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

By Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Oct. 25, 2019

When philanthropist Diana Blank saw the completed Kendeda Living Building on Georgia Tech’s campus earlier this month, it took her breath away.

“The way it turned out is beyond my expectations,” Blank said in an exclusive interview with Atlanta Business Chronicle. “I love the openness of it. I love its appearance.”

Diana Blank at the new Kendeda Living Building (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Blank co-led a tour of the 47,000-square-foot building Oct. 21 with Shan Arora, director of the Kendeda Living Building for Innovative Sustainable Design, three days before the official dedication on Oct. 24 of what is indisputably the most environmentally-sustainable commercial building in the Southeast. It has been under construction the past two years.

For Blank, it is similar to witnessing the birth of a child that she had conceived. Blank’s foundation – the Kendeda Fund – awarded a total of $30 million to cover the costs of designing, constructing and operating the building as a living laboratory for green building practices.

The result? A building that will be a “net positive” to the environment – that will collect more energy and more water than it will consume on an annual basis. Once the building is fully in operation in January, it must meet that standard for 12 months to receive the Living Building Challenge 3.1 certification. (When Blank originally announced her gift in September 2015, the goal was for it to be certified as a “net zero” building – where it would collect as much water and energy as it consumed – classified as a Living Building Challenge 3.0).

The stairs in the center of the building are made with discarded wood pieces (Photo by Maria Saporta)

During the 90-minute tour of the Kendeda building, every corner and square inch told a story of conservation, recycled products, sustainable design and attention to detail.

“This is one of my favorite features,” Blank said pointing to the steps that were decorated with semi-circle rings of wood grain from discarded pieces of lumber. “You can just take trash and make something creative out of it.”

The ultimate purpose of the Kendeda building will be to change the mindset of the construction industry so companies will change their practices in how they design and build places where we live, work and recreate.

The building was designed by Lord Aeck Sargent and Miller Hull, and Skanska, under the leadership of Jimmy Mitchell, was the building’s lead contractor. The design and construction team worked with a number of partners to make sure used the most innovative building practices they could find.

A close-up the decorative wood grain that part of the discarded wood used for the stairs (Photo by Maria Saporta)

They followed the Living Building Challenge’s “seven petals” of performance: place, water, energy, health and happiness, materials, equity and beauty.

Starting with place, the building replaces a surface parking lot that contributed to stormwater runoff on the Tech campus.

“The building was designed around the magnificent oaks on the property,” Arora said. “And look at all the trees we’ve added.”

The pavement on the site is permeable, meaning water will flow through it down into the soil.

The building is expected to harvest 460,000 gallons of water a year that will flow to a 50,000-gallon cistern in the basement. It also has rainwater treatment equipment to turn rainwater into drinking water.

“This will be the first commercial building in the state of Georgia that will go from rainfall to potable water,” Arora said. “We are treating it on site.”

Arora has been surprised by the features that have connected with visitors, especially the composting toilets that use virtually no water to dispose of human waste.

“Georgia Tech’s president (Angel Cabrera) took pictures of the toilet and posted it online,” Arora said laughingly. But the serious lesson for Arora is that we “can build a building and not add burden to Atlanta’s infrastructure.”

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

During the tour, Arora pointed to all the wood in the building. Some of it came from structures that had been torn down on or near campus. The white oak came from south Georgia – from trees that had been destroyed during a tornado.

Blank highlighted a feature of the building’s extensive use of glass.

“We have bird glass,” she said. “There’s a decreasing population of birds, and one of the big issues is birds seeing the reflection of trees in glass and flying into it and dying.”

The bird glass is covered little circles of opaque spots that cut down on the reflection of the glass. “Someone has to think about the health and happiness of birds,” Arora chimed in.

The bricks used in the building are 100% recycled content and were manufactured in North Carolina, which met the criteria of sourcing 50% of materials from within at 1,000-kilometer radius (about 600 miles).

The building materials also had to be free of toxins, which meant having to change the way they were manufactured.

For Blank, that is one of the regenerative features of the building. The communities where the products were manufactured don’t have to be exposed to toxins that hurt the workers and the environment.

Kendeda Building director Shan Arora with philanthropist Diana Blank at the side entrance of the building (Photo by Maria Saporta)

“The manufacturing process is all part of equity,” Blank said. “It forces conversations.”

Another example of equity is the ramp in the middle of the building – a statement that the needs of the disabled should be front and center. The stairs also are inviting while the elevator is hidden.

“Let’s build buildings that do more good than harm,” Arora said. “This is a regenerative building, a ‘net positive’ building. In a 12-month period, we have to produce 5 percent more than we consume.”

Arora added that each element of the building performs multiple tasks. The solar canopy not only collects energy from the sun, but it also has a collector system to capture the rainwater.

Both Blank and Arora spoke of the lessons applicable to the Southeast.

“We don’t have coal mines. We don’t have fracking. What we have are landfills,” Arora said. “We are throwing away perfectly good stuff. We need to create a salvage economy. Why don’t we mine our landfills? It is labor intensive, but it’s local labor.”

Unveiling the Kendeda Living Building plaque – L-R: Dena Kimball (Kendeda Fund’s executive director), philanthropist Diana Blank and Georgia Tech President Angel Cabrera (Photo by Kelly Jordan)
Unveiling the Kendeda Living Building plaque – L-R: Dena Kimball (Kendeda Fund’s executive director), philanthropist Diana Blank and Georgia Tech President Angel Cabrera (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

Another interesting feature is that the construction workers included six people trained by Georgia Works on the westside, a program funded in large part by The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation. Diana Blank was Arthur Blank’s first wife and the mother of his three oldest children.

In fact, Blank created the name “Kendeda” from the first letters of her children’s names – Kenny, Dena and Danielle.

“I never really thought about legacy before,” said Blank, who is in her mid-70s. “Now that I’m aging, I see the value of legacy. It’s important that it’s not my name on the building, but Kendeda’s name.”

Her hope is that the people in the design, construction and building trades will tour the Kendeda building and learn how to apply more sustainable practices to other buildings. It’s no accident that the address of the building is 422 Ferst Drive – 422 stands for Earth Day, which is on April 22.

“It really brought me to tears that it’s come to fruition,” Blank said. “With so much negativity in the news today, it’s important to be able to point to something that gives us hope, and the Kendeda Living Building gives me hope.”

The team of the Kendeda Fund poses for a photo during opening ceremonies of the building (Photo by Maria Saporta)
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)
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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...

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