Regenerative design, the salvage economy, and one building’s quest to ‘live’ sustainably

The Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta is not like other buildings.

Not even a little bit.

On the verge of becoming the first fully certified Living Building (as designated by the International Living Future Institute) of its size in the Southeast, the 47,000-square-foot building (both indoors and out) generates more electricity than it uses, reduces stormwater runoff, and manages its own wastewater onsite.

As its director Shan Arora said, “This building screams sustainability.”

Arora, a lawyer whose path toward a career in sustainability is as unique and innovative as the building he manages, will serve as the keynote speaker at the ASCE Architectural Engineering Institute Conference, held virtually April 7-9, focused on regenerative building design and innovation.

He spoke recently with the Civil Engineering Source about the Kendeda Building, his own journey into this role, and the conversation of morality happening right now around the notion of buildings and the built environment.

Civil Engineering Source: What led you to a place in your career where you’re part of the Living Buildings movement?

Arora: I started my career in the world of international trade and international tax. And I joke, I’m probably the only director of a living building that is a licensed customs broker.

It’s totally random. So yeah, it’s kind of a weird thing. The reason I am and have been in this sustainability world for 11 years is that I had always been personally passionate about environmental issues.

I say everybody is an environmentalist. You have to be. There is no planet B. There’s no other place we can go, and it’s all about connecting with people and understanding where we can find common ground to move toward a sustainable, responsible relationship with the planet.

So 15 years ago I basically made the decision that I was going to shift my career and align it with my passion, and that’s what I did. And two-and-a-half years ago, I was fortunate enough to have been selected for this honor to serve as the director of this project. And we are on the cusp of submitting all the documentation we will need to hopefully to become certified as the first Living Building of this size in the Southeast.

Because of my corporate background, I feel that I can talk to audiences and say, “Look, I am an unapologetic tree-hugger, but I don’t own a pair of Birkenstocks.”

I don’t discount the profit motive. I understand business. I understand economics and capitalism.

But I also am not afraid – and I don’t think any of us should be afraid – to talk about the morality of what it is we’re doing. There is a moral spectrum. But I think there are some fundamental things that human beings, across the board, actually will agree on. So we do have to ask ourselves about the morality of what it is we’re doing to this planet; what it is we’re doing to each other. Is there a better way of doing it?

Source: The Kendeda Building wrapped construction in 2019. Can you give us an overview of what it is and how it functions?

Arora: The building is a non-departmental classroom and teaching lab. And the “non-departmental” is extremely important. We want the full breadth of Georgia Tech’s undergraduate students to go through this building.

Because seeing is believing. We don’t want it to be something that’s only reserved for architecture students.

Before COVID disrupted normal occupancy, a calculus class of 100 students would be in the auditorium, and in the 12-person seminar room, you would have an English class, next to that in the design studio you might have an architecture class. You had geology lab upstairs, earth and atmospheric sciences. You get the idea.

The Living Building Challenge is framed around the metaphor of a flower, and there are these seven petals that a project must satisfy to become a fully certified Living Building. And the metaphor of a flower is very apropos because we want buildings to come into this world, take everything they need from their place, leave with no disruption, and leave more than they took.

That’s what regenerative means. You give back more than you take. In an academic context, that’s what we want our students to do.

The building screams sustainability. You can’t walk into the building and not notice that. It’s not a normal building. So we want the biology student to sit in the common area and maybe strike up a conversation with a calculus student, and then a physics student joins in and in between staring at their phones and TikTok videos, maybe they’ll talk about the building and bring their unique perspective to the challenges that the building seeks to address.

And that pollination will lead to a seed, and where that seed germinates, we don’t know. But I would love if one day a civilization-changing invention is announced and for the team that created that invention to say, “We actually started as a conversation in this regenerative, Living Building at Georgia Tech.”

That’s the vision.

The building is doing so much to be regenerative that it gives us the space we need to get a little preachy and talk about morals. That’s where it comes back to morals.

We anthropomorphize the building. Look at all this building is doing. What are you going to do?

It’s generating more electricity each year than it consumes. It’s infiltrating water back into the groundwater. It’s managing your poo and pee onsite! It’s doing all this. What are you going to do?

Now we can have the moral conversation.

Source: What specific aspects of the building are you most excited to talk about?

Arora: One, how we manage our poo and pee. There’s a lot of potty talk in the Kendeda Building. And two, how we’ve incorporated reclaimed material.

A lot of other stuff, people don’t connect to it. But everybody has to go to the bathroom, and everybody – even my 3-year-old nephew, my daughter – at some point they understand that maybe we shouldn’t be throwing things away that can still be used.

The way that the Kendeda Building manages our bio-waste addresses an acute and chronic problem we have in our region. We have aging infrastructure; we have combined stormwater and sewage. The Atlanta region is an extremely wet region. Increasingly, our normal rain events are flooding our system because we’ve paved over so much of the metro area. In our region, it’s not an unusual headline to hear that we’ve had a sewage spill.

And here the Kendeda Building comes and tells you, “Your poo and pee never has to connect to a sewer.” Twenty toilets and urinals don’t connect to the sewer. Right there, that’s like wow, right? That is a solution to a problem that most everybody in Atlanta knows exists.

Similarly, the reclaimed material does the same thing. I ask people, “Have you ever been by a construction site and seen a tractor trailer–sized bin where they just throw things in? Why are we throwing all that stuff away? Shouldn’t we have designed it better? Everything in that bin is wasted money.”

Then I show them every single place in the building where we incorporated material that was salvaged from a demolition site.

Instead of throwing away material from our construction site, we planned and incorporate what would have otherwise been wasted material into the building.

All of this does increase costs. Deconstructing a building, milling that material into a new material for reuses, it takes labor. But that’s going to be local labor. We actually used workforce development labor to construct major components of the building. It was six formerly homeless individuals. So the reuse of salvaged material is part of what we call the salvage economy. It’s an entire sector of the economy that doesn’t exist in the region. And the icing on the cake is you’re diverting this material from the landfill.

 It all goes back to what our kids already know – maybe we shouldn’t be throwing this stuff away.

Learn more about attending the AEI Conference.

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  1. Too bad we can’t put this building thru a copying machine and get a million more just like it! One small nit to pick. How much more, estimated percentage wise, did it cost to repurpose the reused material? Also morality aside, the main concern is still economic. This is the type of program which should be used to divert government subsidy funding from wasteful bean counting, nose counting, special class preferences, and worse, indirect and direct subsidies to the fossil fuel mining and drilling industries. This might allow this type of development to compete on a more level field.


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