In June 2015, Capital Institute’s Year in the Life project visited First Green Bank headquarters in Mount Dora, Florida, with Stuart Cowan, principal of Autopoiesis. Stuart is a consultant to Seattle’s renowned Bullitt Center, the first commercial building in the world to achieve Living Building certification. The Living Building Challenge™ is a building certification program whose rigorous standards are defined by seven performance categories called “petals”: Place, Water, Energy, Health & Happiness, Materials, Equity and Beauty—all going well beyond LEED Platinum requirements. Currently only eight buildings worldwide have fully met Living Building standards.
During our June visit Stuart spoke inspiringly about his experience with the Bullitt Center and we later sat down with him, First Green Bank CEO Ken LaRoe, and Brian Walsh, president of The Collage Companies, to talk about the possibility of the bank’s constructing its new Clermont branch to meet Living Building standards. At the conclusion of our visit Ken had not only committed the bank to the challenge, but was hoping to do so at a cost that would be replicable by others who are also aspired to move beyond LEED.
Just prior to the projects first charrette with its construction collaborators on August 26, we touched base again with Collage’s Brian Walsh. As he describes the project he slips naturally into the language of regenerative design. He notes, for example, that this project is to be about architecture and construction operating in [right] relationship to the environment— not just taking from it, but giving back as well.
One of the critical challenges, says Brian, will be to strive for a balance between “cost” and “cool,” ensuring that the project is built with a reasonable, replicable price tag attached. “We won’t have an open-ended budget where we are trying to be cool and creative and find a way to pay for it later,” he reports. This is the very same counsel he offered at our initial meeting, after which both Ken and Stuart began to talk about a not-to-distant future when a Class A office building would be defined, not in terms of marble and so-called prestige material, but in terms of what it gave back to the community and place in which it was situated.
Constructing the building within the bank's targeted budget will be additionally challenging because of the building’s small footprint, Brian reports. “If you have 250,000 square feet you have economies of scale you can work with,” he explains, “but with the 2,500 square foot space we will be working with, everything we do increases the costs significantly.”
Then there are the constraints of existing building code, which require another kind of balancing act as well as resourcefulness, innovativeness, and adaptability to real world constraints. . “Lake County doesn’t allow composting toilets and purifying your own water system on site,” he reports. “They consider that a health hazard. So one of the imperatives will be to spend time and money talking to the state to get them to understand the broader spectrum of what we are trying to do in creating structures that give back. That is the yin and yang of regenerative design. We physically can’t do certain things because code prohibits it. So what do we do about it? The alternative is to lobby for better understanding and for change.”
Another imperative is to get the project done not just at a reasonable cost but also in a reasonable time frame. “We don’t want to do a project that takes four times as long because it is a Living Building,” Brian maintains. “It won’t help persuade others to do it. “ The hope is the permitting process will begin in early 2016 and that construction will follow shortly thereafter in the second quarter.
The Living Building challenge is also aligned with two other Regenerative Design principles: it is about intentionally creating the conditions for the edge effect to work its magic, and, out of that condition, the empowered participation of the broadest spectrum of stakeholders in the project.
Brian notes that two firms Collage has worked with in the past and that have experience with aspects of the Living Building challenge will be involved in the Clermont Branch project North Carolina-based Little Diversified Architecture Consulting and Florida-based TLC Engineering --and that will be a huge advantage.
But this project is not going to be one where everyone is operating in his or her comfort zone, in familiar ways, with time-tested collaborators. Indeed, the Living Building Challenge virtually requires bringing building subcontractors into the process in a meaningful way early on. “Historically these people are not even brought to the table during the design process,” Brain reports, “but as soon as we have a pretty reasonable conceptual direction, we will get them involved to see how we practically do the stuff we think we can do. We expect them to say to us, ‘this is a great idea but it costs too much money,’ or ‘we can’t get that product to do that’ or, ‘what you are thinking won’t meet the requirements of the Living Building challenge.’” “There will be a lot of start and stop,” he predicts. .“I anticipate it won’t all be smooth going.”
But, as noted above, in that “starting and stopping “and “not so smooth” defines the messiness and exhilaration of the edge effect where the most exciting innovation is likely to happen. Brian seems to think so too:: “I always like collaboration and this project by its very nature will push that to the limit. We will be orchestrating the project together in real time, practicing the music before we perform the piece.”
All team members will participate in the orchestration of honoring community and place— truly regenerating the site both literally and figuratively. The architectural team will be working on the building’s form and the structure and how they serve desired operational and programmatic elements. The mechanical and electrical engineering firm will be addressing systematic elements—the dynamics of how the building functions and breathes. Civil engineers will need to be both sensitive to the building site and its grounds and creative about how they enliven it. “In this case it is not like we are out in a forest and cutting down trees,” says Brian. “It is in a suburban environment off a major thoroughfare and the ground is flat. So we have to figure out how to reenergize the site.”
Brian admits that perhaps the biggest challenges will be to create a building that becomes a real community asset, that boldly demonstrates that the bank is committed to its regenerative, values-based mission. Given the projects small footprint, that will not be easy. One proposal on the table is to create a community garden on the site.
Could the bank think bigger, and perhaps partner with a not for profit that is closely aligned with its values, creating a second story that would literally house their joint missions above the banks day-to-day operations below and link them in a meaningful way? This is just one of many ideas we hope First Green Bank will entertain. It is still early days for this cutting edge project. Stay tuned for the continuing story.