Bertschi School Living Science Building  


General Information

Building Name: Bertschi School Living Science Building
Bulding Location: Seattle, Washington, United States
Project Size (ft2, m2): 1,425 ft2
Building Type: Educational
Project Type: New Construction/Addition
Delivery Method: Integrated Project Delivery (IPD)
Total Building Costs: $935,000 Construction (All design services pro-bono)
Owner: Bertschi School

Project Team

Chris Hellstern | M. Arch. | LEED® AP BD+C | CDT Associate
Stacy Smedley | LEED® AP BD+C | Associate
KMD Architects
1325 Fourth Avenue
Suite 1702
Seattle, WA 98101

Skanska USA Building
221 Yale Ave North, Suite 400
Seattle, Washington 98109

Landscape Architecture
1301 First Avenue
Suite 301
Seattle, Washington 98101

Civil Engineering
2020 Engineering
814 Dupont Street
Bellingham, WA 98225

Geotechnical Engineering
600 Stewart St.
Suite 1700
Seattle, Washington 98101

Structural Engineering
Quantum Consulting Engineers
1511 Third Avenue
Suite 323
Seattle, Washington 98101

919 5th Avenue #650
Seattle, Washington 98164

Sustainability Consultant
O'Brien and Company
710 Second Avenue
Suite 925
Seattle, WA 98104

Urban Ecologist
Back To Nature Design, LLC
5337 Ballard Ave NW
Seattle, WA 98107

Public Relations Services
Parsons Public Relations
5306 Ballard Avenue NW
Suite 401
Seattle, WA 98107

Building Envelope Engineers
Morrison Hershfield
600 Stewart Street
Suite 200
Seattle, WA 98101


The Bertschi School Living Science building, located in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood, is the first project in the world built to the Living Building Challenge (LBC) v2.0 criteria and in an urban setting. This elementary school wing, collaboratively designed with the students and completed in February 2011, follows LBC requirements that include 20 Imperatives. These Imperatives, which include net zero water, net zero energy and adherence to a materials Red List, must be proven over a one year period of occupancy. A 12-kilowatt PV system produces all of the electricity for the building and allows students to participate in real-time monitoring of the buildings energy use and photovoltaic production.

Photo of the east elevation and exterior classroom

Photo of the east elevation and exterior classroom
Photo Credit: Benjamin Benschneider.

All water needed for the building is collected and treated on site. This is done through a variety of methods including cisterns for storage, an interior green wall of tropical plants which treats grey water, and a composting toilet to treat black water. An ethnobotanical rain garden treats all storm water and provides food for the building. Students have crafted paints and paintbrushes from the garden plants and prepared salads and soups. The most important aspect of the project is that all the sustainable features are visible and functional for students to learn ecological concepts that can become intrinsic values for future generations. The entire design team performed the project pro-bono for the non-profit school.

Net Zero Water Credit

Net Zero Water Credit.
Photo Credit: GGLO

Secure/Safe Goal

As an elementary school, the Bertschi project is required to be secure. While its site is fenced off from the surrounding busy street, the open weave of the fence and landscaping that crosses site boundaries are welcoming to the community. Carefully crafted rain gardens that surround the building are designed to handle 500 year storms while infiltrating all storm water. Durable and healthy materials were used throughout the building for a long-lasting structure.

Ecohouse and greenwall

Ecohouse and greenwall.
Photo Credit: Benjamin Benschneider

Sustainable Goal

The Bertschi School Living Building meets the very definition of sustainable by functioning as a building that is completely dependent on and connected to its site. The Living Building Challenge looks for restorative buildings that act as a flower, only using what is available on site and affecting it in a positive way. The Bertschi School harnesses the solar energy that reaches it, gathers the rain that falls upon it, grows food to sustain its occupants, and treats all of its waste within its footprint.

Functional Goal

All of the systems within the Bertschi School are easily updatable. From the solar panels on the roof which can easily be changed out for
more efficient versions as they become available to the replaceable modular tray green wall that treats grey water, flexibility exists
throughout this project. The open plan of the classroom spaces allow for future changes in curriculum the school would need to make. An all inclusive smart board and project package means the school will only need to update one small system to enhance the classroom's educational technology. Radiant floor system and natural ventilation systems will require no demolition to update the building's thermal comfort systems in the event of a space re-planning. The plumbing system of grey water filter boxes and composting toilet units are not permanently fixed to the building and can be easily swapped out when needed. Being a sustainable building means that it is ready for future changes and when this occurs, most of the building's non-toxic materials could be easily reused or recycled.

Classroom, East perspective

Classroom, East perspective.
Photo Credit: Benjamin Benschneider

Accessible Goal

The Bertschi School is designed to meet the Equity requirements of the Living Building Challenge which asks a building to be built at a human scale with access for all in consideration to democracy and social justice. This building is perfectly sized for the campus needs and the pre-kindergarten to fifth grade users. In addition to school use, the building provides a place for community events. The structure is also designed to not affect others' rights to nature. It does not shade another property taking away their possibility of harnessing solar energy. It does not capture water from outside its boundaries or prohibit access to natural environments. In fact, it enhances all these things. An open floor plan with systems that can be easily updated with more efficient technology when available provides flexibility.

Aesthetic Goal

An integrative use of natural elements along with a design that embraces the Pacific Northwest vernacular helps this building embrace beauty and spirit of place. From water flowing inside the classroom to an entire wall of tropical plants, students are constantly immersed in nature even when inside. Once outside, the ethnobotanical garden of native plants, fruits, and trees surround the building with more natural elements. Cedar siding, moss-mat (green) roofs, and ample glazing covered by deep overhangs recall a familiar Pacific Northwest architectural aesthetic. Local artists provided in-slab castings of detailed salmon and insects for study. Sculptures in the garden and even a metal grating with laser-etched student artwork which covers the exterior river add to the art collection. Natural elements and man-made artwork combine to harmoniously create a beautiful building.

Cost–Effective Goal

Designing a building pro-bono which would be constructed entirely with community fundraising was a great challenge. It was imperative that the team consider every design solution in a fiscally responsible manner. The requirement for natural, non-toxic, and appropriately sourced materials also helped to support lifecycle considerations. Materials were reduced throughout the project including the elimination of needless finishes and aesthetic-only materials. Embodied energy of materials as well as the overall building were always taken into consideration and then ultimately offset.

Historic Preservation Goal

While the Bertschi School Living Building is new construction, it respects and enhances the historic building which it physically connects to. With aesthetic considerations, the science building does not take away from the grandeur of the historic four story church building. It rests below the large windows and provides a book end on the block-long campus. No part of the existing building needed to be demolished to build the Living Building. The structure merely attaches with an expansion joint keeping the exterior skin of the historic building intact. The site of the Living Science building has been rehabilitated from an asphalt play surface to a green roof-covered, water harvesting building that sits surrounded by an ethnobotanical storm water-treating rain garden.

Productive Goal

Generous daylighting and an abundance of fresh air help to maintain a healthy interior environment for students. A 300 square foot wall of tropical plants which treat grey water inside the classroom gives students a natural element that provides clean air and physiological benefits. The classroom also boasts running water through a stream in the floor which not only educates but creates a tranquil environment with running water. Non-toxic materials with zero VOCs were used extensively throughout the interior and exterior. An enthnobotanical garden, always in view from any space, provides food, implements, and an outdoor instructional space for the students. Whether inside or out, the students are constantly connected to the healing powers of nature and its elements.

Left to Right: Ethnobotanical Rain Garden, Classroom runnel
Left to Right: Ethnobotanical Rain Garden, Classroom runnel

Left to Right: Ethnobotanical Rain Garden, Classroom runnel

Photo Credits: Benjamin Benschneider


Overview of Process

Throughout the process, the use of an integrated team was crucial to the project's success. From the outset, the user group, design team, facilities management, and even subcontractors were on hand at every meeting to work out solutions. Having such a diverse and invested group throughout the project allowed the most beneficial design solutions at the most economical cost.

Pre-Design/Planning Activities

During the opening charrette, the entire team was able to focus on the simplicity of one goal: achieving the Living Building Challenge v2.0. Although this is a complex and challenging goal, having a single objective keeps the process focused.

Design Activities

The design phase involved the students throughout the process. Their ideas of a "river in the classroom" and a place where "something was always growing" inspired the functional features in the building. Using the fifth graders' inspired dreams for their classroom helped to make a space that was unique, functional, and meaningful to the students who use it.

Construction Activities

The construction phase posed a great deal of challenges, particularly with regard to materials. Because of the strict requirements for prohibiting the fourteen chemicals of the LBC Red List, the team was often held to manufacturer's timelines and willingness to provide transparency regarding their product's components. At times, this resulted in a delay of construction as the team would need to revaluate and search for a new product that met both Red List and Appropriate Sourcing requirements. Throughout the construction, subcontractors were trained to understand these strict requirements so as not to even bring certain common building materials and procedures onsite. Although frequent visits from the architect were necessary to help ensure compliance, it was clear that subcontractors were beginning to speak the lingo of the Living Building Challenge as they sometimes recited from memory a prohibited chemical.

Restroom and mechanical closet with composting units

Restroom and mechanical closet with composting units.  Photo Credit: Benjamin Benschneider.

Operations/Maintenance Activities

Operations and maintenance is an important and ongoing phase in a Living Building project. The design team is still involved with the project, helping to fine tune the energy use. Even with careful planning, design, and energy modeling, the building has small and unaccounted for energy use. As the teacher and students continually work to learn how their daily activities affect energy use, everyone learns more about conserving. Another benefit is helping to change people's preconceived notions about comfort. For example, the temperature of the radiant flooring was initially set at a point lower than what the school typically sets for their classrooms. Over the first year of occupancy, the school determined that this temperature could be further reduced to a number that was once thought unacceptable. The lower set point temperature now has become quite comfortable to the teacher and students helping to further reduce energy use. These lessons are continuing after substantial completion.

Post-Occupancy Evaluation Activities

Post–occupancy evaluation and associated activities are closely related to operations and maintenance activities. Understanding exactly how the building is being used helps everyone to properly tune it to operate at its full potential. The design team has also taken time to gather information from the students. This has been invaluable, helping the design team to see the building from a different point of view.

Information and Tools

Since the project has been built to LBC standards, it was necessary to use the online Dialogue from the International Living Future Institute. This resource connected our team to others that were also pursuing the Challenge. It was also the means by which we could communicate with the Living Future Institute with questions or concerns as we worked to achieve the Challenge while helping inform future versions of the LBC standard. Revit Architecture 2011 was used to document the project.

Products and Systems

The materials selection is a large part of the Living Building Challenge which outlines a Red List of 14 commonly used chemicals that are prevented from being used in any product in the building. This list includes such items as PVC, phthalates, neoprene, and halogenated flame retardants. In addition to these Red List approved products, stringent appropriate sourcing requirements had to be met that required not only the products, but extracted materials to be obtained from near the project site. Coupled together with the Red List, this became the most challenging portion of the project. The result was an average of nearly eight hours of research for every product and material used in the building. By the project's completion an extremely detailed database of every product, from ball valves to fasteners and sealants, had been accumulated which outlined the products' origins and their composition. Additionally, every one of these materials comes with a signed letter from the manufacturer stating their product's compliance with the Red List and Appropriate Sourcing requirements for the Living Building Challenge. This process required an immense amount of work but resulted in a great understanding of truly sustainable products and an aid for market transformation through communication with numerous manufacturers.

Energy Issues

Energy Use Description

Photovoltaic power is the most efficient on-site renewable source to provide net-zero energy for the Bertschi project. The PV system of 60 panels utilizes efficient micro inverter technology. Rather than routing electricity to a single inverter far from the panels, this system saves an 18% line loss and converts the solar energy directly at the panels. This system also provides a web interface for the students to monitor each panel. As a grid connected system, net-zero status is achieved through a calculation balance for the year and efforts are underway to continue to reduce building load. The most recent data is:

Annual energy use by fuel
Electricity: 20,000 kWh

Annual Energy by end use
Heating: 6,800 kWh
Fans & pumps: 1,000 kWh
Lighting: 1,000 kWh
Domestic Hot Water: 800 kWh
Plus loads & equipment: 3,600 kWh

Annual on-site renewable generation
PV: 20,100+ kWh

Data sources and reliability
Based on simulation? No
Based on utility bills? Yes
If yes, please list company(s) dates of bills.
Seattle City Light

Comments on data source and reliability.
There are two meters for measuring energy in the building. Produced power from the photovoltaic system can be tracked by an energy meter on the building and a web interface that the students can access. This interface provides detailed measurement and tracking of power produced over a variety of time periods. The energy used in the building can be tracked from a single digital meter within the classroom. From this, students get real-time information about the choices they are making with their energy use.

Ecohouse section perspective. Credit: KMD Architects

Ecohouse section perspective.
Photo Credit: KMD Architects.

Indoor Environment

Indoor Environment Approach

Through careful analysis with the Integrated Design Lab from the University of Washington, the building achieves 100% daylighting and views in all regularly occupied spaces with a 4.7% daylight factor of even, natural light. Operable windows in every space combined with operable skylights help create stack–effect ventilation to provide natural cooling for the entire building. The windows also connect the students to nature at every view. Healthy materials ensure good indoor air quality is maintained.

Project Results

A. Lessons Learned

The primary objective for this project was to meet a specific set of goals. The team was focused on meeting the twenty imperatives of the Living Building Challenge with the single goal to become certified. Because the team set out to design a Living Building, there was not a single goal that was not met for the project. There were occasions when solutions for these goals may not have been arrived at in the anticipated way, but each objective was achieved through the dedication and expertise of the entire team.

B. Ratings

  • Living Building Challenge

C. Awards

  • AIA Seattle What Makes It Green Award, April 2012
  • SBIC (Sustainable Buildings Industry Council) Beyond Green High Performance Building Award, March 2012
  • National AIA Educational Facility Design Award, March 2012
  • AGC (American General Contractors) Alliant Build America Award, February 2012
  • Washington Association of Landscape Architects
  • 2012 EDC Excellence in Design Award Honorable Mention for Education
  • Design Build with FSC, August 2011

D. Publishing

  • ArchDaily
  • Yes! Magazine, Winter 2012
  • The Guardian, July 5, 2011
  • ReWater, Winter 2011
  • Treehugger, April 29, 2011
  • KUOW NEWS NPR, February 8, 2011
  • Outside Magazine, October 2011
  • Architect's Newspaper West, July 9, 2011
  • AIA Seattle Forum, Vol. 4, #3, September 2011,
  • Building Design and Construction, December 2011
  • School Construction News, January/February 2012, Vol. 15, #1
  • "Clean Water, Healthy Sound", Cascadia Green Building Council, September 2011
  • Living Building Education: The Evolution of Bertschi School's Science Wing, International Living Future Institute, May 2014
  • "Regulatory Pathways to Net Zero Water: Guidance for Innovative Waste Water Projects in Seattle", Cascadia Green Building Council, February 2011
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