Smith College Classroom Achieves Living Building Challenge

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. — With the utmost devotion to sustainability in both purpose and design, the Smith College’s Bechtel Environmental Classroom has become the fifth building in the world to achieve the meticulous standards of the Living Building Challenge.

The 2,300-square-foot, wood-framed learning center, which hosts the Center for the Environment, Ecological Design and Sustainability, acts as a field station for a 233-acre forest and pasture property. Surrounded by a gorgeous wooded landscape, the building opened in 2012 as a marker of the school’s continuous commitment to true sustainability and environmental education. The project was constructed by Scapes Builders of South Deerfield, Mass.

The idea to seek the rigorous Living Building Challenge was proposed by project architects Coldham & Hartman Architects, based in Amherst, Mass. The firm believed Smith College, which initially sought LEED Platinum certification for the project, would be a great client to seek the Living Building Challenge. The achievement of the challenge would bring significant brand value to the college, said Bruce Coldham, FAIA, partner at Coldham & Hartman Architects.

“It seemed to us that for this project, for this institution and for this project within this institution, that there was some real value there,” Coldham said. “There is a great deal of recognition that comes with achieving the Living Building Challenge as opposed to LEED because very few people have [done it].”

The Living Building Challenge is far different from the design standards of LEED, Coldham said. The design team and client must satisfy all the demands of the seven performance areas of Living Building as opposed to LEED, which can have multiple solutions to achieving credits in the green building certifications various categories. Coldham likened the two green building achievements to restaurants.

“[With the Living Building Challenge] you don’t get a menu, you choose to eat what’s in front of you. Whereas LEED has a menu and you can choose how you get to your 50 points,” he said. “In the case of the Living Building Challenge, once you’ve committed you are at the mercy of the Living Future Institute and the Living Building Challenge.”

The first, and often most important, step to achieving the Living Building Challenge is making certain that the client has an enduring commitment to the challenge, Coldham said.

“I think it’s very important for design teams to understand how to secure an early and irrevocable commitment from their client,” Coldham said.

With its high commitment to sustainability, Smith College was a perfect client to take on the Living Building Challenge because it would elevate their status, and many stakeholders were involved.

“An institution like Smith College is a great client because you have a constituency of faculty, students and alum that holds administration accountable,” Coldham said. “A private client could decide without any political consequence to back out of the commitment because they weren’t feeling right.”

The architects at Coldham & Hartman have been producing high-performance buildings for more than 20 years. While the challenge was extremely difficult, some achievements mandated by the Living Building Challenge, such as net-zero energy, were not particularly unusual for the firm. However, achieving net-zero energy as well as the arduous materials petal required a concerted effort and presented the greatest challenges in the project, Coldham said.

As the fifth building to achieve the Living Building Challenge, Coldham believes that the challenge can often be thought of as something that is unattainable and almost unreal due to so little buildings actually achieving it. The Bechtel Environmental Classroom demystifies the Living Building Challenge and is a symbol of highly sustainable possibilities.

“We help make the Living Building Challenge very real, we promote it and we keep it alive,” he said.