The race for green cred certainly has been around for a while, but don’t think it’s letting up anytime soon. Not in the Pacific Northwest, anyway. As engineering, architecture and construction firms throughout Oregon, Washington and British Columbia work to keep the stereotype as the most sustainable on the continent well in tact (keep in mind, Chicago, of all places, has the most LEED structures), the new wave of top-notch sustainability certainly rests with the Living Building Challenge. 

Trying to knock LEED off its lofty pedestal, firms now pursue Living Building status, showing they know how to integrate sustainable systems into a structure to achieve net-zero usage in nearly every category. Lofty goals, certainly.

Well, look no further than the new Bertschi School’s Science Wing, Seattle’s latest foray into sustainable design and a structure on track as the first certified Living Building in the state.

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The independent elementary school, with a design formed by The Restorative Design Collective led by KMD Architects and built by Skanska USA Building, features all the things we have grown to love about sustainability: an ethno botanical garden (five points if you know what that is), cisterns for rainwater harvesting, a green moss-mat roof, composting toilets (see my very first blog posting about these fun contraptions), natural ventilation, radiant floor heating, living walls to treat grey water, solar panels to produce all of the building’s energy and plenty more. Of course, being a science wing, these will all help the students to learn, or so we hope.

Tours of the new wing, which join the first LEED Gold-certified elementary classroom building in Washington State when it was built in 2007, will be available for the public, hoping to serve as an educational tool far beyond the elementary students.

But with all this fun and games and one-upmanship, building a Living Building really is a challenge. With all sorts of rules on what types of materials can be used, how far they can travel to the construction site and many more restrictions, it does take creativity—and time—to come up with a Living Building. So, while we jest, getting the job done in a collaborative way proves essential for a project’s completion.

“We have helped show a new way to approach sustainability in construction,” says Kris Beason, Skanska project executive. “The Living Building Challenge not only seeks to demand sustainable building, but to also create a paradigm shift in the building industry. We’ve shown that the right team can make the vision a reality.”

To get the Living Building distinction, the structure must be open for a year and prove it meets requirements. So, while everyone waits to see the results of the new “living” structure, taking a tour of Bertschi and its model of collaboration may be just one benefit of this new wave of sustainability.