By Morgan O’Connor, Marketing and High Performance Building EcoFellow

Living Building Challenge Group Picture

Recently, some of our staff toured a local Living Building on Hampshire College’s campus. The Living Building Challenge is seen as one of the most rigorous design standards in green building. Before certification, a project must prove itself to align with the seven “petals” that make up a Living Building – Place, Water, Energy, Health & Happiness, Materials, Equity, and Beauty. A project that meets all of these standards is seen to be not just in line with its environment, but improving it.

Hampshire College’s R.W. Kern Center is still in its first year of operation, but at the end of this year the project must demonstrate that it is meeting the challenge’s strict standards for net-zero energy and water use. The Kern Center has had a few hiccups with water filtration, but believes that they will be certified come May.

Living Building Challenge Water ManagementThe Kern Center is currently serviced by town water, but they hope to be back to using their rainwater collection system soon. The building has two sisterns, like the one our tour guide and building engineer, Todd Holland, is standing on, to store rainwater. The building has its own filters and unlike most water that is sterilized with chlorine, the Kern Center sterilizes its water with UV radiation. This is necessitated by the Challenge’s focus on material sourcing. Projects are not supposed to use any material containing chemicals from the “red list”, like polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Designers worked hard to ensure that these chemicals were not included in building materials, so it seemed contradictory to use them in the water supply. The focus on red list materials also prompted the Kern Center to find a healthy alternative to cleaning supplies for the building, which led them to switch their cleaning supplies campuswide. The Living Building Challenge promotes innovation and pushing the boundaries, and this is just a small example of that effort.

Living Building Challenge Filtration System

As part of the building’s filtration system, the water is run through plants growing around the interior perimeter of the building. This has proved to be a very effective first line of filtration, but not without a few bumps to work out. The building is home to a coffee shop, that was disposing of roughly a gallon of milk a day down the drain. This led to rotten milk in all of the plantbeds, and a very smelly building. Being on the forefront of sustainable integrative design means that there are bound to be a few unexpected bumps in the road, but problem solving is part of the fun and challenge! Now, coffee shop staff collect that milk separately and give it to the campus’ pigs, and the filtration system works wonderfully once again!


The Kern Center also has composting toilets in all of its bathrooms. The toilets empty into this black composter pictured below. In nearly a year of being open to the campus, the composter has not yet needed to be emptied, but when it does the end product will be suitable for use as fertilizer.

Living Building Challenge Compost Toilet and Instructions


Living Building Challenge Compost Toilet


Living Building Challenge Electrical EquipmentHere we are in the basement of the facility, looking at all of the mechanical equipment that converts and monitors the power from the solar array on top of the building. The Kern Center has 345 solar panels, creating on average 99,000 kWh of AC current. The have divided the building’s energy use into over 20 meters in order to closely manage energy usage. For instance, two desk heaters in the administration offices use more energy than the whole building. Having so many meters allows the building managers to have conversations with people about their energy usage and suggest alternatives. The many meters also allow for the building’s energy-usage data to be collected and analyzed. In fact, students are using the building in their own academic research projects to learn more about energy and water management.


Living Building Challenge Interactive Smart PanelThis is an interactive panel that shows visitors how much energy the building is producing and consuming at that moment and over time. This tool helps visitors connect with the building, and understand how their actions affect energy consumption.

This classroom is lined with triple glazed hopper windows, which allow for ventilation in summer, and higher insulation value in the winter. The floors are made from reclaimed red oak wood, and that runs throughout the whole upstairs of the building. Air quality standards in this room proved challenging to meet. The tabletops continue and dry erase markers release chemicals into the air. Chalk boards were considered, but chalk particulates would also affect air quality. They ultimately switched to refillable low-VOC dry erase markers, which not only reduce waste but improve classroom air quality. They still struggle with students affecting air quality with the scents from their shampoos, deodorants, and perfumes, but that is not in control of the building’s design.

Living Building Challenge Classroom Example

This was a great professional development opportunity to see what actions are being taken in our community to tackle climate change. Taking on the Living Building Challenge raises awareness about what building standards we need to set in order to live in a sustainable world, while educating its visitors about how their actions affect their environment. Living Buildings are more than just buildings; they are examples of how we should be living and thinking, and it is impossible not to see that while interacting with one.

Check out other cool local environmental wonders below!