Published on September 20th, 2017 | by UC&D Magazine0
Up To The Challenge
Salt Lake-headquartered Architectural Nexus’ Sacramento office is one of 15 buildings worldwide on the path to ‘Living Building’ certification.
Kenner Kingston is forthright and blunt in his assessment of current modern-day development practices regarding true building environmental sustainability: it needs to radically change.
“We cannot continue to develop buildings the way we develop them,” said Kingston, President of Salt Lake- based Architectural Nexus. “Saying it’s unsustainable is not emphatic enough. The absurdity of development patterns that we’ve come up as humans will be revealed in the next 50 years.”
While Kingston may be speaking in broad brush strokes in regards to the design and construction of future projects, he can specifically point to his own passion for green building/sustainable design and its future potential, as evidenced by his firm’s own office buildings in Salt Lake
City and Sacramento. Nexus’ Salt Lake office is the only building in Utah to earn Leadership In Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Double Platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council (2011), and its Sacramento office (opened January 1, 2017) is in the midst of the ‘Living Building Challenge’, a program created in 2006 by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI – offices in Seattle and Portland) which Kingston said goes far beyond LEED standards, particularly water use/reuse. Owning highly sustainable buildings, he added, provides crucial first-hand knowledge and ongoing education about how buildings truly function.
“Knowing what it’s like to own and operate a sustainable building makes us a better architect,” said Kingston. “When we had an opportunity to relocate in Sacramento from leased space to our own space we naturally gravitated to a building reuse scenario – the highest form of sustainability is reuse. We asked ourselves how we could ‘up the ante’ and figured the next step up from LEED Double Platinum was the Living Building Challenge.”
Taking the Challenge
According to the ILFI website, the Living Building Challenge (LBC) is a green/ sustainable building certification program that has an ideal for the built environment, and uses the metaphor of a flower for how a building should function – cleanly and efficiently. It focuses on helping buildings become regenerative spaces that connect occupants to light, air, nature and community, and ones that are self- sufficient and remain within the resource limits of the site. Living buildings produce more energy than they use, and collect/ treat all water and waste on site.
Nexus purchased a dilapidated 8,200 SF, 1974-built warehouse in the up-and- coming R Street district in October ’15 and set about designing an ambitious
renovation of the entire site, replete with an intricate water reuse system, a rooftop solar PV array, and a waste composting system. All systems are connected, meaning rainwater that is captured in one of two 5,000-gallon cisterns can be turned into potable water, which is then turned into gray water, which is used to flush toilets and water onsite plants/landscaping, a small garden with strawberries, blueberries and arctic kiwi, and the ‘Living Wall’, a unique ‘live’ architectural feature in the lobby.
“The key word is regenerative design – it goes from taking (energy), to neutral, to net positive thinking,” said Kingston. “The Living Building Challenge postulates that buildings should act like nature. The idea is the building enhances the fabric of society – economically, culturally and ecologically. According to current California state law, Nexus’ R Street office cannot currently use captured rainwater as potable water (it can operate for only 20 days out of the year mainly to test/ use the system) and it must also have a connection to the city sewer system for any potential overflow from its waste composting system. Kingston said they’ve gone so far as to even lobby state water officials to gain status as its own ‘water district’ so it can use the rainwater it collects for potable needs – so far to no avail, but the fight is just beginning.
“Living Building Challenge says you have to design the building so it could function like nature – if regulation prevents you from operating it, you ‘fight the man’,” said Kingston. “We fought the man to satisfy certification and we’re done fighting the man for now but we’re going to keep trying. In such a condition we can have a (city) culinary water connection.”
Eight months into its existence, Kingston said the building is performing exceptionally, and above expectations. The composting system/leachate tank has had zero discharges to the city sewer, rainwater tanks are still half-full with only a fraction of summer left, it is producing 215% more energy than it’s using, and it recently earned LEED NC v4 Platinum certification.
Regarding the costs associated with designing a ‘Living Building’, Kingston said the firm invested some capital and also leveraged some of the investment, and said it’s possible to calculate of the return-on-investment (ROI), but there are obvious reasons to do it beyond bottom line costs.
“Energy systems have a less than 10-year payback, with water systems, payback is not the point,” he said. You get a better building when you get a Living Building. Can you build it for the same price? No. Quantifying that is something I’m not willing to do.
“The point is to demonstrate what a truly regenerative building can be like. It’s about challenging ourselves. We walk the talk. We don’t just design buildings for our clients – we own, occupy and operate them.”
Kingston said that while Sacramento is definitely a more viable option for a true ‘Living Building’ because of its annual rainfall (which explains why ILFI came about/is located in the Pacific Northwest), the fact is they could exist in any climate if designed accordingly.
“We know there are more Zero Energy (formerly NetZero) and Living Buildings in California being developed than the Intermountain West. When the Intermountain West catches up to this macro trend, we’ll be positioned well to deliver in our local market. It’s not impossible for a building to achieve the Living Building Challenge in a low rainfall area. It means designers need different strategies.”