Courtesy International Living Future Institute

Smith College’s newest building, the Bechtel Environmental Classroom, achieved top honors in environmental sustainability by meeting all 20 demanding performance requirements of the Living Building Challenge, a green building certification program created by the nonprofit International Living Future Institute. The Bechtel Environmental Classroom is only the fifth building in the world and the first building in New England to receive Living Building certification.

Designed by Amherst, Mass.–based Coldham & Hartman Architects, the 2,300-square-foot classroom in Whately, Mass., is a wood-framed building that serves as a field station for a 233-acre forest and pasture property. It doubles as a classroom and seminar space.

The Living Building Challenge is considered the most rigorous and comprehensive design- and performance-based building standard, surpassing similar programs such as LEED and BREEAM. “The Living Building Challenge is straightforward, but immensely difficult,” says Bruce Coldham, FAIA, one of the firm’s principals, in a press release.

The challenge consists of seven different “Petals”—Equity, Beauty, Health, Site, Water, Energy, and Materials—that highlight issues of sustainability, aesthetics, and education. Buildings must match a total of 20 imperatives in the seven categories to fulfill the certification.

The Water and Energy categories require the building to function at net-zero consumption. The building uses solar panels and an innovative septic system involving composting toilets to fit the consumption imperatives. Since the building’s opening in September 2012, students have monitored a range of data points of electricity and water usage to demonstrate that the building operated over its first year of occupancy as a net-zero facility.

Courtesy Coldham & Hartman Architects

The Material standard—considered the most difficult of all seven categories—required every material component to have the manufacturer’s certification that the product was free of carcinogenic and endocrine-disrupting chemical agents (items on the so-called “Red List”).

“The design and construction of this remarkable building has been a great way to engage our students’ cross-disciplinary abilities and put them in a position where they were making production decisions,"  said Drew Guswa, professor of engineering and director of Smith’s Center for Environment, Ecological Design and Sustainability (CEEDS) in a press release. "The building has been, and will continue to be, an invaluable teaching tool.” Students in the CEEDS program had input into the center’s design, according to Guswa.

Although the breakdown of all all projects certified by the International Living Future Institute is split between residential, commercial, and educational or instutional, all five of the certified Living Building Challenge projects have been educational facilities. The program works well with educational projects, because one of the imperatives in the "Beauty Petal" stipulates that the building must serve educational and inspirational purposes. The building must be open to the public for a tour once a year to facilitate direct contact with the Living Building Challenge.

"The Bechtel Environmental Classroom is a wonderful example of how the Living Building Challenge can inspire a new vision for educating our future generations,” said Living Building Challenge vice president Amanda Sturgeon in a press release. “The project demonstrates the kind of commitment it takes for a group of people to make true positive change in the world."