Living Building at Georgia Tech: Designing and Operating for Health and Happiness
Built environments shape occupants’ lives and experiences. Given the fact that Americans spend 90% or more of their time in and around buildings, careful design of these environments is increasingly important. As the Living Building at Georgia Tech nears completion of the design development phase, careful attention is being paid to ensure that the project provides a “nourishing, highly productive, and healthy built environment.”
Buildings, while a subset of their surrounding communities and cities, are also microcosms of their larger context. Their design can affect the level of our physical activity, our feelings of comfort (visual, thermal, audible), and our connectedness to nature and the outdoors.
Variables like health and happiness are not as measurable as, say, energy and water. They don’t have easily measured metrics with attributes that can be readily isolated. However, the connection between occupant well-being, comfort, productivity, and factors such as daylight, views, and ventilation is now well-established. “Green” buildings provide value not just in energy and cost reductions but through better experiences for their occupants.
“Health & Happiness” is one of the seven Petals, or tenets, of the Living Building Challenge (LBC) certification—along with Place, Water, Energy, Materials, Equity, and Beauty. In keeping with LBC themes, the associated imperatives for each Petal offer simple requirements based on known rules of thumb. This article is organized around the three imperatives under the “Health & Happiness” Petal, focusing on how the Living Building at Georgia Tech is being designed to exceed the requirements of each of these related imperatives.
- Civilized Environment
The intent of this imperative is to change, in a simple—but fundamental—way, the approach to planning buildings. Access to daylight and fresh air are among the primary design drivers on the Living Building at Georgia Tech. All workstations are within 30 feet of operable windows, and the porch and the roof are integral to the strategy of providing “tangible access to the outdoors.” Extensive daylight simulations were used to further optimize the width of the floor plates, the amount and intensity of direct daylight from the exterior, and availability of borrowed daylight from the double height atrium.
The Operable Window Challenge
While operable windows can facilitate connection to the outside, improving comfort and providing natural ventilation, the hot humid climate of Atlanta can make the existence of operable windows challenging, especially in a public building. Even in the spring and fall, when outside air temperature and humidity may be ideal for natural ventilation, the coincidental presence of extremely high pollen counts can significantly reduce the amount of time that natural ventilation is beneficial.
A study of the natural ventilation potential from local weather data. April 2017.
Image courtesy of PAE Engineers.
An April 2017 study by the project’s mechanical engineers showed that without any pollen filtration, when considering the initially proposed operational hours of 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., natural ventilation potential exists for a meager 300 hours in a year. With the addition of pollen filtration, this potential can be increased to 1,000 hours.
Then, there is the issue of automation versus manual operation of the windows. The design will allow for a combination of these two modes, depending on outside conditions. Integration of window controls with the HVAC system will allow the mechanical heating, cooling, and ventilation system for a given zone to automatically shut down when windows within the zone are opened. Deactivating the radiant floor system will help avoid condensation on the floor slab from the introduction of humid outdoor air. The successful integration of these controls will have an enormous impact on the project’s ability to achieve net positive energy during the building’s operation.
The Daylighting Challenge
For buildings that have an ideal orientation with longer façade facing south and north, designing for daylighting is pretty straightforward. Because of the configuration of the immediate building site, and its relationship to the adjacent Eco-Commons, the Living Building at Georgia Tech is oriented with longer façades facing the more challenging east and west. Eastern and western façades are subject to more heat gain in the summer, as well as low solar angles, which can cause glare. In addition, interior spaces also borrow light from an adjacent central atrium that is daylit from above.
In response to such orientation issues, the design uses a porch to the west and combination of automated exterior blinds and interior shades on both the east and west to maximize daylighting potential. For example, during morning hours when the sun is toward the east, the blinds and shades to the west will be open to allow the maximum amount of daylight possible. In the afternoon, when the sun is toward the west, eastern windows will let in the diffuse daylight fully. Borrowed daylight from the central atrium provides more even, bilateral illumination. This reduces contrast that would otherwise result from a daylight source only from one side of the space.
Daylight simulations assess atrium daylight illumination with (above) and without (below) skylights on the atrium roof. (Studies from June 2016.)
Image courtesy of The Miller Hull Partnership in collaboration with Lord Aeck Sargent.
- Healthy Interior Environment
Beneficial indoor air quality is the primary focus of the Health & Happiness Petal. The project is being designed to comply with and exceed ASHRAE Standard 62.1 for ventilation, with densely occupied spaces employing demand control ventilation. All interior building products that have the potential to emit VOCs will be vetted for compliance with the CDPH Standard Method v1.1-2010. In addition, the entryway system is being designed to reduce particulates tracked in on occupant footwear.
Operationally, the project will test indoor air quality before occupancy (upon substantial completion) and nine months after occupancy. Georgia Tech’s Facilities Management team is actively working with the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) to outline a cleaning protocol that uses cleaning products in compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Design for the Environment label.
- Biophilic Environment
Biophilic design seeks to enhance well-being through one’s connection to place. Early in the design process, the project team conducted a daylong biophilic design charette facilitated by a biophilia consultant to identify opportunities for integration of nature into the design. The resulting plan and approach fosters human-nature interactions and roots the design of the site and the building in the place, climate, and culture.
The design of the site, the porch, the accessible roof, and the transition spaces have all evolved to include natural patterns and processes while strengthening place-based relationships. The porch to the west accommodates the graywater treatment system and provides a seamless transition between the indoors and outdoors. The roof of the auditorium houses a large urban agriculture component visually and physically accessible from the spaces on the second floor.
Biophilic Design Challenges
Biophilic design is a very subjective issue, relying heavily on occupant perception. The Living Building Challenge requires a more deliberate and integrative process, as opposed to simply putting potted plants in the interior of the building. For this reason, the facilitation of a dedicated biophilic design workshop by a third party expert was very effective and informative. The experience of approaching the building, using it, and exiting it were studied by different breakout groups using three hypothetical users: a 20-year-old African-American male undergraduate student, a 30-year-old female graduate student in a wheelchair, and a male mathematics professor originally from Brazil. These hypothetical users had varied interests that informed their perception of the spaces and helped influence the building’s design. Per Living Building Challenge requirements, the project continues to track the progress of biophilic design at each design phase.
In designing the Living Building at Georgia Tech, the architect team of The Miller Hull Partnership and Lord Aeck Sargent recognizes that the project’s performance extends well beyond the obvious measurable variables, like energy and water. Rather, it also encourages the design of a built environment that fosters productivity and well-being for its occupants.
Georgia Tech is hosting a building launch on Sept. 12, 2017, to celebrate the beginning of the transformation of the project site. For more information on the Living Building at Georgia Tech, including updates on the project, visit livingbuilding.gatech.edu and livingbuilding.kendedafund.org.
About the Authors
Ramana Koti, BEMP, LEED® AP BD+C is building performance analyst at Lord Aeck Sargent. He is a certified ASHRAE Building Energy Modeling Professional. Jim Hanford, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, works at The Miller Hull Partnership, LLP.