Georgia Tech Building Takes Shape in Schematic Design

Living Building, Georgia Tech, Miller Hull, Lord Aeck Sargent, schematic design

Brian Court and Joshua Gassman imagine the South’s greenest campus building as an airy space spanned by timbers, like the sun-dappled woods around it.

“The experience of somebody moving through will be a profound connection to the outside environment,” says Court, who together with Gassman, is leading the design team for the Living Building at Georgia Tech.

The two architects crossed a key threshold in December when the university’s Planning & Design Commission endorsed their schematic design for the building. Now, they and the multidisciplinary team they’re leading have moved on to detailing out the project during the design development phase. Construction could begin in the fall.

Court and Gassman have been working together on the Living Building for more than a year now, starting when their respective firms — The Miller Hull Partnership in Seattle and Lord Aeck Sargent in Atlanta — partnered in an ideas competition for the project.

One of the team’s strengths was Miller Hull’s credentials as architect for the world’s most heralded certified Living Building, the Bullitt Center in Seattle. Now, Court is reprising his role as project designer for the Living Building at Georgia Tech (the architect who does most of the drawing), while Gassman serves as project manager (the architect who makes sure the entire team is working together effectively). Both say the organic process of the Living Building has blurred those roles.

“We’re working more as an integrated team — as if we were all one firm,” Court says. “It’s been very similar to working on the Bullitt Center. Because [Miller Hull has] been through the exercise once before, we’re able to be more deliberative about it now. And I think now we’re able to be a little more focused and strategic in our decision-making processes.”

Unlike anything else on campus
landscape, porch, Georgia Tech, Living Building
The Living Building’s dominant porch and integral landscape will give it a unique look. Image by Miller Hull.

The building is shaping up with a distinctive look and feel. Last May, soon after Lord Aeck Sargent and Miller Hull won the ideas competition, the team agreed with university officials to focus on one of the two options they’d presented during the contest. That scheme calls for a 42,000-square-foot building oriented north-south, with a wide porch on its western side.

Unlike the steel and brick structures that predominate on Tech’s campus, the Living Building will be framed on exposed glue-laminated timbers (known as “glulams”). A central atrium wrapped in glass and a glass wall backing up the generous porch will draw the site, on the edge of the university’s soon-to-be-created Eco-Commons, into the building.

Offices, labs, classrooms and study space will be housed in two narrow, two-story rectangles — one east of the atrium and adjacent to State Street, the other sitting between the western edge of the atrium and the porch. A third block, north of the atrium, will be the auditorium.

The effect will be for the building to turn away from State Street and face toward the Eco-Commons. The structure itself takes the form of three sheds bound together by the light-filled space between them.

“We’re trying to break down the mass and the scale of the building,” Court says. “So instead of one big box, we’re kind of exploding the box from the inside.”

‘Long life/loose fit’
student center, Georgia Tech, Living Building
A “student center” space on the first floor will offer views of the porch and landscape. Image by Miller Hull.

Usually, universities identify a specific need before raising the money for a building. But the Kendeda Fund approached Georgia Tech with a gift of $30 million for design, construction and operation of a Living Building. Tech was offered a great deal of flexibility in defining its role.

According to part of the contract between Kendeda and Georgia Tech, “the building will house and support the delivery of ongoing educational, outreach/engagement, and research opportunities for the campus, neighboring community, and regional building industry/government.”

With such an open-ended opportunity, the architects and university officials worked out a flexible program to serve multiple purposes. The building’s uses will be able to change over time. Gassman likes to refer to it as the “long-life/loose-fit” approach.


GALLERYschematic design, Georgia Tech, Living Building

Take a close look at the floor plan


On the two floors of the east rectangle, the architects propose offices and workstations for 21 employees, as well as four medium-sized teaching labs. The west rectangle will include large classrooms, study areas and “maker spaces” with large glass doors opening up to the porch. Occupants also will be able to reconfigure the auditorium.

A faculty committee, led by Architecture Professor Michael Gamble, concurrently is reviewing how the building might address academic and research needs. The building itself is expected to serve as a lab for high-performance buildings and technology. That’s consistent with an overriding principle in Living Buildings — transparency — that’s particularly useful at a university with so many educational programs related to design, materials and construction. As Gamble puts it, the faculty panel is working on ideas that would “infuse learning from the building into the building.”

Gassman admits that the semi-blank slate creates design challenges that must continue to be addressed during design development, which began in last month and is expected to completed in the Spring.

“In a conventional process, you know in great detail about what the owner wants and needs from very early in the process,” Gassman says. “In this case, the design team and Georgia Tech have been refining the building program along the way.”

Water: What to do with it
Living Building, Georgia Tech, water
Water from plumbing, plantings and the roof will head into various underground tanks and then on to be cleaned or discharged into the landscape. Image by Biohabitats Inc.

Over the seven months leading up to the schematic design’s completion, the team’s 40 or so architects, engineers, landscape architects, cost estimators and other assorted professionals worked through a series of hard decisions. Some are typical for a commercial project’s schematic design stage. Others are unique to the Living Building Challenge.

For example, the LBC requires all water used in the building to be collected and treated onsite, and wastewater to be cleaned and released onsite. Overall runoff may not exceed pre-development conditions either – essentially, the site must act like a forest. So handling wastewater isn’t as simple as hooking up to the sewer system.

Water supply decisions were straightforward. In Georgia’s climate, there should be plenty of rainwater, which makes it a task of designing adequate storage and treatment.

water, Biohabitats Inc., Living Building, Georgia Tech
Click on thumbnail to view this detailed flowchart of the building’s proposed water cycle. Image created by Biohabitats Inc.

But it took an analysis by Biohabitats Inc., an environmental engineering firm that specializes in ecosystem restoration, to weigh the costs and benefits of two potential wastewater solutions.

One would send all wastewater into a “blackwater” treatment system that would discharge fully cleaned water into the Eco-Commons watershed. The other would use a combination of “foam-flush” composting toilets and a greywater treatment system to recycle most of the water for other uses.

At a July charrette, the team concluded that operating a “blackwater” mini-treatment plant would be prohibitively expensive. They opted for the composting toilets and greywater solution. A flowchart developed by Biohabitats (above) shows how a simple idea in principle can get very complicated once it’s applied to a building.

There can be advantages to designing an innovative building at a leading technological research university. Georgia Tech’s Howard S. Wertheimer, notes that as their capstone project, a team of Civil and Environmental Engineering students worked with Biohabitats and Georgia Tech faculty and staff to develop a proposal to segregate urine from the greywater stream. The urine would add nutrients to fertilizer that would be used in the adjacent landscape. While the urine separation idea still is being studied, Wertheimer says it demonstrates how faculty and students are contributing to the building’s features.

Wants and needs
solar, photovoltaic, schematic design, Georgia Tech, Living Building
The design team considered raising the solar panels to create a large, covered rooftop deck. Image by Miller Hull.

The July charrette that yielded the wastewater decision also produced a fresh idea to run through the analytical gauntlet. Why not, one participant asked, raise the solar panels so that much of roof would become a huge sheltered deck? That would give the building more flexible space for studying, events and even outdoor classes.

Technically, such a change wouldn’t be difficult. But creating a deck on the roof would require extending an extra set of stairs and an elevator. U.S. Cost, the project’s estimating consultant, relayed the bad news in late September — shortly after the project team moved from its programming phase to schematic design. All told, building a deck under the solar panels would cost an additional $700,000. In fact, that was just the largest chunk on a growing wish list that had hiked projected costs some $4 million over budget.

“We had a kind of come-to-Jesus meeting,” Court says. Georgia Tech Executive Vice President for Administration and Finance Steve Swant, the top university official involved in the project, made it clear that the construction budget was firm at $18.6 million. So the team was forced to do a bit of cost reduction.

Spending a lot of time on an intriguing idea that doesn’t pan out shouldn’t be surprising for a project focused on transforming the way buildings are designed and constructed. Cutting out features to stay within budget is fairly routine.

“That is a completely conventional scenario. The list of desired features inevitably grows beyond the budget.” Gassman says. “It’s just that on this building we’re spending more time brainstorming for creative solutions, so naturally there are even more interesting ideas than usual.”

And in a Living Building, those ideas can be more complex to analyze, more people are likely to be involved in analyzing them, and choosing one nifty idea over the other can be a particularly gut-wrenching endeavor.

You forage what you eat
edible landscape, Andropogon, landscape, Georgia Tech
Woody plants and perennials will provide most food for the Urban Agriculture Imperative. Image by Andropogon.

In October, the team did figure out a way to get some activity on top of the building. Reducing the volume for the single-story auditorium from double-story height will allow occupants to walk out onto the auditorium roof from the second floor of the atrium.

The 3,000-square-foot rooftop will contribute to the building’s urban agriculture component. It will house a honeybee apiary, along with a pollinator garden, a blueberry orchard and medicinal plants.

The LBC’s Urban Agriculture imperative establishes a formula to determine how much total site area must be set aside for “crops, livestock and other strategies that contribute to human health and/or food consumption.” For the Living Building at Georgia Tech, the requirement comes to 12,577 square feet. The rooftop garden will provide about a quarter of that, while an understory “edible landscape” in front of the porch will make up nearly half.

What will be in that “edible landscape”? According to a description from Andropogon Associates, the project’s landscape architect: “Understory trees, shrubs, and groundcovers that produce edibles, coupled with interpretive signage, will encourage students to pick and eat tree fruit and berries throughout the year.”

Rounding out the agricultural components proposed in the schematic design are edible vines crawling up exterior walls near the building’s Ferst Drive entrance and on the west side of the auditorium, as well a grove of tulip poplar trees, which are excellent early-season pollinators for bees.

Unlike conventional row crops, the foraging approach doesn’t require ongoing land disturbance. In fact, perennial plants have root systems that hold the soil in place. The Georgia Tech site isn’t exactly ideal for row crops, either. It slopes gently to the north, which means sunlight hits it less directly. Andropogon also has proposed shade trees in the area to keep the afternoon sun from baking the building’s west side. Under those conditions, woodland shrubs and perennials do better than corn and tomatoes.

“We’re trying to stack multiple functions in everything that we do on this project,” says Andropogon principal Jose Alminana . “You have a landscape that is creating and enhancing the spaces, a landscape that is supporting beneficial species such as pollinators, a landscape that is supporting the production of food for humans and other species, and a landscape that is processing the rainwater.”

The edible landscape approach offers another interesting benefit for the Living Building’s Equity Petal: Foraging lends itself to free access by anyone to the food; harvesting crops tends to be more proprietary. That may not mean so much on the Georgia Tech campus, where students, faculty and visitors presumably aren’t going hungry. But, in addition to functioning well themselves, Living Buildings are intended to serve as models for best practices.

“There’s this wonderful movement of people who feel real comfortable going out for a day or just a few minutes foraging for mushrooms and berries, other fruit and nuts,” notes Jimmy Mitchell, project manager for the builder, Skanska USA. “Once you put it in rows, it’s sort of feels off-limits. But people love the idea of just foraging.”

Materials: More wood, less carbon
atrium, glulam, Living Building, Georgia Tech
Rendering of the atrium displays glulam beams, wood posts and wood finishes. Image by Miller Hull.

Last fall, the team began the painstaking task of researching materials for the building.

The Living Building Challenge bars a whole series of “Red List” materials found to be harmful to human health or the environment. Certification programs and databases are beginning to make it easier to find qualified materials. The Portico platform — a collaboration between Google and the Healthy Building Network — promises to create a clearinghouse to coordinate information on the various databases. But that specialized supply chain has a long way to go, especially in the Southeast.

According to the schematic design documents, “Simple, straight forward methods of construction highlighting a materials palette primarily found in nature are being explored. The palette will be regionally appropriate, low carbon, durable, non-toxic and cost effective.”

The earliest big decision on materials came over the summer. It regarded the structure itself. The design team proposed that most posts and beams be composed of custom-made, architectural grade glue-laminated timbers. The exposed timbers are relatively expensive, but they convey a warmth and beauty that can’t be replicated by steel or concrete.

carbon output, steel, concrete, timber
Click on thumbnail for a comparison of costs and carbon outputs between concrete, steel and timber.

Then, there are the environmental benefits. Wood requires a fraction of the energy used to produce concrete or steel. That means much lower embedded emissions of carbon dioxide. And glulam timbers can be bound together with a combination of pressure and glue, making them the kind of “straight forward” product that the project team is aiming for.

Another benefit of glulams happens to be geography. Georgia is among the nation’s leading lumber producers. But few Georgia growers are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, the leading sustainable wood products certification program. Those that are FSC certified primarily market their products for the paper industry.

So Gassman and his colleagues at Lord Aeck Sargent are seeking local FSC growers who could supply lumber for the glulams. It’s the kind of market development that the LBC was set up to encourage.

“We’re doing everything we can to get Georgia-sourced FSC wood. We’re hoping there’s an opportunity for us to help transform the market,” Gassman says. “It’s a tremendous opportunity for one or more of those growers to get involved and transform the marketplace.”

Energy: A core challenge
solar, photovoltaic, Georgia Tech, Living Building
Solar on the upper roof, seen from the west, will tilt toward the southern sun. Image by Miller Hull.

The first thing many people think about when discussing green buildings is energy. And LBC sets a very ambitious standard. Under LBC 3.1, which Georgia Tech’s project is being designed to attain, a building must produce 105 percent of the energy it uses, and all of that must come from clean, renewable sources.

Marc Brune of PAE Engineers, the Portland firm leading mechanical, electrical and plumbing design for the building, says a key challenge facing Georgia Tech is to achieve that goal in the Southeast’s hot, humid climate. We’ll have a more complete story on the mechanical and energy system soon. For now, however, it’s worth noting that the schematic design calls for a combination of systems.
For example, radiant pipes embedded in concrete floors will heat and cool most of the building. In the summer, a custom-made dedicated outdoor air system, or DOAS, will dehumidify the building by running outside air over cooler coils that condense out moisture as the air enters the building. And photovoltaic panels on the upper roof are expected to generate nearly 300 kilowatts of electricity.
Brune says his team spent a fair amount of time modeling screening options being considered by the design team to allow natural light into the building while reducing the cooling. To supplement shade trees, the architects settled on strategically placed, external, horizontal shades on east and west windows.
The collage of energy solutions offers a tantalizing example of how the building itself might advance one of the project’s larger goals: To serve as a model for regenerative building across the Southeast and in similar climates around the world.
“Our aspiration is that the systems being employed on this project, and the mechanical solutions in particular, will serve as an example to be replicated by others in high humidity climates,” Greg Spiro, a senior mechanical engineer with Georgia Tech Facilities Management’s Design and Construction team,  said in an interview with the university’s Rachael Pocklington. This project has the potential to fundamentally change the way we think about heating and cooling buildings.”

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