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ASU students use radical solutions to advise local wildlife nonprofit

schematic of Liberty Wildlife Foundation's new facility entrance
November 19, 2014

The current trend in sustainable, or "green," construction usually follows the traditional route of gray concrete, hard glass and steel structures. These buildings may operate more efficiently, but not always truly effectively. Now, a new building practice is popping up, taking inspiration from an unlikely source: a flower.

The International Living Future Institute established the Living Building Challenge, not as a competition but as a philosophy that believes buildings are functionally embedded within ecosystems, not separate. A building – whether it is a home, school or office – must operate like a flower, meaning it must produce its own energy, capture the water it needs and reuse its waste without depleting the surrounding environment.

“We are going through environmental changes so rapidly that we need a radical solution,” said Fernanda Cruz Rios, an Arizona State University construction engineering student from Brazil. “The philosophy behind Living Buildings sounds like utopia, but it’s a feasible utopia with solid principles.”

This “utopia” was the inspiration behind a new course offered through ASU’s School of Sustainability called Creating Living Buildings and taught by Mick Dalrymple, senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, and Oswald Chong, associate professor in the Del E. Webb School of Construction.

“We want to inform the next generation of green building professionals on the Living Building Challenge and what Living Buildings are,” said Dalrymple, also a practice lead for the Global Sustainability Solutions Services, a program of the Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives. “Buildings consume natural resources, contribute to climate change and impact human health and productivity. Instead of thinking of green buildings as being less bad, we should think about how buildings can do more good, and that’s the philosophy behind the Living Building Challenge.”

For a class project, Cruz Rios and her classmates advised Liberty Wildlife Foundation, a local native wildlife rehabilitation nonprofit, currently based in a Scottsdale residence.

“We are so limited by our location’s size, and we are taking in more animal rescues every day,” said Megan Mosby, executive director of Liberty Wildlife Foundation. “Our new facility in Phoenix will be a wildlife hospital and education center. As an environmental organization, it would be fraudulent if this facility hurt the surrounding ecosystem. We want to minimize its impact as much as possible.”

The students were asked to infuse the Living Building Challenge principles into their research for Liberty Wildlife Foundation’s new facility. The challenge is based around seven performance categories called petals: place; water; energy; health and happiness; materials; equity; and beauty. Being in a desert, the water petal proved the most challenging for Liberty Wildlife Foundation.

The class, comprised of graduate and undergraduate students, researched average monthly rainfall, water use demand for the building and grounds, greywater produced by the building’s users and other water use, like washing animal enclosures. By calculating the facility’s total water consumption, the students were able to recommend building techniques that contribute toward the water petal.

“This course is unlike any other,” said Chong. “Students develop solutions for real projects that surpass the requirements of existing green building standards. A project like the Liberty Wildlife Foundation facility creates a permanent impact on how the students learn and apply their knowledge.”

Liberty Wildlife Foundation plans to implement the students’ suggestions, which include rainwater catchments and storage, greywater irrigation and bioswales, in its new facility.

“The students provided a fresh outlook on our facility’s design, and we learned so much from them,” said Mosby. “With their expertise, our new facility will operate efficiently while also engaging the public on sustaining and enjoying our local wildlife for years to come.”

While Liberty Wildlife Foundation gained new insights into sustainable construction, the students experienced what it’s like working with a real-life client on real-life sustainability issues. The students also collaborated with local practitioners who shared their expertise in green building techniques for a hot, arid climate.

“This course gave me an idea of what it’s like to be a green building consultant,” Cruz Rios said. “Through this class and project I built a network across campus and clients that I can work with later.”

Cruz Rios plans to return to her native Brazil to consult on Living Buildings and spread what she calls “contagious passion.”

“Working with clients like Liberty Wildlife Foundation is especially motivating because they care – you have to care to adopt the Living Building Challenge,” she said.

And it is this contagious passion of individuals across the world that has grown a utopia of Living Buildings, each one dotting the global landscape like a spackling of wildflowers in a field.

The SOS 498/594 Designing a Living Building course is available in the spring semester and will focus on the conceptual design of the Resource Innovation and Solutions Network headquarters in Phoenix. Graduate and undergraduate architecture, social equity, interior design, engineering, art and sustainability students are encouraged to enroll. Class funding is generously provided by the Ramsey Social Justice Foundation and by the City of Phoenix through the Resource Innovation and Solutions Network.

The Living Building Challenge and Living Buildings are trademarked programs of the International Living Future Institute.