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Georgia Tech’s Kendeda Building certified as a ‘Living Building’

Kendeda Building (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

By Maria Saporta

It’s official.

The Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design is one of the greenest buildings in the world.

Georgia Tech announced on Earth Day that the Kendeda Building on its campus has earned the “Living Building Challenge” certification version 3.1) for being “net positive” with its use of energy and water. In other words, the Kendeda Building generates more energy and captures more water than it uses.

“We feel a responsibility to lead by example,” said Ángel Cabrera, Georgia Tech’s president. “This building – which is a tribute to the power of human ingenuity to find new solutions to our greatest challenges – aligns with our long-standing vision for our campus to serve as a laboratory for innovation to inspire and develop tomorrow’s leaders who advance technology and improve the human condition.”

The Kendeda Living Building at its dedication on Oct. 24, 2019 (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

The “Living Building” certification came after a 12-month performance period, when it had to prove it was generating more energy from onsite renewable sources than it used. The building, which had its grand opening in October 2019, also collected and treated more rainwater onsite than it used for all purposes, including for drinking.

The Kendeda Building is the first “Living Building” of its scale in the Southeast, where a warm humid climate poses many challenges that don’t exist in other parts of the country.

In spite of this, over the 12-month performance period, the building generated 225 percent of the energy needed to power all of its electrical systems from solar panels on its roof. It also collected, treated, and infiltrated 15 times the amount of water needed for building functions. It had to meet all seven “petals” in the Living Building Challenge – Place; Water; Energy; Health and Happiness; Materials; Equity and Beauty.

“We partnered with Georgia Tech on this transformational project because the institution is full of world-class problem solvers,” said Diana Blank, founder of the Kendeda Fund, whose $30 million grant to Georgia Tech made the building possible. “Students passing through the Kendeda Building today will be the engineers, architects, scientists, product designers, urban planners, and policy makers of tomorrow. By raising the bar for building performance, we are encouraging Georgia Tech to keep reaching higher. We want students and faculty to embrace the challenge, continually asking ‘How can we improve on this?’”

Diana Blank at the opening of the Kendeda Living Building in October 2019 (Photo by Maria Saporta)

The project was announced in September 2015. Blank, a philanthropist, had been giving anonymously through the Kendeda Fund until the Georgia Tech gift. At that point, Blank went public, disclosing she was the Kendeda Fund’s financial donor.

The project’s goal is to support the educational mission of Georgia Tech while transforming the architecture, engineering and construction industry in the Southeast by advancing regenerative building and innovation, and by showcasing synergies between environmental stewardship, social equity, and economic development. Through the act of creating buildings that are regenerative, Georgia Tech is charting a path for others to reverse climate change, support human health and address social inequalities.

Within the seven performance petals, there are 20 standards that must be met to earn certification. The Kendeda Building’s performance metrics included:

  • Energy efficient electrical and mechanical equipment, a tight building envelope, with a 330-kilowatt photovoltaic canopy that supplies 225 percent of the building’s energy needs on an annual basis.
  • The photovoltaic canopy shades the building and captures rainwater. The water is stored in a 50,000-gallon cistern in the basement, before being treated and used for all purposes, including drinking.
  • The building is composed of materials screened for hazardous “Red List” chemicals, such as bisphenol A (BPA), halogenated flame retardants, phthalates, and formaldehyde. Chemicals on the Red List have been shown to harm human and environmental health, even though they are common in most buildings.
  • Wood from sustainably managed forests, salvaged materials and other sourcing strategies significantly reduce the building’s embodied carbon emissions.
  • By eliminating 99 percent of its construction waste and incorporating reclaimed locally sourced materials, such as reclaimed wood for the structural decking and salvaged slate tile in the restrooms, the project diverted more waste from the landfill than it sent to the landfill.
  • Composting toilets nearly eliminate potable water use for sewage conveyance and allow for human waste to be turned into fertilizer for use off-site.
  • The building allows for universal access. Its central feature is an accessible ramp connecting the terraced main floor so that all people have a similar experience throughout the project.
  • The design and construction team went above and beyond the Living Building Challenge Equity Petal by promoting an equitable and inclusive sense of community. To build the ceiling panels and floor systems, for example, the general contractor partnered with Georgia Works!, a nonprofit helping chronically homeless men become self-sufficient.

“Living Buildings are the future,” said Scott Cannon, executive vice president and general manager of Skanska’s building operations in Georgia and South Carolina, the general contractor. “We’ve been committed to sustainability for years and have seen how projects like this are a catalyst to reshape how people think about the built environment. It illustrates the practical and replicable solutions, materials, and technologies that other buildings in the Southeast can use to meet similar environmental standards.”

The front of the Kendeda Living Building at 422 Ferst Dr. (the street address of 422 stands for Earth Day on April 22) at Georgia Tech (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Regenerative design supports carbon neutrality, helping to fight climate change. In a region challenged by flooding and drought, the Kendeda Building also shows that regenerative design can treat stormwater, conserve potable water, lower the risk of downstream flooding, reduce burden on existing infrastructure, and save money on utilities.

“If there was any doubt, we have shown that net positive energy and net positive water are both within reach in Atlanta and across the Southeast,” said Joshua Gassman of Lord Aeck Sargent, one of the lead architects on the project. “Using analytics and sound building science, we were able to provide comfort to the building’s occupants, connect them to nature and the history of the place, and live within the water and energy means of the site. We were able to do all of this while creating a clear and sustainable vision for the future.”

A close-up of the composting toilet (Photo by Maria Saporta)

At $544 per gross square foot, the Kendeda Building is 13 percent more expensive than a comparable building at Georgia Tech. Howeve, there are few comparable buildings of this type that include the infrastructure for net positive energy and water in the construction cost.

“We took the lessons we learned from the Bullitt Center and adapted those ideas for a new climate and new building type,” says Margaret Sprug, principal at the Miller Hull Partnership, which designed the building in collaboration with Lord Aeck Sargent and served as the lead architect of the Bullitt Center, another well-known Living Building.

The knowledge and processes of the Kendeda Building are already being translated to other projects with thousands of people, who already have toured the project.  Students and administrators who inhabit the building on a daily basis are sharing lessons far beyond Georgia Tech’s campus. And they will be able to apply those lessons to future projects.

Some inspiring facts about the building include the following:

  • The Kendeda Building’s 16 toilets and urinals use less water combined than one typical low-flow toilet.
  • Project kept economic benefits close to home by sourcing at least 50 percent of products and services from within 621 miles (i.e., 1,000 km).
  • Portion of the floor deck incorporated 25,000 linear feet of dismantled movie sets. It was constructed by participants of a workforce development program for economically disadvantaged Atlanta residents.
  • The building is composed of materials screened for hazardous chemicals known to harm human and environmental health, even though they are common in most buildings.
  • Project preserved Georgia Tech’s heritage by converting original heart pine joists used in the construction of the iconic Tech Tower into treads for the Kendeda Building’s monumental staircase.
  • Lumber from storm-felled trees on Georgia Tech’s campus was kiln-dried, milled, and planed to make the building’s counters and benches outside the building.

To learn more about the Kendeda Building, visit Living Building at Georgia Tech and Living Building Kendeda Fund. 

Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.


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