SALT LAKE CITY — A Salt Lake City-based architectural firm is transforming its space into a "living building." It's one of the first of its kind in the Intermountain West and is designed to operate as a natural element and generate its own energy.
"The hope is to kind of envision a new paradigm for architecture, and that buildings can be more than simply a place of shelter to do business and to do whatever the primary function of that building might be," said Brian Cassil, spokesman for Arch Nexus architectural firm.
"This building will certainly serve that, but the idea is to demonstrate and to set an example that architecture can be so much more. It can be resilient, it can be inspiring for sure. It can provide all of its own electricity on an annual basis. It can recycle and reuse water. It can incorporate agriculture," he said.
The Living Building Challenge, from the International Living Future Institute, sets stringent requirements for reaching the designation. The buildings need to generate more energy than they consume each year; reach net positive water usage by collecting rainwater and reusing "gray" water for nonpotable uses; be built with reclaimed and recycled materials, as well as materials that create low environmental impact; and include "living walls" with plants or nature murals.
Leaders describe the project as one tool for addressing climate issues in the city, which continues to grapple with air pollution problems each year. The Salt Lake City area was ranked 8th for worst air quality among U.S. cities in 2021 by the American Lung Association.
"This innovative project shows how we can lead the way, one building at a time, in addressing the serious air quality challenges that Salt Lake City faces. Arch Nexus SLC will be an extraordinary community asset that serves to both inspire and set a new standard for our community's health and quality of life," Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said in a statement.
The pandemic-driven shift to virtual work made the renovation of Arch Nexus' 33,000-square-foot building at 2505 E. Parleys Way possible, Cassil said. The project began in September and is expected to be complete by late May. Its overall cost is estimated at 10-15% higher than other high-performing buildings, according to Cassil, but the company expects that to be made up in energy and infrastructure savings.
This isn't Arch Nexus' first time completing the Living Building Challenge. In 2016, the company built California's first "living building" at its Sacramento headquarters. Since then, employee assessments and other metrics have shown more engagement in their work, he said.
"The connection between the people and the building became stronger," leading to a stronger connection between the employees and company, he said. The open layout of the building also led to more collaboration between those in different fields of design at the company, according to Cassil.
Stan Burke, project manager with Jacobsen Construction, which is undertaking the renovation, said the remodel has presented unique challenges. He described it as more "aggressive" than any other sustainable project in his experience. The building needed to be completely "gutted" — but at least 80% of the materials removed by construction workers had to be reused and recycled. Ultimately, 90% of the materials, including insulation and drywall, got put back into the building or recycled.
Ceilings that had originally been used as a gym floor got repurposed for a second time as a living wall to hold plants.
"So a really big focus was on trying to minimize the amount of debris that we were sending to a landfill, because construction makes a lot of garbage. And whatever we're able to save, to keep from going to the landfill, it just ultimately helps the environment," Burke said.
The builders also needed to put particular consideration into building materials, and were restricted from using common materials like PVC piping, he said.
"We had to find alternate products to use to meet this higher standard of sustainability," Burke said.
Cassil said the company doesn't intend for the renovation to benefit just its own employees, but the broader community. The building includes conference rooms and space for small or medium-size events for the public to use, he said. As it has its own electricity, it could also be used by the public in emergencies or disasters; it will also have food storage.
"It's really designed to be what we envision as kind of a network of resilient buildings that can provide this kind of resource for the community in the event of some kind of catastrophic disaster," Cassil said.
Food will also be grown on and around the building, he added, which the company intends to share with the community.
"That really is the idea, is to kind of shine a light on this, show that it can be done and do it," he said.