Insights

The “Higher Education Event”

On Thursday, June 20, Jacob Werner, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, WELL, and Marcell Graeff, CPHC, LEED AP BD+C, of Wilson HGA attended—and thoroughly enjoyed—the International Living Future Institute’s Net Positive Symposium at the R.W. Kern Center: A Higher Education Event.

The “Higher Education Event” focused on work of the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), creators of Living Building Challenge (LBC), within the college and university community. As with last year, the event was hosted by “experimenting” Hampshire College, within the R.W. Kern Center, a recently certified Living Building, designed by Bruner Cott Architects.

Jonathan Wright, reading a passage from his new book “Living Building Makers.”

On Wednesday night, June 19, the ILFI held a pre-conference dinner. The dinner opened with an inspiring keynote address by Amanda Sturgeon, CEO of the International Living Future Institute (ILFI). Jonathan Wright of Wright Builders read from his excellent book Living Building Makers, a collection of stories from the contracting teams involved in the Kern Center and the nearby Hitchcock Center for the Environment. Then Amanda lead a panel discussion with Amy Johns of Williams College and Heather Henriksen, Harvard University’s chief sustainability officer.

Marcell with his autographed copy of “Living Building Makers.”

On Thursday morning, the symposium began with a plenary address by Amanda Sturgeon and Bill Kern. Bill gave funny and truly inspiring opening remarks. He recounted that the Kern family donated funds to enable construction of the R.W. Kern center “to get my dad’s name on a building,” not realizing that they would be joining a movement for living buildings. He challenged attendees to—imagine, design, and build a Living Building on every college campus in America!

The conference then broke out into individual sessions on a variety of topics. Major themes at this year’s symposium included higher education planning, healthy construction materials, net positive water systems design, LBC project case studies, and advocacy for green buildings in New England.

Jacob attended multiple sessions centered on the theme of Healthy Materials. Charley Stevenson of Integrated Eco Strategy introduced the topic with an overview session describing the current, unregulated state of the construction materials industry.

Heather Henriksen led a session about Harvard’s work to translate basic research about the health effects of building materials into practical steps for designers and builders. Heather quoted Harvard scientists when she described the use of chemicals in the built environment as a “massive clinical toxicological trial with our children and our children’s children as the experimental subjects.” We have been playing a game of “Chemical Whack-A-Mole,” where as soon as you ban one chemical, the industry substitutes it with a “regrettable substitution” that could be just as bad or worse. Heather described Harvard’s ongoing work to translate scientific research on healthy materials topics into practical, actionable steps that designers and builders can use. She encouraged us not to make “Red Lists” of chemicals to ban, but to use a class-based approach to chemicals of concern. Avoid using these chemicals in our building products.

Charley Stevenson and Lisa Carey Moore led a workshop to brainstorm with attendees about what resources, tools, or processed might help designers find better building materials.

Marcell attended sessions about the challenges and opportunities of onsite water reuse for universities and campuses, delivering healthier materials, insights from builders on living buildings, and building the movement for LBC projects in the region.

Jonathan A. Wright of Wright Builders brought along a panel of “Living Building Makers” to share their insights working on both the Hitchcock Center for the Environment and the R.W. Kern Center. “Rough IS the finish” is a common theme between both living buildings that was discussed where pride in crafting the building, including the structural, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems are on display and have been elevated to become a major part of the architectural expression.

Jim Newman led a panel discussion about “Building the Movement” for LBC Projects in New England. This was an excellent bookend to the symposium as the group was inspired by the challenge set forth at the beginning of the day by Bill Kern—to imagine, design, and build a living building on every college campus in America.

Chroma Spiral, 2018, by Janice Arnold.

Hanging in the R.W. Kern center stairway was a beautiful and inspiring art installation by Janice Arnold, called Chroma Spiral. A sign described the installation: “First created as part of a site-specific installation to transform a glass passageway in the Grand Rapids Art Museum in Michigan, Janice Arnold’s Chroma Spiral is reimagined at Hampshire College. Here, the pure felted wool takes on the form of a spiral staircase, a sculptural textile metaphor honoring the closed-loop systems underlying this Living Building. The felt interacts with the building’s natural light to create an immersive exploration of color.”

We enjoyed the hospitality of Hampshire College, a unique and progressive institution that, like many schools these days, is facing financial challenges. Interim President Ken Rosenthal addressed the symposium with a message of hope for both the college and the living building movement. Hampshire seems to have turned a corner, and announced that it will admit a full incoming class in 2020!

The lobby of the RW Kern Center at Hampshire College.