By Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on September 18, 2015.
Georgia Tech has received a $30 million grant from the Kendeda Fund to develop the most environmentally-sound building ever constructed in the Southeast.
The “Living Building Challenge 3.0” education and research center that will be built on Georgia Tech’s campus is so important to the anonymous donor behind the Kendeda Fund that she has agreed to go public with her identity. She is Diana Blank, the first wife of Arthur Blank, a co-founder of The Home Depot Inc. and owner of the Atlanta Falcons.
“I think we are at a crucial time in history,” Diana Blank said in a two-hour interview in the courtyard of the high-rise residence in between Midtown and Buckhead where she lives when she’s in Atlanta. “Even if you don’t believe in climate change, we all care about our air quality and all the chemicals that we use.”
The Living Building Challenge 3.0 is the most stringent green building certification process that exists today. To be certified, a building has to have net zero energy use and net zero water use. Guidelines cover the materials used (no toxic substances), the distances involved in transporting materials, the way a building relates to its surroundings and how it performs over a full 12-month period of continued operations.
To be fully certified, a building must meet criteria listed under seven “petals.” They are site, water, energy, health, materials, equity and beauty.
Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson said the project fits in with the university’s “commitment to using our campus as a living-learning laboratory….for future generations of engineers, planners, architects and individuals in other disciplines” as they seek to develop new technologies and models for sustainability.
“The project will also demonstrate the economic and architectural viability of the construction techniques as applied to Living Building Challenge 3.0 construction in the southeastern United States, a region with unique climate challenges,” Peterson wrote in an email. “It will serve as yet another example of how Georgia Tech is creating the next chapter in environmentally-sound building design.”
The $30 million Kendeda Fund grant will go towards designing and constructing the state-of-the-art building as well as support ongoing programming once it opens. It is the largest single gift that the Kendeda Fund has made in its 20-year history, and it ranks among the largest capital gifts ever received by Georgia Tech.
But the true significance could go far beyond the building of an environmentally-sound structure on Georgia Tech’s campus.
Both the Kendeda Fund team and Georgia Tech leaders see the project as a way to change the mindset of how buildings are designed and built and how materials that go into those buildings are manufactured.
“The Kendeda Fund sees this as a transformational opportunity,” said Dennis Creech, founder of Southface, a nonprofit which has been working on green buildings for more than 35 years and has been an advisor on this project as well as other. “How do we showcase solutions to these very real problems around energy and water, which are Atlanta problems and global problems. How do we build buildings that enhance global health? This is not about sustainability. This is about being restorative.”
Creech said the climate in the Southeast makes the Living Building Challenge 3.0 especially difficult — the heat, the humidity and the intermittent drought — making this initiative all the more significant.
“If this is just about a building, we have failed,” Creech said. “This is about creating a transformational opportunity — how do we use this building to create change. How do we use this building to think about how we approach the built environment? We will have failed if this is just about educating the Georgia Tech community. This is about educating the Atlanta community and the Southeast.”
Diana Blank became enamored with the Living Building Challenge when she met one of its champions — Jason McLennan — and visited the Bullitt Center in Seattle, one of the first Living Building Challenge buildings to be certified.
Before committing to the $30 million grant, members of Kendeda team — Blank, her daughter Dena Kimball, financial manager Barry Berlin and others — traveled with Creech and Steven Swant, Georgia Tech’s vice president of finance and administration, to several locations including Vancouver and Philadelphia.
“When the Kendeda group showed up, I saw a real opportunity to align our objectives,” said Swant, who added that Georgia Tech has already become a leader with its EcoCommons and green buildings. “We’re considering a few sites. Hopefully it will be a showcase in the center of campus. It will not be tucked away.”
The Georgia Board of Regents has to approve the gift at its next board meeting. The Kendeda Fund has committed to cover 100 percent of all the design and construction costs by investing $25 million into the project. It also has committed another $4 million to support programming activities.
Swant said the building is expected to total about 40,000 square feet. In the next three to six months, Tech will shortlist a team of architects and consultants with a goal of starting construction in 2017. It is expected that it will take 12 to 18 months to construct the building once it has been fully tested and designed. And the expectation will be for it to open in 2019 and seek full certification in 2020.
“One of our hopes is that we will expand expertise in this region,” said Berlin, Kendeda’s face in Atlanta who said he could not envision a better partner on this project than Georgia Tech. “This will be like a Chamber of Commerce building for Atlanta. The idea is to place Atlanta on the cutting edge of net zero buildings.”
McLennan, CEO of the International Living Future Institute who has been a champion of the Living Building Challenge, applauded the Kendeda grant.
“I think this project is a big milestone for green building — not only because it will become one of the greenest buildings in the world — but the first in Atlanta and one of the first in the South,” McLennan wrote in an email. “It helps create a new standard for hot, humid climates and in a part of the country that does not have as many deep green buildings. The project is a great way for Georgia Tech to show its leadership and for Kendeda to continue to provide incredible leadership around the country in promoting cutting-edge ideas and innovation.”
For Blank, who intends to give away all of Kendeda’s assets by 2024, it’s all about healing the planet.
“I have no desire for my foundation to continue in perpetuity,” she said. “If we can make a difference now — to make our world more sustainable and improve the quality of life for humanity — we should do it. If not today, when?”