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Red and Yellow Autumn Leaves

A Living Building Challenge for Local Homeowners

May 13, 2019

By Wolf Ridge Naturalist

Wolf Ridge alumni, Judy Gibbs, and her spouse Shawn Wentz was looking forward to renovating their 1946 kitchen.

Wolf Ridge had taken on Living Building Challenge (LBC) for our new staff housing and student dormitory. These two events were about to come together. After visiting the Wolf Ridge Open House of the new and renovated structures, Judy and Shawn decided that their kitchen upgrade should try to be done to LBC standards.

Judy & Shawn’s kitchen before their Living Building Challenge-inspired renovation.

Remodeling starts with demolition.

Judy and Shawn wanted as little as possible to end up in a landfill (LBC standards call for 90% diversion). Cabinets were taken out in their full form and found another home in a friend’s cabin. Countertops, a door, sink, light fixtures, and other miscellaneous items went to Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore for resale. Jim enlists someone to go through all project waste and pulls out metals, wood, and so forth to divert from the landfill for recycling or reuse. All door and window trim was saved for reuse in the project.

One requirement for the cabinetmaker was that wood had to be Forest Stewardship Certified (FSC), another LBC standard. Fortunately, Minnesota has several cabinetmakers that use only FSC and others who would make them if the lumber was delivered to them.

Removing old cabinets to make way for FSC-certified cabinets.

Next came the countertops.

There was no question that local manufacturer Epicurean would be chosen; they are made of pressed newspaper held with ecologically friendly glues! If you’re curious, take a look at Bent Paddle Brewery’s new taproom in Lincoln Park, Duluth!

Being that the house was older, there had been almost no insulation in the walls, and when it came time, 100% recycled insulation with no fiberglass was used. That was safer for the installers, too.

The sink location was changing, thus arose the question of pipe materials. Judy already knew not to use PVC from her experience with Hartley Nature Center construction back in 2003. During manufacture, PVC creates dioxins, and in its installation (think cutting and sizing) the dust can harm the installers as well. She went with ABS instead. The new (used) sink was purchased on Craig’s List. Backsplash tile was found with 75% recycled content and some custom art tile was added for interest.

Old gymnasium flooring from Esko High School.

One of Judy’s favorite stories is about their kitchen flooring. Wanting to extend the maple floor from the dining room into the kitchen, they went searching for used flooring. At Architectural Antiques in Two Harbors, they found it: old gymnasium flooring from Esko High School! Complete with gym floor painted markings! (They did remove the markings.)

Finally, when it came time to paint, they used Benjamin Moore.

Wolf Ridge’s LBC projects spurred Benjamin Moore to change a paint line and get it certified to be LBC Red List free. Judy and Shawn found it easy to find materials that fell within the LBC standards. In the end, the project came in under budget and they felt great about challenging themselves to remodel in a sustainable way. Yes, they’d do it again and loan you their contractor, too!

Judy & Shawn’s after their Living Building Challenge-inspired renovation.

Judy Gibbs, a lifelong environmental educator, was a naturalist at ELC Isabella for three seasons, and worked full time for about four years at Wolf Ridge before leaving to become Hartley Nature Center’s Program Director. She recently retired from the city of Duluth as Trail and Bikeway Project Coordinator. Judy also had the lucky position of working with 750 volunteers over three years to build Duluth’s Superior Hiking Trail.