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Georgia Tech’s Living Building, the Southeast’s greenest, is a marvel of efficiency and spare parts

Now finished, metro Atlanta’s most environmentally advanced structure aims to be a self-sustaining launchpad for big ideas

A futuristic building with huge glass walls and a large array of solar panels hovering over top of it.
The futuristic canopy over the 422 Ferst Drive building on Tech’s campus is an array of solar panels with water-catching components.

It’s not every day the president of a major university stands before an auditorium packed to the walls with dignitaries and journalists, raises his arms like an inspired evangelist, points toward the restrooms, and extolls the virtues of using the toilet.

But such was the scene when Georgia Tech’s recently installed, excitable leader Dr. Ángel Cabrera helped lead dedication ceremonies in late October for The Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design—colloquially: “The Kendeda Building,” or “the Living Building”—a modern wonder amid Tech’s leafy campus that’s not satisfied with being merely the Southeast’s greenest structure.

A toilet with a wall of slate tiling behind it and concrete floors.
Compostable toilets use a teaspoon of water per flush, automatically foaming to help remove waste. Toilet water is managed and broken down naturally onsite, avoiding sewers. The back wall is made of slate panels from the old Alumni House roof on campus.

Should project leaders succeed, the $30-million, grant-funded experiment will be the only fully certified Living Building south of Virginia Beach, southeast of suburban St. Louis, and east of Texas—and one of just 24 across the country. Before certification can happen, the Living Building Challenge, an international green-building program, will require the world’s most rigorous year-long process of performance evaluations. That gauntlet is expected to begin with spring semester classes, which will host everything from science to calculus at the new facility where Ferst Drive meets State Street. Compounding matters is Atlanta’s subtropical, often humid climate, where creating a comfortable, solar-powered, self-sustaining building not connected to city utilities was once thought impossible. Nothing like it has ever been attempted in this climate zone. Achieving the LBC stamp, in short, will require a logistical concert from the rooftop apiary and Big Ass Fans overhead (that’s the brand name) to complex heating and cooling systems in the floors. Oh, and toilets that don’t gulp but sip.

“You would not believe how excited we are about toilets in this building!” Cabrera was saying to the crowd, describing a structure so fresh it still smells like sawed wood, which the president calls his favorite place on campus. “Go and check out the toilet, and you’ll understand.”

A few moments later, Shan Arora, the Kendeda Building director hired by Tech to guide sustainability and programming efforts and lasso the prized certification, sounded equally amped at the lectern: “Constructing a Living Building in the South… people said it can’t be done,” said Arora. “We’re going to show the South, the Southeast, and the world that we can do it here.”

Four years ago, behind-the-scenes discussions began between officials with Tech and The Kendeda Fund—among metro Atlanta’s leading philanthropic investors, with a heart for social and ecological causes—in regards to an on-campus project that might “live” on its own. Kendeda Fund’s eventual $30 million grant covered everything from geotechnical testing to the custom furniture. It’s the agency’s largest single gift to date—and one of the biggest Tech has received in a history dating to the 1880s.

A large oak tree on Georgia Tech’s campus.
The building was situated in a way to keep one of the oldest, shade-casting oaks on campus from being cut down.

And then, in early 2018, a groundbreaking was held on what had been a humdrum parking lot, a 1.35-acre site next to one of campus’s largest old oaks. The goal: To create a building that collects all its own water, produces more electricity than it needs, and discards of waste in an ecologically responsible way.

Nearly two years later, Arora led Curbed Atlanta on a tour of the 47,000-square-foot results, all tailored to the South and surprising in their use of seemingly useless things.

The entryway to a large building with brick at right and a mix of wood and steal panels.
The Living Building’s main entrance. Atlanta’s Lord Aeck Sargent architecture firm and Seattle’s Miller Hull Partnership led designs, with construction by Skanska.

Almost everything removed during the Kendeda Building’s construction—including the surface parking lot itself—was recycled, salvaged, or turned into a different onsite product.

The idea of salvaging is one Arora’s particularly fond of. He pointed to a granite curb near Ferst Street and noted it used to be part of the Georgia State Archives Building—downtown’s “White Ice Cube” imploded in 2017. A bench near the building’s entrance, he said, had been made from a South Georgia white oak tree toppled by a tornado. A wall of dark brick came from North Carolina, compiled from aggregate waste that typically would be bound for a landfill. A constructed wetland made of gravel near the entrance is designed to both calm humans and filter gray water (collected from faucets and rainclouds, that is), cleaning it naturally and avoiding the city’s sewers. That water was still undergoing testing last month but will eventually be used for all purposes, including drinking.

On the subject of H2O, the building is equipped to capture about 40 percent of rainfall on the property, which it directs to a 50,000-gallon onsite cistern. “We treat the rainwater to potable standards,” said Arora. “It’s the first time in Georgia that a commercial building is trying to do that.”

Elsewhere outside, triple-pane glass windows are designed to decrease solar gain in long humid summers. Towering, minimalistic support columns use less material (and thus less embodied carbon) while supporting the crowning, most distinctive feature: a huge array of solar panels capable of generating 450,000 kilowatt hours of electricity each year—or more than 120,000 hours of juice than the building is estimated to need, which should meet Living Building Challenge certification standards, and then some. Overall, the project is designed to use one-third the energy of a traditional building of comparable size.

The interior of a vast modern building with wood and glass galore.
Beyond the main entrance is the open three-story lobby, designed to encouraging idea-sharing among students. Wood from a former campus church forms the ramp at right.

“You can see the ductwork, the vents, the wires, the pipes,” Arora noted, moving inside. “If you liken this thing to a living being, you can see the building’s skeleton, its neurological, digestive, circulatory, respiratory systems—and that was by design.”

And here’s where the material trivia gets especially interesting.

A nature themed mural on a wall with pipes and storage overhead.
Water reclamation pipes, exposed on the building’s basement floor, with a water conservation mural on the wall.

Wood boards that were pulled from a 10th Street church, razed for construction of Tech’s new police station, have created the building’s lobby ramp and decorative walls. Storm-felled trees on campus provided wood for interior benches.

In the bathrooms and showers, circa-1920 slate shingles on the floors and walls formerly acted as the roof of the renovated Georgia Tech Alumni Association building. Wood from dissembled Peach State movie sets forms the ceilings, and the sawed-off tips of those 2 by 6 boards became stairs.

An interior of an airy building with giant fans way above.
The majority of wood used in the building is reclaimed from movie sets built and filmed in Georgia. More than 60 fans inside allows the building to comfortably operate at higher temperatures during summer, saving energy.
Three steps formed of boards with green tape on them for safety.
The ends of boards used elsewhere in construction form these steps.

But the emotional grand slam for most visitors, as Arora put it, is the building’s main staircase, built of heart-pine joists that’d been part of Tech Tower, one of two original campus buildings dating to 1888.

“When the most iconic building on campus needed to undergo a renovation, we could have taken those joists out and thrown them away,” said Arora. “Instead, we turned them into those stairs.”

A small white classroom with a TV on the wall.
A classroom with blue chairs and white walls.
A lab with black modern ceiling fans overhead and walls of high windows.
A lecture hall show with many seats and huge windows on all side.

Numerous classroom sizes dot the building, with the lecture hall (bottom right) being the biggest. The project is also pursuing U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification at the Platinum level.

Now finished, the building offers a 170-seat auditorium, classrooms designed to accommodate between 16 and 70 people, labs, offices, student commons, and the rooftop garden and apiary. It will have to meet 20 performance requirements—or LBC “imperatives”—for a full year to be certified as the Southeast’s first Living Building.

Project leaders expect that to happen in 2021.

“We’ll be constantly monitoring the building’s performance, making adjustments needed,” said Arora. “But as designed, we hope that all we have to do is monitor, and the building’s doing exactly what it needs to do.”

A small garden atop a building at Georgia Tech, with skyrises in the distance.
The fledgling garden on the roof, to include honey bees, will help satisfy the building’s urban agriculture imperative.
A rooftop kitchen space with seating around it and a garden.
The roof has space for the Urban Honey Bee Project with seating, a garden, and Midtown views.

At the public dedication, Kendeda Fund’s executive director Dena Kimball spoke of the potentially important connection between a building in Midtown Atlanta and a warming planet, how it could serve as a blueprint for transforming construction and design practices in the Southeast while igniting young minds.

“[The building] could serve as a bridge between small, direct experiences that balance human nature,” said Kimball, “and the huge environmental problems that many Georgia Tech students might play a key role in solving.”

Cabrera, the president, took that sentiment a step further.

“This facility is a way of turning our own campus into a lab, into a learning opportunity. This is a way of inspiring new generations,” he said. “Just think about the people who are going to be taking classes here, or coming to conferences here. They’re going to be intrigued, looking around, and they’re going to use that toilet.”

A black and yellow exterior of the billing with a view of the huge solar arrays overhead.
View from behind the Living Building, at the dawn of a new day.
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