other rating systems like CASBEE in Japan have included a weighting system to better assess building performance, there is a “go big or go home” mentality that the Living Building Challenge embodies that I respect. You either meet the criteria or don’t. The Living Building Challenge is not perfect but, it represents reaching beyond the stars, different from any other program out there to imagine a world that respects our place among everything else. With our needs doubling every ten years, incremental change is nowhere close to viable. With my crazy background getting into Architecture and future prospects, the Living Building Challenge resonates deeply with me.

Overall, the goal of the Living Building Challenge is simple, clear and straightforward. It is to make the world work for all of humanity in the shortest time frame possible through global connection and cooperation without ecological offense or disadvantage to anyone. The challenge makes us think of sustainability at the highest level possible where every single act of design and construction can be an opportunity to positively impact the greater community. Regardless of size or location, there is a framework for design, construction, and the symbiotic relationship between people and all aspects of the community.

There are only two rules that bind this agreement and provide the certifications necessary to become a “Living Building.” First, all the rules and guidelines set by the challenge are mandatory. Project success is based on all parties meeting all the imperatives. Secondly, the certification can not be granted to a modeled or anticipated product and is dependent on a built finished product. Projects must be operational for an entire year before being evaluated and assessed. While holding Quarterfield Elementary up to the Living Building Challenge standards would be a tough task and probably not feasible for the time frame and county budget, there are a lot of ideas we can use as motivation for our retrofit proposal.


The Seven Petals:

The Living Building Challenge highlights seven mandatory categories as indicators for creating a successful regenerative environment. These categories are metaphorically illustrated as petals on a flower, the Living Building Challenge’s Symbol for the ideal built environment. These “petals” are important to touch on when determining what we could be able to accomplish with Quarterfield Elementary. The retrofit should not just be focused on lowering energy usage. What if every single action in design and renovation made the learning environment stronger, creating a better place for students to be able to express their ideas and thrive in a building that looks after their well being?

Place Petal - The intent of this petal is to restore a healthy interrelationship with nature. Exploring the limits of growth, urban agriculture, habitat exchange and human powered living. When thinking about the Quarterfield Elementary School retrofit, it is important to consider the structure’s relationship with the students. There are many design strategies like open classrooms and common areas that would create a collaborative yet independent community of students that would grow up to value a sense of place.

Water Petal - The intent of this petal is to create developments that operate within water balance of a given region and climate. Looking at net positive water usage with the site and keeping its surroundings in mind. While this is not the primary concern of our project, it would definitely be remiss if ignore the possibility of a future water collection and filtration system. The school already has the perfect floor plan for a butterfly styled roof able to collect water and store it centrally where many of the water using facilities are located.

Energy Petal - The goal of the Energy petal is to create or manipulate a structure that relies only on solar income and other regenerative energy systems. Focusing on net positive energy where at least 105% of the project's energy needs are met yearly and providing on-site energy storage for resiliency. Most of our project is focused on this aspect of developing a set of strategies to lower the amount of energy needed for the building to function. The idea is to use passive systems to lower the building’s overall active power draw. Most of these passive systems are in relation to lighting design, heat management and material properties rather than efficient forms of active energy systems. From ideas of climate responsive facades, cavity walls, and ventilation systems, the design of these systems would reduce the overall building’s need for energy making it possible for a smaller solar array to put the energy needs in equilibrium.

Health and Happiness - As one of the most important petals in my opinion and also a life goal of mine, the main intention of this petal is to create environments that optimize physical and psychological health along with well being. Instead of occasionally treating sickness, what if buildings had the ability to consistently treat wellness? Promoting a civilized environment with healthy interiors featuring biophilic reactions, natural lighting and clean air circulation is a task we cannot overlook when designing a new Quarterfield.

Materials - The intent of this petal is to make sure that we are endorsing products that are safe for all beings throughout time. We need to control/limit our red list usage and access the impacts it has on our embodied carbon footprint. With a responsible industry and enforcing these concepts in our Quarterfield redesign, we have a chance for net positive waste. This will allow for recycling or redistribution of materials 50 years down the road when the school will be retrofitted again. With children spending a good portion of their day in the school, safe and natural materials is a must.

Equity - A tough assessment to measure, the intent of this petal is to support a just and equitable world with human scale and human places and provide access to nature and structures all while investing in just organizations. Similar to providing a sense of community, Quarterfield will need to provide a healthy, diverse community that encourages multiple functions like being a community center after school hours and being organized in such a way that protects the health of people and the environment. The underlying mentality that we can understand from this petal is to use Quarterfield as a springboard to emphasizing a society that embraces all sectors of humanity and pushes for a civilization/neighborhood in the best position to make decisions that protect and restore the natural environment. Quarterfield could be a location that initiates natural projects that work to sustains all of us. Rather than just following the plans for a prototype school, we can go one step further to provide the necessary engaging environment to create a prototype community.

Beauty - Easily the most controversial, this petal in focused on celebrating and emphasizing  a design that uplifts the human spirit, stressing inspiration and education. We need to strive to create not just a school, but a place where students and faculty grow up in an environment that naturally brings positivity, enhances productivity and most of all, inspires the younger generation to never settle. There is always one more step to take.


Overall, this post specifically concentrates on the Living Building Challenge (LBC) and how it strives to create a "socially just, culturally rich, ecologically restorative" environment for us to inhabit. As part of a class working on a proposal deciding the future of Quaterfield Elementary School and how to increase the building's energy efficiency, It is important that we look toward the Living Building Challenge for guidance when thinking holistically about the site both from the perspective of Net Zero Energy and the harder, Net Zero Impact. While there are many limitations that hold such designs back, there is still hope that someday, the importance of not just sustainability but resilience is noted. For this project, instead of having the mentality of what is "less bad' we need to think about what "good" looks like. For this project, by not demolishing the school, the resources and budget we save can be invested into the students health and education. For this project, we are not only architects, we are embodying the elements of being a parent, redesigning a school to inspire the next generation of students to never settle for anything but the absolute best. Sustainability is global, and our redesign of Quarterfield Elementary School will be one step closer to a vibrant environment. From the students who will eventually step foot into the new Quarterfield Elementary School to the children in Mali where life just goes on, everyone deserves a clean and resilient world. I am overjoyed to be apart of this class working on a real project with a lifetime impact.