Nuthatch Hollow: Designing a Living Building

Campus weighs in on conceptual designs for net-positive water and energy building.

Nuthatch Hollow, a property on Bunn Hill Road donated to Binghamton University, will be the site of a Living Building that is currently in the early design phase. Image Credit: Jonathan Cohen.
Nuthatch Hollow, a property on Bunn Hill Road donated to Binghamton University, will be the site of a Living Building that is currently in the early design phase.
Nuthatch Hollow, a property on Bunn Hill Road donated to Binghamton University, will be the site of a Living Building that is currently in the early design phase. Photography: Jonathan Cohen.

A walk through Nuthatch Hollow was the start of a big idea that is moving forward, President Harvey Stenger said Tuesday, as he kicked off the presentation of three conceptual designs that would create a Living Building on the site of the bird sanctuary.

Donated to the University upon his death by local businessman and environmentalist Robert Schumann, the 75-acre Nuthatch Hollow site on Bunn Hill Road will become home to one of only a dozen certified Living Buildings worldwide. As part of the Living Building Challenge, Binghamton University, in partnership with Ashley McGraw Architects, plans to construct a building that will meet the world’s most rigorous proven performance standards.

“This property is too good for a small idea,” said Stenger. “We need a big idea, and after I visited a Living Building at Smith College, I said, ‘We can do better than this, and I came back excited that we have this idea that will be a center point and a point of pride for Binghamton for a long time.”

A large number of students, faculty and staff are already involved in the planning process, conducting and analyzing research, suggesting solutions to potential problems and doing what needs to be done to design and create a Living Building, Stenger said.

Living Buildings are net-positive water and energy structures built on the principles of restorative design. Buildings go well above and beyond LEED certification, striving for net-zero or net-positive energy. They must be free of toxic chemicals and lower their energy footprint far below the generic commercial structure requirements.

Matt Broderick, principal for college and university projects at Ashley McGraw, led the presentation, describing the goals of Binghamton’s Living Building.

“First and foremost, this place has a purpose to do research in the natural environment,” Broderick said. “It will be a hub for interdisciplinary collaboration.”

Additionally, the project will be an interactive design process allowing input throughout, it will include smart energy technology and it will be replicable. “We don’t want this to be just a one-off and too expensive or complicated for others to learn from,” Broderick said. “We want to take aspects of this as a learning experience people can use to learn how to build better.

“And we want Living Building Certification,” he added. “There are currently only 11 fully certified Living Buildings in the world, but it’s completely accomplishable here.”

The Living Building process is built upon what the Living Building Challenge calls petals, using the metaphor of a flower because the ideal built environment should be as simple and efficient as a flower. There are seven petals or performance categories: Place, Water, Energy, Health and Happiness, Materials, Equity and Beauty.

Broderick gave a quick review of petal expectations:

  • Place – Do not expand the development footprint. Replace/renovate the building and structures. Incorporate urban agriculture. Offset development with a habitat exchange program. Encourage human power movement on the site.
  • Water – Be net positive for water use and treat all storm and waste water on site.
  • Energy – Make 105 percent of the energy the site will use in a year and return the overage to the grid.
  • Health and happiness – Create space that is wonderful to be in, with fantastic indoor air quality and nature incorporated into the building to always feel part of the natural environment even indoors.
  • Materials – The most challenging petal and where the majority of work will happen.
  • Red List – Only materials absent from the Red List can be used on the site. The idea is to reduce carbon footprint as much as possible and offset what can’t be reduced. Encourage use of regional materials that reduce the carbon footprint but also encourage local/regional economy. Reduce and eliminate waste in the construction process
  • Equity – Create places that are scaled to humans and accessible to people of all abilities.
  • Beauty – Recognize the need for beauty.

Ed McGraw, Ashley McGraw founding partner and CEO, said the Biophilic Exploration Day – a Living Building Challenge requirement – that was held at Nuthatch Hollow last October will drive the design of the building. Following a review of the day, McGraw said the project “is really about systems thinking. What is it we want to see?”

The three conceptual designs presented include laboratory/classroom spaces, a library and support spaces, a food preparation area, indoor/outdoor areas and a covered outdoor area.

Ashley McGraw will now continue the design process, incorporating input from the audience and others to solidify a schematic design by March 31. There will be another public presentation in April, with design development until Aug. 25, and bid documents prepared by Dec. 29. Construction is slated for 2018. A year of documentation follows completion of a Living Building before it can be granted certification.

Fundraising also continues for the project, which is broadly estimated to cost about $1 million to build. “This will be a unique Living Building in that it will be publicly bid, which adds an interesting dimension,” said Broderick. Ashley McGraw has contributed financially and is donating its services.

A blog has also been set up to chronicle the design and provide a forum for feedback on the project. Comments are welcome.

“This isn’t just a one-off for us if you look at our commitment to the environment,” said Stenger, who spoke of the campus commitment to reducing its carbon footprint, recycling, curricular support, LEED-certified buildings, research and other initiatives that show Binghamton supports environmental education and sustainability. “One effort I’ve been personally involved with is our coal power plant, which has operated since the 1960s,” he said. “It wasn’t that easy and it was a $12 million fix, but now we’re burning 100 percent wood chips, we use all the particulate matter and we’re as close to zero as you can get emissions.

“Our logical next step is to put this signature project on top of all this,” he added. “This group has a lot of opportunity to give input into what the design of our Living Building will look like and what the project will do for Binghamton and the community.”