Green Hammer has achieved the rare distinction of having one of its buildings certified by the Living Building Challenge. How rare? Only 21 such in the world have attained the standard.
This is the tasting room at the Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden in Southern Oregon, in Jacksonville.
"There are only 21 in the world, it's rare. But there are more here (in the USA) than anywhere else," architect Erica Dunn, Green Hammer's Design Team Manager, told the Business Tribune in July.
If LEED Silver, Gold and Platinum have become common standards for measuring the energy efficiency of buildings — so much so that some architects build to those standards but don't bother jumping through the hoops for the certification — LBC is next level eco.
For a start, buildings must be hyper efficient, as well-insulated as a passive house (or passivhaus) building. They must also be energy neutral — producing as much energy as they consume, and even water neutral — and able to function off the water grid.
Dunn says more architects are trying to meet the Living Building Challenge, and many talk it up while they are doing so, even when they don't complete it.
Most of the outside Cowhorn's tasting room is unfinished cedar, which will age over time.
Wood is a common choice, among other more natural materials such as cork and some metals. They use materials that are more readily understood to be toxin free. Architects going for the challenge must steer clear of the Red List, a list of toxic materials. (See sidebar.)
One stringent rule is how water is managed. "It's a closed loop". You can't pull from the municipal supply and you can't put water back into the system." At the Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden they have a water well. Water is pumped in from there, used and pumped back to a septic field. Rainwater runs down the metal siding and into drainage rocks on the ground.
"It's an architectural expression, and it creates a beautiful waterfall effect on the metal cladding when it's raining."
Applegate Valley has been in a drought like much of southern Oregon, but Dunn is not worried about that, because the well reaches deep into the water table. "It would take a very, very long time before it dries it out."
The envelope, please
Cowhorn is an organic and biodynamic winery, which doesn't use as much water as other wineries.
"They're working with the climate they have. They did an interesting study of the soil on the site before planting the grapes to see how much water they would need."
The building has a highly insulated envelope, designed to meet the passive house standard but not certified to it. Green Hammer has a lot of passive house projects in its portfolio. In this case passive house is redundant because the LBC standard is higher. "The Living Building Challenge is the hardest green building certification to get."
It does not take much heat to keep the Cowhorn tasting room warm or air conditioning to keep it cool. The energy system is a mini split heat pump.
The building is grid-tied, and has a solar array which keeps it net zero. It's a sunny part of the state and the solar system creates enough electricity to send some power back to the grid, which sends electricity back.
"In the winter time you can't make enough for your energy needs but in the summer, you make way more," she explains. It evens out over the course of a year. Net metering ensures that if they produce a lot more than they use, the property owner gets a credit towards other electricity bills on the property, such as their home.
Dunn said it was exciting designing a public space because it meant more people could learn about the Living Building Challenge.
Biodynamic wine is next-level organic, usually-chemical free and with plantings timed to the moon's cycles. Cowhorn's owners, Barbara and Bill Steele, saw it as an opportunity that their mission extends through their company, that "They're not just a biodynamic winery but they're putting their money where their mouth is," Dunn said.
"We introduced the idea to them. As soon as they heard about a building that gives something back, while they didn't understand every detail, they were on board for achieving the challenge."
Dunn designed the Steele's residence to passive house standard, but for the 2,200-squarefoot tasting room they went all out for the full LBC win. She describes it as "not a huge space" but one in which the public will linger, enjoy themselves and maybe ask questions about LBC.
The LBC challenge can be broken down into petals, like a flower. Architects can focus on one petal or all. For example, energy, water, materials, etc.
The focus on nontoxic materials is probably the hardest part.
"To use something and say it has no toxins in it, you have to have proof from the manufacturer, but a lot of that information is proprietary."
This entailed a lot of research, a lot of calls to CEOs and company scientists.
"The biggest cost is researching the materials. It's not the material expense, more the time."
She says it's difficult when you don't have much sway with manufacturers. Trying to get them to do research into ingredients or change their process, such as moving away from toxic glues — is very hard. "Then they're like, 'Oh, you're only going to buy two of these?'
One thing they learned: "The simpler the materials, the easier to achieve LBC at neutral cost."
Green Hammer is a design-build firm, meaning they do both. The know-how they gained from research into nontoxic materials can be passed on directly to their subs, whom they are then likely to use again in future because they know what's what.
Everything had to be considered, such as
the fact that they would use a commercial dishwasher in the tasting room, which uses more energy and water than a domestic one. But since it puts out a lot of heat they set up a duct to capture and reuse some of that.
Being a design-build firm helped because it means the idea of a high-performance building was on the table from the beginning. "If we did the design without a contractor, then put it out to bid, we'd then spend three months changing the drawings. Every contractor likes to build their own way, and an architect is not on site every day, swinging a hammer."
Other Green Hammer work can be seen at Ankeny Row, (seven condos) and at Northeast 16th Avenue just off Tillamook and Williams.
For the record, Dunn herself lives in a 1925 craftsman in the Richmond neighborhood. "We've done a lot of work like that. Insulating is such an easy thing to do it makes a big difference to your comfort, the same with double-paned windows."
Stephen Aiguier founded Green Hammer in 2002, evolving the business into a full-service design-build firm for sustainable homes and green buildings.
"The business case for the tasting room? You're investing in a long-term benefits and savings. At the immediate level it's a relatively hefty upfront investment. It's hard to call it a luxury item, but a bank is going to look at it like that."
He says his firm sees costs that aren't easily measured in the building. "For example, the performance of your staff in a non-toxic building, to work in a healthy place every day. That benefits the business for recruiting high quality staff."
He says the clients was making a statement. "Energy isn't a huge part of a businesses' profit and loss statement in Oregon. But now 175 percent of the energy consumed in the building is being produced by the building, so it's having a rapid payback on the solar panels. We were looking at five- to seven-year payback."
Passive house-style insulation generally has a 20-year energy payback. Having a concrete foundation and slab was a compromise - concrete has a big carbon footprint - but he calls the rest of the building "wood-based." Cellulose insulation — shredded newspapers — and metal siding also lower the carbon footprint. "Cork is almost carbon neutral, but we had to ship it."
"Also, it's a big business case to be able to stand behind your values as a business," says Aiguier.
"We're fortunate to have clients like this. The reality is, everyone is giving something. We spent hundreds of hours vetting materials, talking to vendors, saying 'We need your ingredient list, can you disclose what you've never disclosed before?' A lot of them hung up phone. You have a get a C level or a chemist with the authority to sign off on this."
It's a process of educating suppliers, and he's seen some change. Companies like Mohawk in flooring and interiors, they are calling products 'red list'-free.
"Water and energy is a math problem, but materials are deep time void that's hard to predict. It's important for the standard that we did make those phone calls."
He says they don't bill for every hour spent in researching products. "All in all, the owner pays more and you're going to spend more time than usual. Everyone has to look at it like a learning experience."
Sharing knowledge or asking for help from other designers and builders on the 20 other certified LBC buildings is not easy. "You can't always just get them on a conference call."
They rely more on the ILI's conferences to spread technical know-how.
Kathleen Smith Vice President of the Living Building Challenge at the International Living Future Institute, told the Business Tribune that companies are getting more excited about the LBC and have heard of the red list.
"Every LBC building that gets built, you can see it's not just a good idea or a wacky idea, it's reality."
Materials have improved and the cost is coming down.
"Some of the first projects were small, or they were green education centers, they were strongly mission-aligned. There are 21 certified, but over 480 are registered, and some of them very big such as the new Microsoft campus in Silicon Valley, which is now in the construction documents phase."
(Registered means a project has stated its intent to use the LBC but may be anywhere in the process. And they don't always make it past the finish line.)
Brand names help the cause. Google's Chicago office is LBC certified.
"Everyone reads those headlines. And the design and construction industry won't do anything if no one cares about it."
She says it's unlikely such buildings are a luxury of a boom time.
"I think a recession impacts the building industry period, but these people will still do it. Maybe there'll be fewer because fewer buildings are being built overall. But they're doing it because they think it's the right thing to do."
International Living Future Institute
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