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CASE STUDY 1

An Early Start in Material Selection Achieves Challenging Sustainability Objectives

VanDusen Botanical Garden Visitor Center is first building in Canada to apply for the Living Building Challenge

By Max Richter, Senior Architect Associate, Perkins+Will

Located in the heart of urban Vancouver in a temperate rainforest climate, the VanDusen Botanical Garden is a 55- acre oasis. Its Visitor Center, certified as LEED Platinum, is the first building in Canada to apply for the Living Building Challenge.

Perkins+Will was the architect, product specifier, and sustainability consultant for the project with the primary responsibility to choose materials. The City of Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation supported the sustainability goals of the project and demonstrated an openness to a materials selection process that was longer and more challenging than for a conventional project.

At the outset of the project, the project team (Who is on the team?) established a comprehensive set of sustainable objectives that included goals for materials selection:

  • Avoid building products that contain substances on the Living Building Challenge materials Red
  • Select locally sourced materials and
  • Use wood as the primary structural system and utilize 100% Forest Stewardship Council-certified
  • Choose building products that have a low embodied carbon
  • Source and use reclaimed and salvaged

Key Strategies for Success

#1: Limiting the use of materials had the dual benefits of reinforcing the architectural expression of the building and using local building products that were easily understood in composition and origin

#2: Because the adoption of transparency in the building materials industry was just getting underway, developing custom questionnaires helped to address the documentation requirements of the Living Building Challenge

Limiting the use of materials had the dual benefits of reinforcing the architectural expression of the building and using local building products that were easily understood in composition and origin.

Key Strategy for Success 1: Use simple materials of simple origin and ingredients

Three sustainable design charrettes were held as the project concept was being developed. (ah-ha solution) It was during this phase that the design team discovered one of the best strategies to meet the requirements of the Living Building Challenge: use simple materials with simpler origin and ingredient stories.

Considering the combined challenges of finding Red-List-free building products, specifying products available locally, and minimizing the embodied carbon footprint of the project, the project team chose to limit the design to a palette of only a few elemental materials — heavy timber, glass, aluminum, and concrete.

Limiting the use of materials had the dual benefits of reinforcing the architectural expression of the building and using local building products that were easily understood in composition and origin.

Key Strategy for Success 2: Address product material requirements with suppliers

Schematic design for the project started in early 2008, before the Health Product Declaration standard was inaugurated and just as the Healthy Building Network’s Pharos Project was launched.

Because the adoption of transparency in the building materials industry was just getting underway, developing custom questionnaires helped to address the documentation requirements of the Living Building Challenge.

These were distributed to suppliers whose products were being considered for use in the project.

Communicate the project’s aims and requirements

Building materials manufacturers were familiar with the requirements for LEED certification, such as VOC emission rates and the percentages of recycled content, but were less well acquainted with the aims and requirements of the Living Building Challenge.

A common response to the request for transparency and disclosure about materials was, “Why do you need that information? It’s not required for LEED.” That hurdle was overcome through explanation and communication with the manufacturers.

Monitor Suppliers to Avoid Substances on the Red List

A secondary challenge was that many manufacturers purchase ingredients or parts from other suppliers and had either not investigated the composition of those products and/or were prevented from reporting information by nondisclosure agreements.

The challenge of avoiding substances on the Red List continued into the construction phase of the project. Ledcor played a vital role in communicating and policing the requirements of the Living Building Challenge with all of the subcontractors. Through the construction process, the subcontractors embraced the design and the objectives of the project and took an active role in suggesting construction methods or products that would help the project.

Lessons learned

The primary lesson learned was to start the process of materials research, selection, and specification early in the design process. Because comprehension of the objectives and documentation requirements of the Living Building Challenge was not widespread, educating the manufacturers became one of our primary roles in the process. A second lesson learned was to choose a simple palette of materials. Complex, composite materials necessitate spending additional time and effort in discussion and correspondence with the manufacturers to fully determine their suitability for the project. Despite the extensive research, many products specified for the project had small, unforeseen components that contained Red List substances, such as the neoprene gaskets found in illuminated exit signs. Ultimately, the project team’s strategies of starting the research and selection process early and keeping the material palette simple helped the project achieve the challenging set of sustainable objectives.