Construction Underway!

by Lori Walewski, Wolf Ridge Naturalist

If you happened to glance to the ridge top as you traveled up the Wolf Ridge driveway in September you may have caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a rectangular cell tower with a lean like the Tower of Pisa. This was the arm of the 70-ton construction crane lifting re-usable forms for the poured concrete walls of the new Naturalist House. And so, it’s begun, the biggest set of improvements to happen to Wolf Ridge since the move from Isabella in 1988. We’re excited to have the first phase of our Making Waves construction projects underway. This year’s projects lead toward the goal of remodeling the West Dorm to the highest international standard of sustainability, the Living Building Challenge (LBC). Using reusable concrete forms is just one way of how we are meeting this challenge.

Wolf Ridge and our construction partners have committed to constructing these 2016 projects to LBC standards. This first phase is helping us discover obstacles and find solutions before starting the LBC registered West Dorm project in 2017. For example, one component that is on the LBC Red List (a do not use list of the worst in class chemicals for human and environmental health) is common in the weather stripping on windows. So as part of the LBC, we are advocating with four different window manufacturers to see if they will change their materials to meet this requirement.

Another example involves pipe cement. As with any construction job the subcontractors submit paperwork and product samples to be approved by the contractor and architect. However, with the LBC, the level to which each item is reviewed is much greater. In a typical construction project the plumbing pipes and cement would quickly be given approval and hardly given a second thought because they use common prevailing components. In a LBC project, every item is closely scrutinized down to the chemicals in every piece of every part. In our LBC story of the pipe cement, the plumbers are responsible for finding and providing the documentation on the approved pipe cement. While this level of detail seems extreme, it is the level of commitment being made for environmental sustainability and human health. The documentation was found and the cement was approved. If the cement had not been found acceptable, mechanical fittings could have been used to join the pipes together.

By intentionally looking into such details, Gardner Builders, HGA Architects, and Wolf Ridge are learning and creating better alternatives for human health and the environment. Part of Curtis Martinson’s job, as Wolf Ridge project superintendent for Gardner Builders, is educating sub-contractors about the LBC requirements for sustainability. Every Tuesday Curtis meets with the foreman of each company. One of the agenda items is always the LBC and what needs to be done to comply with the standards. The contracting team is stepping up to the challenge of being at the cutting edge of sustainable building practices. It is great for their company’s resume and good for the environment.

The LBC certification is more than a checklist. It is a restorative vision for how the building process can go beyond Net Zero and strives to have the buildings give more than they take, and prove it. LBC certification is based on being net positive and only achieved after 12 consecutive months of proven performance. As of September 15, 2016 there have been 282 projects in the United States that pursued the LBC as their standard of sustainability. Wolf Ridge is the third such project in Minnesota, but the only one going for full certification.

So how is the LBC affecting our construction projects? It is challenging us to find materials that are healthier and have less impact, to advocate to manufacturers to create products that are environmentally friendly, and to educate the construction industry about better methods and materials.

The Living Building Challenge is first a philosophy and second a process that is holding Wolf Ridge to its mission statement in every aspect, every material and every person of our construction project. It has opened up an entire new audience of learners to the Wolf Ridge experience and they’re quite excited about joining us in this adventure.