The first time Barry Berlin heard of the Bullitt Center was when Diana Blank called him with an idea: How could the Kendeda Fund go about creating a Living Building on a similar scale in Atlanta? It was May 2013.
“She’s telling me about this wonderful building, and I’m pulling it up on Google just so I can see what she’s talking about,” says Berlin, longtime financial advisor and strategist to the philanthropy founded by Blank. “I asked her, ‘So you want me to see if we can build one of these here?’ And she said, ‘Do you think we can?’ And I said, ‘We’ll never know until we try.’ ”
So Blank tasked Berlin with a mission. Figure out whether the idea was feasible. If it was, figure out how to make it happen.
Kendeda was a longtime supporter of the Living Building Challenge. Building an actual Living Building — particularly a large one — was a big step beyond helping to get the LBC off the ground. But it held a strategic logic. Kendeda’s grants to support the LBC over the previous six years had borne significant fruit. The Challenge was making inroads in the West, the Northeast and the Midwest — even internationally. But few Living Buildings were underway in the Southeast. None were yet certified.
As longtime Kendeda Fund advisor Diane Ives put it: “This was an opportunity to bring this innovation that we’d been a involved in to a part of the country where it hadn’t yet been embraced.”
A building project also addressed one of Blank’s philanthropic goals. Anonymously, she had been working for years to make Atlanta a healthier place for people to live and work. Here was an idea that could plant the seeds for healthier, more environmentally sustainable buildings across the region.
Berlin recognized that the Fund would have to approach a project of this magnitude methodically.
“We didn’t know at the time what shape the building would take,” Berlin recalls. “We just knew that we needed to research what it would take to build it in a way that achieved the goals Mrs. Blank had articulated.”
There were big questions, Berlin recalls. “You had to think about whether this was even feasible to do in our climate. And you had to ask: Was there a purpose for the building, and what purpose would be enough to justify a fairly substantial building? And then of course: Who owns, operates and maintains the building over time? It’s all well and good to build it, but you don’t just build a building, and then leave it.”
“I knew enough to know that I didn’t know enough,” Berlin continues. So he began to assemble a “kitchen cabinet” to help the Fund work its way through the various issues. It was time to call upon relationships that Kendeda had built over the years, both in Atlanta and in the green building community.
The first person who came mind: Southface Energy Institute founder Dennis Creech. For more than 40 years, Creech has led efforts to improve Southeastern building practices. He’s a nationally respected authority in sustainability circles. And he’s also worked with Kendeda extensively. In fact, Kendeda helped fund the Southface Eco-Office, one of the first LEED Platinum buildings in Georgia.
Creech’s first bit of feedback to Berlin was encouraging. Had the Living Building Challenge existed when Southface began work on the Eco-Office, Creech told Berlin, he would have sought LBC certification.
But Creech also emphasized that the eventual owner of the building and the kind of building constructed would be crucial in determining whether the project could be leveraged to transform design and construction across the region.
“To be blunt, people expect something like this in Seattle. They don’t expect something like that in the Southeast,” Creech says. “So I was excited when they contacted me. But for a building to be truly transformational, it has to have a story to tell, and the Living Building Challenge, with its emphasis on not just doing less harm but actually regenerating natural systems, has a great story built in.”
To better understand what they were getting into, the Kendeda team took its first of several field trips to Living Buildings. The Phipps Conservatory’s new Center for Sustainable Landscapes in Pittsburgh was the largest Living Building east of the Mississippi. Actually, at the time, it was one of a few buildings that had survived LBC’s rigorous certification process. It had come out with full certification.
They were joined there for something of a reality check by Jason F. McLennan, primary author of the Living Building Challenge. Kendeda has had a funder-beneficiary relationship with LBC since 2007. Now, the Fund was getting more directly involved — on the cusp of moving forward with an actual project of its own. And McLennan, through his architecture firm, was playing a consultant’s role in the decision-making process.
“He basically was teasing out whether we had the will to win,” Berlin recalls. “We were getting a better idea of what it would take. Diana began putting some shape on how much she was willing to spend. We were talking 25, maybe 30 million dollars. And she said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
With that commitment, The Fund needed to find its partner — an owner who understood the challenge of Living Building, as well as the opportunity the project presented to improve building practices. Among the possibilities were major universities, civic organizations, and a few sites along the Beltline. Most, but not all, the locations were in Atlanta.
As the group vetted prospective owners with whom to partner, Berlin called on another longtime Kendeda associate. A decade earlier, Georgia Tech architecture professor Michael Gamble had won a design competition for an eco-friendly house funded by Kendeda on behalf of Charis Community Housing in Atlanta. Gamble was tempted to make the case for his own employer.
“It occurred to me from the start that Georgia Tech might make a good partner,” Gamble says. “But I didn’t want to push it too hard because Barry invited me into the conversation as an honest broker.”
There were plenty of reasons to approach Tech with the idea. In addition to its schools of architecture and building construction, the university’s engineering departments are heavily involved in research on leading-edge technologies, ranging from structural materials and HVAC systems to photovoltaics and flooring systems that generate electricity from footsteps. The school’s network of alumni — many of whom are design and construction leaders across the Southeast — comprised a natural network with whom to leverage the Living Building message. And the institution’s familiarity with building science carries over to the university’s facilities planners, which now include more than 20 LEED-certified buildings.
“It just seemed to be in a lot of ways a good fit,” Gamble says.
Finally, as the Kendeda team struggled to find the right partner, Gamble broached the subject to Berlin. “It took just a few gentle nudges to say, ‘Hey, you should check with Georgia Tech. They’ve really got the bandwidth.”
Another advantage: Gamble was able to navigate the array of departments, colleges, institutions and offices that can be daunting to outsiders. Of course, the offer of a multi-million grant can open a few doors.
By March 2015, Diana Blank was on campus for a meeting with Howard S. Wertheimer, the university’s director of capital planning and space management. Wertheimer, the campus’ lead architect, had already given other Kendeda staff members a presentation on Georgia Tech’s Campus Master Plan, which emphasizes sustainability, walkability and “high-performance” facilities. He provided the same presentation for Blank and her daughter Dena Kimball, who’d recently come on as Kendeda Fund executive director.
Wertheimer showed Blank a location that he thought would be appropriate — nestled in an ongoing landscape restoration project called the “Eco-Commons.” They capped off the visit by dropping in on school President G.P. “Bud” Peterson, along with Executive Vice President for Administration and Finance Steve Swant.
Peterson himself got curious about Living Buildings. In October 2015, when the Georgia Tech football team traveled up to Pennsylvania to face the University of Pittsburgh, he took a side trip over to the Center for Sustainable Landscapes to get a personal tour from Phipps Executive Director — and Living Building advocate — Richard Piacentini.
Enthusiasm for the project, which was still only known by a handful of people, swelled quietly among campus administrators. Tech officials insist that it wasn’t just because they’d be able to create a major building without having to dip into state resources. For Wertheimer and Swant (who also happened to be trained as an architect), it was an opportunity to focus on best practices and state-of-the-art technology to create a building in the collaborative fashion.
“I see it changing the profession, the practice, the process, the way we do business,” Swant says. “I think it will change the way we live.”
For her part, Blank was quickly sold on Georgia Tech. “I kind of laugh to myself over why we didn’t go there to begin with,” she says. “They have so many assets that make them the right choice.”
Even after they’d decided to work together, it wasn’t easy to finalize the agreement. Swant stresses that funding any major campus building is a complex legal undertaking and working with any major donor is unique. But there were particular complications to the Kendeda deal.
For one thing, Kendeda wanted to be deeply involved in design and construction, because Blank and her advisers want to ensure that it has maximum impact on building practices elsewhere. For another, it was still a bit hazy what the building was for; more often, the university might establish the need for a building before matching that project with the right donors. And, of course, everyone knew going in that working together on a Living Building would present professionals with wholly new ways of doing things.
“Neither party has done anything quite like what we’re doing,” Swant says. “You’re going to hear excitement in my voice when I talk about it, but in no way is it going to be easy.”
By summer 2015, a contract had been hammered out between the two parties. Together with the overall agreement that requires the building to be “conceived, designed, constructed as a Living Building 3.0 certified facility,” there’s a “Project Program,” which describes the building as a “hub for sustainable activities”; a “Disbursement Agreement” that lays out veto rights Kendeda has at key decision points; and a “Gift Agreement” that specifies that Kendeda will provide $25 million for design and construction and $5 million for other activities, including an endowment to operate the building.
As a formal letter from Kimball to Peterson put it: “Our shared goal is to develop and operate a Facility that achieves Living Building Challenge 3.0 certification and is a viable ‘urban’ sustainable building and ecosystem model in the Southeast. The model will provide a dynamic educational experience, a robust research platform, and a public forum for related activities.” Among the “primary outcomes” would be a “positive transformation of the design, engineering, construction and related industries.”
Blank was satisfied that Kendeda had found a partner with the tools to achieve that outcome.
“It’s not about the one building,” she says. “It’s about how this building will be an impetus, because we are behind the rest of the country in thinking not only about building but also about health. We are building this not with the expectation that people are going to duplicate this exact structure, but certainly they can take some of the ideas and lessons from it and apply them to their own project.”
Next: Georgia Tech embarks on a unique “Ideas Competition” to select architects for the Living Building. To keep up with our Building Chronicle, click here.