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Tyson Center Living & Learning at Net Zero (St. Louis, USA)

Credits: ©2010 Washington University St. Louis

One of North America's most sustainable buildings —on the cutting edge of sustainable design and energy efficiency — was opened in May 2009 at Washington University in St. Louis. The Tyson Living Learning Center at the university's Tyson Research Center, is located 20 miles southwest of the Danforth Campus on 2,000 acres of woods, prairie, ponds and savannas where faculty and students perform environmental research. The Living Learning Center is a 2,900-square-foot facility that is designed to be a zero net energy and zero wastewater building. It captures rainwater and purifies it for drinking, and is powered so efficiently by solar energy that the building often will pump energy back into the electric grid to be purchased by the local energy company. During construction, a high percentage of construction waste (80 percent or more, depending on the material) was diverted from landfills and materials were obtained from within a certain mile radius of the construction site to reduce carbon emissions from travel and shipping. Occupational spaces contain operable windows to provide access to fresh air and daylight.


Tyson Living Learning Center

The Tyson Living Learning Center at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, USA. ©2009 Sarah Scully

Many of the Living Learning Center's features contribute to the building's net-zero water and energy use, said Jonathan M. Chase, Ph.D., director of the Tyson Research Center and associate professor of biology in Arts & Sciences. The rainwater that falls on the building passes through a filter before being stored in a 3,000-gallon underground cistern.

The pavement surrounding the building is porous and absorbs most of the stormwater runoff. Waterless composting toilets eliminate a major use of water and enable the collecting of waste that can be used as fertilizer for the surrounding grass. A 17-kilowatt photovoltaic system provides power to the facility.

The exposed exterior and interior wood used to build the center, including the cedar siding, came from Tyson grounds — either from fallen trees or from trees slated for removal. The structural wood came primarily from Pocahontas, Ark., approximately 200 miles away — a distance that helps reduce carbon emissions associated with the transportation of materials.

The structure, which was designed by Hellmuth & Bicknese Architects with Bingman Construction Co. of Pacific, Mo., serving as the general contractor, features a "bat house" built into the building's eave, complete with two "bat cams" for observation of the creatures.

The Living Learning Center is available to members of the WUSTL community, as well as other local institutions. It houses a seminar/classroom for several WUSTL classes, including a seminars for undergraduate and graduate students and local environmental researchers.

It also serves as the base of operations for a summer high-school outreach program that is co-sponsored by the Missouri Botanical Garden's Shaw Nature Reserve and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Eighteen St. Louis-area high-school students were among the first to use the Living Learning Center in June 2009 as part of the NSF collaborative grant for the Shaw Nature Preserve and Tyson to instruct the interns in ecological research.

According to the architect, the building's most important feature is its ability to be used as an ongoing teaching tool — another one of the 16 requirements to be named a "living building."

Curriculum for summer programs is developed using some of the building features, which can all be analyzed as a biological process. For example, the PV (photovoltaic) output is monitored in the lobby via a touchscreen monitor and over the network, showing how much power the building is producing and how much CO2 is being avoided. According to Hellmuth, "This monitoring system can be built on, over time, to look at water consumption, energy use, etc."

Hellmuth also pointed out there were many challenges associated with constructing a "living building," including obtaining permits for rainwater potable water and composting toilet systems and finding certified framing wood within a 500-mile radius of Tyson.

"I don't think any of us knew the challenges this would bring, including Washington University, our design team, the contractors or the folks at Tyson," Hellmuth said, "but throughout the process we have continually met them in a seemingly endless gauntlet."

"The opening of the new Living Learning Center is an exciting event for Washington University," Quatrano said. "It demonstrates not only the university's emphasis on sustainability but also its commitment to teaching, research and community outreach. We have been building faculty strength in ecology and environmental science, and this structure will help in our educational mission and commitment to student research and instruction."

"Tyson is in the midst of a major revolution and is a cornerstone of the environmental research and education initiatives of Washington University," Chase said. "The Living Learning Center provides much-needed space for our growing programs and also will serve as focus for research and education itself."

Living Building Challenge
The Tyson Living learning Center has applied to become a certified “Living Building,” a performance-based rating program operated by the Cascadia Region Green Building Council. The 20 stated characteristics of a “Living Building” must be integrated such as net-zero energy and water, habitat exchange, nontoxic materials and beauty and inspiration. To be certified, the Tyson Center must be fully operational for at least 12 consecutive months.

Relevant book:
Dry Run by Jerry Yudelson

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  Living Building 2.0 (3,569 kb)


Tyson Research Center Living Learning Center (Missouri, USA)

Hellmuth & Bicknese Architects (Missouri, USA)

Omega Center for Sustainable Living (Rhinebeck, New York, USA)