Petals Opened: Living Building Challenge

by Lori Walewski, Wolf Ridge Naturalist

Wow,” gasps a graduate student naturalist as she takes in the view through the newly installed window in the future naturalist house. The forest stretches out before them and meets up with Lake Superior, which in turn reaches out and blends into the sky. The view speaks of dreams and possibilities. Over 40 years ago, Jack Pichotta, a school teacher and Wolf Ridge’s founder, had an idea that began with wanting students to be immersed in a week of learning about Earth Day. That idea grew and blossomed into the Wolf Ridge of today. Most recently, that dream expanded to include a naturalist house, maintenance building, a newly renovated West Dorm and land on Lake Superior. The West Dorm will be renovated to be Living Building Challenge (LBC) certified with the naturalist house serving as a prototype project for the West Dorm certification. We chose LBC because it embodies the Wolf Ridge mission. In past Almanac articles we have shared what the LBC is and included some stories about meeting this challenge. Today, let’s look deeper into the various elements of the LBC.

The LBC begins with the certification process. This consists of three steps. 1) Registration – Wolf Ridge registered the West Dorm renovation to the LBC version 2.1 in September 2014. 2) Documentation and Operation – We are currently in this phase which includes construction and compiling documentation that our process meets the Imperatives (standards). Once the building is completed, 12 consecutive months of the building performing to LBC standards must take place. This is followed by 3) Audit and Certification.

Let’s dive into the layers of LBC certification. First, every project belongs to a Living Transect category which helps to define “proper development in specific settings…and applies to several Imperatives throughout the LBC.” Wolf Ridge’s project is categorized as L1 – natural habitat preserve. Next, the project is assigned a Typology which defines the kind of project. There are four typologies – neighborhood, building, landscape and infrastructure and renovation. The West Dorm falls in the renovation category.

Once the project is properly categorized it is matched up with the imperatives for that category.  Each Petal has one or more Imperatives, or standards, that varies based on the Living Transect.

“Imagine a building designed and constructed to function as elegantly as a flower.” This is how the International Living Future Institute opens its handbook on the overview of the LBC. It is from the flower that we get the seven Petals or performance areas for the LBC: Site, Water, Energy, Health, Materials, Equity, and Beauty. There are 20 Imperatives. As a renovation Typology, Wolf Ridge’s West Dorm project must meet 15 Imperatives to get full certification. Let’s now take a look at the petals and the Imperatives that apply to our project.


The intent of this petal is to stop growth on virgin lands and/or restore or reuse already disturbed areas. We must meet 2 of the 4 Imperatives as a renovation Typology: 1) Limits to Growth – projects may only be constructed on previously developed sites and 2) Habit Exchange – an equal amount of land must be set aside in perpetuity. These Imperatives are straightforward and easy for Wolf Ridge to attain. Our project is a renovation not using any new land and we have land that we can set aside on our 2000 acres.


This Petal’s goal is to have people respect water as a precious resource by rethinking their water usage and what happens with one’s wastewater. Wolf Ridge needs to meet the Net Zero Water Imperative for this Petal. This Imperative is a fairly easy one to meet for us while another LBC project in CA, with whom we have been conversing, is finding this Imperative very likely to be insurmountable. The Imperative demands a 100% closed loop system. We calculated the average rainfall for the building footprint and how much water will be used in the building per year. It turns out that the West Dorm footprint gathers more rain than the water used throughout the building so we actually are net positive for this Imperative! The waste water stays on site and is purified in our septic system without the use of chemicals fulfilling the closed loop system.


The objective for the petal is to produce energy for the project by using renewable energy in a pollution free way.  The only Imperative in this Petal is Net Zero Energy. This Petal is Wolf Ridge’s biggest challenge given our extremely cold climate. Domestic water heating with solar is already proven at the East Dorm and will be installed to supply the West Dorm. While the power needs of the building will be easily met with photovoltaic panels, space heating is a challenge. The extreme cold of our climate combined with only a few feet of soil before you hit bedrock limits our options very quickly. Offsets are possible and options for the dorm are being investigated and discussed with LBC staff.


Here the intention is to create living spaces that boost mental and physical health. Three Imperatives need to be met: 1) Civilized Environment – Every occupied space needs windows that open and provide daylight. 2) Healthy Air – A. Entryways need to have acceptable methods of externally and internally preventing dirt from being tracked in. B. All rooms with “vapors” require separate vents to the outside. C. Ventilations rates must comply with codes and CO2, temperature, and humidity must be monitored. D. Smoking is not allowed in the project boundary including during construction. 3) Biophilia – Design elements containing natural elements. Each of the six-biophilic design elements (environmental features, natural shapes and forms, natural patterns, light and space, placed-based relationships, and evolved human-nature relationships) must appear. For example, these elements might appear in carpet patterns, the fireplace, and tile colors.


This Petal has 5 mandatory Imperatives. We will address this Petal by itself in a future article. One example is finding windows whose vinyl does not contain a Red Listed Chemical is a Materials challenge mentioned in previous articles in the Almanac.


The goal here is to create a sense of community for all regardless of abilities and socioeconomic class. Of the 3 Imperatives in Equity, Wolf Ridge is required to comply with Right to Nature. There are 3 items. A) Fresh Air – No noxious emissions. B) Sunlight – The project must not shade over an allotted amount of neighboring buildings. C) Natural Waterways – The project cannot prevent the public access to water environments.


The seventh Petal is beauty. The purpose is to create joy, which in turn leads to caring for the environment. It has 2 Imperatives – Beauty and Spirit ,and Inspiration and Education. The Imperative of Beauty and Spirit is simply to delight and celebrate life. The second Beauty Imperative is Inspiration and Education. This Imperative requires that Wolf Ridge educate others about the construction, operation, and performance of our LCB project and open it to the public at least one day per year.

The reality of Wolf Ridge of today which, blossomed from Jack Pichotta’s dream has its origins in education. Here at Wolf Ridge, the first accredited environmental educational school in North America, education is always at the forefront of our minds. Education is what makes the Living Building Challenge certification process so exciting. We love learning about ways to keep our earth a healthy place. We love that the construction and manufacturing companies are learning better practices by participating in our project. We have already been educating you, our readers, with these articles. Our living building story is just beginning. We look forward to sharing this story as we learn more. Just as an educational week of Earth Day activities lead to the Wolf Ridge of today, we are convinced that the Living Building Challenge will help us learn and educate for better living of tomorrow.