Deep in the Missouri woods outside of metropolitan St. Louis resides a special place for learning—fed by rainwater, powered by sunlight, rich in native materials, and carefully integrated into the surrounding habitat. When Washington University’s Tyson Research Center first considered adding a new building to its environmental research station, the administrators became intrigued with the idea of living buildings: architecture adapted to place and inspired by nature, with a building’s production and consumption of energy-and-water in perfect balance.

The Tyson Research Center property offered an ideal, diverse setting in which to merge biology and the built environment within 2,000 acres of hilly mixed-hardwood forest, with prairies and ponds In 2009, university administrators, Tyson leadership, and the design team from Hellmuth+Bicknese Architects struck out to create a new facility providing much-needed space for faculty and graduate research in environmental biology and sustainability.

“The concept of a living building set a higher bar for the university, as they wondered if this could be done here and what could they begin to accomplish on a larger scale,” says Daniel Hellmuth, a principal for Hellmuth+Bicknese and the project’s lead designer. “The Living Learning Center sparked that conversation, revealing the gap between 'medium green' and high-end sustainability, creating an exciting tension to push the limits of sustainable design.”

To achieve such a green, high-performance building, Hellmuth recommended benchmarking its design and construction against the Living Building Challenge (LBC), a set of rigorous standards created by the Cascadia Region Green Building Council. As per LBC’s Version 1.3, the design focused on 16 prerequisites organized within six performance areas, or “petals”: site, energy, materials, water, indoor quality, and beauty & inspiration. (For more information, see the sidebar, “Examining the Living Building Challenge.”)

At 2,968 square feet, the Living Learning Center design ensures that all regularly occupied spaces have direct views and daylight from windows, while each room includes localized lighting, plusHVAC controls and operable windows to control outside airflow. Rainwater, collected from the roof and treated through particulate and UV bacterial filtration, supplies all water for the building. Further net-zero-water measures include composting toilets and a graywater system that collects water from the building's sinks for use in irrigation on site. Realizing net-zero environmental impact on the project also meant extensive use of recycled and salvaged materials, such as wood flooring and trim that was milled from trees already downed by storms on Tyson’s property. To meet its net-zero-energy target, the Center incorporated a 17.2kW photovoltaic (PV) array, utilizing 84 Evergreen ES-A 205W PV panels mounted on a unirac S-5 clip system and attached to the building’s standing-seam metal roof.

Since its opening in May, the Center has performed well, meeting all LBC prerequisites but one: net-zero energy. Under the challenge, 100 percent of the building’s energy needs to be supplied by on-site renewable energy on an annual basis. According to Hellmuth, “We had one of the hottest summers on record and one of the coldest winters—so achieving this goal has been a challenge.” Building-performance monitoring during the first year revealed that electrical production was trailing production; in December 2009, estimates placed energy consumption at 25 to 35 percent above energy model predictions. In response, the project team chose to tighten the building envelope, fine-tune HVAC operations, and add several PV panels—bringing total production up to 23.1kW—that had been value-engineered out of the original building design. During summer 2010, the building exceeded its energy-neutral goals, and Hellmuth now expects to reach final LBC certification within the next three to seven months.

Kevin Smith, an adjunct professor of biology and associate director at Tyson, has spent the last 15 months monitoring performance in between building tours. For him, there is no question of the project’s success even with these critical lessons learned. “Visitors are used to seeing green buildings with one or two interesting sustainable features," he says. "But here, you can go to any place inside or out and point to something special that contributes to its sustainability. The Living Learning Center contains so many features people didn’t know were even possible.”

And when it comes to the living building concept, Dan Hellmuth looks forward to his next opportunity. “LEED is a transformative process, basically intended to change the way we design and operate buildings," he says. "As a score-based standard that incentivizes performance, it’s been q quite effective green benchmarking system. The Living Building Challenge, on the other hand, asks: What if you attempted to mitigate the total effect of developing a building on a site—and what would it take to do that right now? It’s basically all or nothing and so tremendously exciting as the ultimate apex of where we’re trying to get.”

David R. Macaulay is the author of Integrated Design: Mithun and the blog, Green ArchiTEXT,