Touring California’s First Living Building: ARCH|NEXUS

BCCI’s Sustainability Coordinator, Matt Koester, organized a tour of ARCH|NEXUS’ Sacramento office for the Living Building Challenge Bay Area Collaborative, a group of contractors, engineers, architects, and other creatives. ARCH|NEXUS, a commercial architect, designed and managed the project to achieve the first Living Building Challenge (LBC) certified project in California. LBC, the International Living Future Institute’s most prominent rating system, moves past LEED and WELL by facilitating design and construction in ecologically and socially restorative ways- whether it involves water cycles, embodied carbon in materials, urban agriculture or energy storage. The ARCH|NEXUS office tour gave Collaborative members an opportunity to experience one of California’s most sustainable buildings up close.

ARCH|NEXUS Reception

Strolling into the ARCH|NEXUS Sacramento office in the sunbaked historic district felt like finding an oasis. A mix of principals, designers, administrators, and other key stakeholders led the tour: Kenner Kingston, Patty Karapinar, Erica McBride, Cheryl McMurtry and Peter McBride. Myself and the fifteen other guests were greeted in the reception area, flanked by floor-to-ceiling windows, Living Building Challange (LBC) and LEED plaques and a massive, lush living wall beckoning us into the open office. The area also boasted accolades as the first LBC tenant improvement, first Version 3.0 LBC certification, and LEED double Platinum in Platinum New Construction & Existing Buildings. In the requisite Living Future style, we circled, made introductions and shared how regenerative building inspires us.

Open workspace with VRF HVAC system

We followed the living wall into the bright open office area. Peter McBride, designer & architect, asked us what we noticed – to which we answered: HVAC and light. The ceilings felt quite high; not due to any structural change, but the ARCH|NEXUS team had installed an air-cooled Variable Refrigerant Flow (VRF) HVAC system. This was feasible due to their decision to pair the thermal scheme with operable windows. Many months of mild weather allow the HVAC system to be completely shut off. McBride also explained the team’s explicit decision to only design for functional lighting. In replacing overhead lights with daylight harvesting devices, employees enjoy the health benefits of ample indirect sunlight. Kenner Kingston, President of ARCH|NEXUS, proudly pointed out that the timed evening and morning UV light for the plant wall conveniently adds aesthetics as a byproduct of function.

These attributes surpass the 105% of energy production and resilience required for net-zero energy. ARCH|NEXUS produces 176% of its energy each year, with the excess net metered back into the grid or sequestered in salt water batteries that store two weeks’ worth of energy. Energy efficient appliances and a centralized office server also conserve energy.

Kingston described the importance of employee buy-in and commitment to achieve and maintain the standards set by the LBC. If even a minority does not participate, the whole equilibrium of the closed-loop system is thrown off. To encourage participation, the design team deployed various strategies to embed behavior change into the design and company culture. The strategy includes competition – challenging employees to save the most energy in teams organized by workstation, office, department, or favorite color. Erica McBride, Office Manager, clarified that she and passionate employees aren’t shy about shaming energy hogs. Employees are empowered with workstation meters and data to track their personal impact as their closed-loop must be sustained by intentional, daily decisions. ARCH|NEXUS, after all, is 95% employee-owned, and they view their space as an investment. Participation, like an ecosystem, creates value for them. Collective behavioral shifts secure the rationale of the system.

Water tank room

After touring the office, Peter McBride and Erica McBride gave us a peek into the inner workings of the water systems: the grey and waste water tank room. We filed in, wedged rather comfortably between six blue, head-high wastewater processing tanks, the final stage of the composting toilets. We also observed the grey water filtration system, which leverages gravel, sand and UV light to filter shower, faucet and other process water to flush the composting toilets and hydrate the living wall. This system exemplifies faithful dedication to the closed-loop. With additional help from water efficient features, like low-flow fixtures, composting toilets and waterless urinals, the building has never been linked to the sewer system. Kingston joked that when the office runs too low on grey water, employees are encouraged to take longer showers in the locker rooms! This allows people to understand their daily impacts through experimentation and conscious participation.

Next, we walked into the other open office area between a small design charrette nook and a break area with a bike rack. Overall, the 8,252 SF adaptive reuse project (the building structure and envelope was reused and renovated) incorporates 15 types of salvaged materials. Patty Karapinar, Director of Sustainability, shared the deliberate process of vetting materials, balancing LBC’s strict requirements on regional sourcing, embodied carbon, and Red List compliant materials. Considering that reusing materials is the best way to reduce a project’s environmental footprint, Karapinar directed the team to vet and procure alternatives including salvaging railroad ties from Fresno, commissioning local artists to create the bike racks and outdoor bike parking stations from scrap metal, and choosing countertops from Sacramento boneyards.

Solar roof next to a rainwater collection tank

We then stepped through a set of glass doors into the electric car parking area underneath a photovoltaic panel (solar PV) roof. P. McBride shared his personal transition to adopting electric cars – nostalgia for the rev of a combustion engine was erased by the zippiness of their new electric fleet. Next to the lot, a giant rainwater collection tank loomed like a miniature stainless steel grain silo. While indoor use is still outlawed by regulation, rainwater is funneled from PV panels and the rooftop for landscaping and the edible garden, including passionfruit trees snaking up the brick walls. This grand finale underlined the team’s departure from traditional thinking about commercial interiors.

We were inspired by how the LBC has changed employee interaction, ownership, and pride within ARCH|NEXUS’ built environment. Achieving LBC certification truly does take a village, and education is the catalyst for designing and implementing a sustainable space. Learning from the ARCH|NEXUS space, LBC Bay Area Collaborative members are looking to replicate the model so that LBC can be an achievable method for buildings here in the Bay Area.

To learn more about the Living Future Conference, check out our previous blog posts here:
2018 Living Future unConference: Inspiration Abound
Regenerative Building: We Are What We Create
The JUST Label: Social Equity in the Workplace

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