While the Midwest headquarters for the NRDC, a net-zero multifamily development, a community center, and a built-to-code cob home have all received Petal Recognition from the world’s most demanding performance-based green building standard, there’s a distinctive common thread between the small handful of projects that have received full Living Building Challenge certification: a high school science building in Hawaii, an elementary school science building in Seattle, a holistic studies education facility in New York’s Hudson Valley, and an environmental learning center in St. Louis.

See what I’m talking about?

The latest building to join the ranks of Living Building-dom, only the fifth in the world to gain certification, doesn't’t fall far at all from the learning-centric tree. Located smack dab in the middle of New England’s Knowledge Corridor — an education- and innovation-heavy region that includes north-central Connecticut and Western Massachusetts’s Pioneer Valley — is Smith College’s Bechtel Environmental Classroom.

The 2,500-square-foot structure is not located on the Northampton campus of the esteemed women's liberal arts college. Rather, it's a 15-minute or so drive away at the Ada and Archibald MacLeish Field Station, a 240-acre swath of forest and farm pastures in the nearby town of Whatley. Designated for environmental research, outdoor education, and low-impact recreation, Smith describes the goal of Field Station — a site "that allows one to leave the urban area of Northampton and interact with the natural world" — as being "to spark interest in and increase knowledge about nature through interdisciplinary interactions."

The build site itself is described by the International Living Future Institute, the Seattle-based parent organization of the Living Building Challenge, as part “gray field” (i.e. parking lot) and part “distressed agricultural land" filled with invasive species.

Designed by Amherst-based Coldham & Hartman Architects and built by also-local contractor Scapes Builders, the Bechtel Environmental Classroom —the wood-frame structure  includes a seminar room, multipurpose room, kitchenette, instructional lab, and outdoor gathering space — was actually completed and opened for student and faculty use in 2012. But as required by the Living Building Challenge’s actual, not anticipatedperformance-based criteria, a solid year of testing and evaluation was required before the innovative building could truly be certified as “Living.”

Currently, several departments at Smith college including landscape studies and Jewish studies regularly use the learning center, a building described as “unimposing building, nestled in the side of a hill” that “does not exemplify man’s dominance over the land but rather how humans can successfully fit into the natural landscape." It's also played host to writing retreats and small concerts.

The main user of the Bechtel Environmental Classroom, however, is Smith’s Center for the Environment, Ecological Design and Sustainability (CEEDS). In a press release issued by the International Living Future Institute, the director of CEEDS, Drew Guswa, notes that his students played a vital role in the creation of the net-zero energy and water building: “Helping students integrate knowledge from different disciplines runs through everything we do. The design and construction of this remarkable building has been a great way to engage our students’ cross-disciplinary abilities and put them in a position where they were making production decisions. The building has been, and will continue to be, an invaluable teaching tool.”

Guswa adds that the building "highlights Smith’s commitment to sustainability and the environment in a tangible and meaningful way."

Like other buildings that have successfully been certified under the “the most advanced measure of sustainability in the built environment possible today,” the Bechtel Environmental Classroom was required to meet the 20 different imperatives under the seven distinct “Petal" categories that comprise the difficult-to-achieve standard: Equity, Beauty, Health, Site, Water, Energy, and Materials. There’s plenty of information on how the Bechtel Environmental Classroom team successfully conquered each Petal — just for starters: composting toilets, grey water systems, 9.4 kW pole-mounted PV arrays, a super-strict reliance on both healthy and locally-sourced building materials — at the project's comprehensive case study page.

Perhaps the most notable of the building’s many accomplishments come from the Beauty category which states that the project, in addition to including "design features intended solely for human delight and the celebration of culture, spirit and place appropriate to its function," must be open to the public for "inspirational and educational" purposes at least one day per year and that operational data also must be provided to the public "to share successful solutions and to motivate others to make change." (Herein lies the reason why dedicated educational facilities so easily fit the Living Building bill):

Upon first entering the space, a visitor immediately notices how natural daylight fills the building, creating a warm, welcoming space free of artificial lighting — except on very overcast days or after sundown, turning on lights is entirely unnecessary. The airy, open space of the multipurpose room feels both spacious and cozy. The natural light creates a strong visual tie to the outdoors, as drifting clouds can change the lighting of the building in a moment, reminding users to pay attention to their surroundings even while inside.

The natural wood exterior is echoed indoors. Representations of salamanders, an iconic species in the area, can be spotted craftily incorporated in the woodwork on the porch and crawling around the windows and vents in the classroom. One American Beech and one Red Maple tree, felled during construction, frame the multipurpose space in the building—bringing a bit of the out-of-doors inside. Embedded in the floor of the classroom are rocks representing over one billion years of geologic history. The slabs, all found within twenty miles the site, run in a rough timeline from one end of the building to the other. Visitors can reflect on their time on Earth in the grand scale of geologic time. 

Each space in the building, be it large or small, reflects a deliberate design and aesthetic that simultaneously embody both humanity and nature: while comfort and utility are clearly achieved, the use of natural materials, and the elegance and simplicity of spaces and furniture, eschew decadence. 

Exterior spaces in the vicinity of and immediately accessible from the Bechtel Environmental Classroom invite building users outside where they can hike, study, relax, or work in the vibrant and productive landscape in which the building sits. The building promotes mental and physical well-being of its occupants and visitors, providing a connection to the natural world and living systems of the Ada & Archibald MacLeish Field Station. Through the integration of natural elements in the interior and exterior of the site, the Bechtel Environmental Classroom instills a deep fondness for the natural world and captures the spirit and beauty of the place. 

The total price tag for such beauty rang in at $1.78 million, not including land costs. It's also worth noting that within the coming months, a sixth  and, in a departure from the education-centric norm, commercial — project will most likely be certified as a Living Building: Seattle's Bullitt Center, or as it's been already been heralded, "the greenest office building in the world."

Related stories on MNN:

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

New England's first Living Building scores high marks in sustainability
Smith College’s Bechtel Environmental Classroom, the world's fifth building to achieve the Living Building Challenge, building standard has been certified.