Georgia Tech’s Eco-Commons project demonstrates cutting-edge sustainable building concepts in partnership with the Kendeda Foundation. Members of ULI Atlanta were recently included in a hard-hat tour of the site, which is under construction.

Eco-Commons is a 10-acre (4 ha) site dedicated to being an environmentally friendly section of campus. The goal is to reduce the car-centered footprint of the campus, increase the tree canopy, and use stormwater runoff and wastewater to reduce the use of potable water in the area.

A view of the west side of the Kendeda Building. On the left is the brick-enclosed auditorium. Above the auditorium is where the rooftop garden will go. The brick is from all reused materials. (Jarrod Woodley/ULI)

One of the tour guides and project architect, Alissa Kingsley of Lord Aeck Sargent, laid out the specifics of the building. “This project is unique in that—for a higher education building—it didn’t start with a specific department or college. It started with the idea that they wanted to explore this opportunity and build this as sort of a research effort. This building is about 37,000 square feet [3,400 sq m]. It is comprised of a large auditorium, 170 seats. [The auditorium] has a flat floor. They wanted that for maximum flexibility for other events, not just lectures.  There are two 70-person classrooms, four class labs, and a large study space/collaboration space. And an educational roof garden.”

Jimmy Mitchell, Kendeda Building’s project manager, explains how they created the decking for the Kendeda Building from recycled material. (Jarrod Woodley/ULI)

“And 10,000 square feet [929 sq m] of outdoor programing,” added James “Jimmy” Mitchell of Skanska, the project manager for the project and the other tour guide.

The Kendeda Building was funded through a $30 million grant from the Kendeda Foundation, through the Living Building Challenge. The Living Building Challenge is built on seven performance categories called petals, said one of the tour guides. Each petal represents an aspect of nature or life that the building is trying to preserve: health, water, equity, beauty, energy, site, and materials. Under these seven petals are 20 imperatives. All 20 imperatives must be completed in order to meet the requirements. After explaining the challenge, Mitchell used it as an opportunity to show one of the features that would be seen inside the building. The decking inside the building was created with recycled and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified wood. The decking was created with two-by-sixes for structural loads and the two-by-fours between the two-by-sixes were used as spacers. They found this idea to be innovative from a load-bearing and acoustical perspective. The building is very large and open with concreate floors, so anything to help condense sound was welcomed.

After the building introduction, the two groups donned hard hats and safety vests and trekked into the building. Kingsley’s group started in the space that will house the rooftop garden. The roof garden is located directly above the auditorium space and will house nut-bearing and fruit-bearing trees. The idea is that this space will not need to be maintained by gardening. It will assimilate into the larger ecosystem naturally, with native animals taking care of the foliage.

Tour members view the main interior of the building featuring the recycled decking. (Jarrod Woodley/ULI)

The tour continued through the classroom spaces as Kingsley pointed out the features of the building that comply with the seven petals. The building does not have forced-air cooling and heating systems. The building relies on radiant cooling and heating from water pumped in from other parts of the campus. There is ductwork in the space, but it is only used to bring in natural air from the outside. In addition, these windows are automatically controlled, so they can’t be opened and closed by just anyone. If they are opened, they will shut automatically after five minutes. These advancements will keep the building at 68 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter and 78 degrees in the summer with minimal energy use.

The next stops on the tour showed how the Kendeda Building will meet the water requirement. The bathrooms feature composting toilets, which use significantly less water. “For comparison,” Kingsley pointed out, “a regular toilet uses two or three gallons [7.5 to 11.3 liters] of water to flush. These toilets will use about a tablespoon of water.” After the bathroom stop, the tour moved on to the first floor where the pipes used to collect rainwater in the cistern in the basement are on display. This water is filtered and used throughout the building.

Rainwater collection pipes with the first filter. (Jarrod Woodley/ULI)

The auditorium is the only part of the building that will use a mechanical forced-air system and carpet. Kingsley said, “When they were working to see how the acoustics would work, we realize that we wouldn’t be able to make the sound work without some changes to the plan.”

The last stop on the interior part of the tour was the basement. The basement will feature an open look at all the systems that make the Kendeda building work. The idea is for the building’s users and visitors to see this building as a learning experience as well.  People going into the area will see the collection bins for the composting toilets. . Visitors to building will also be able to see through the mechanical wall panels, which will feature high-tech solutions such as Tesla batteries for on-site energy storage.

One of the tour participants asked Kingsley, “What has been your biggest challenge with this building?” She responded that the biggest challenge was that there wasn’t a guide for the project. Building codes for this type of project do not exist yet. The project leaders had to fight hard to get someone to permit the project.

Current building codes prevent the use of the rain-collecting cistern on site because the current code (from the 1800s) prohibits a building from having standing rainwater anywhere on site.  The group had to borrow from the Canadian code as a guide on the site. They finally were able to get permitting through the Environmental Protection Department, a division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

The other challenge was there was no guide that came for the “Red List,” a list of materials and chemicals that cannot be used in any form with a project. This presents a challenge because a lot of construction materials contain different raw materials that are not always readily available from product information. “You have to solicit the manufacturer—not even the sales rep—to get all that information,” Kingsley explained. “One way we got around that process was to introduce as little material as possible. Keep it a very clean building. Not complicated.”

As southeastern cities like Atlanta continue to grow, demonstration projects like this are helping to lead the way on what is possible to build for a more sustainable future.