The Incredible Story of the Joinery
Today on the blog, I want to share a story about a project in a historic district in a North Tulsa
neighborhood. We call this place the Joinery. I was proud to help the Joinery by creating an environmentally harmonious space that aided its generous mission.
When I first met Nathan Pegarde, he shared his vision for his new residence that would go beyond sustainability. He wanted the Joinery to restore the neighborhood by giving generously to the community. He shared with me his passion for urban agriculture and creating community gardens. He does this work in the middle of a food desert, where lifespans are shortened due to a lack of access to healthy food.
The Living Building Challenge
Understanding the amazing work Nathan is doing in the community, I asked him to consider using an Aspirational rating system, which would allow us to measure the building's performance in a broad category of topics. This system is called the Living Building Challenge. The Living Building Challenge is the most rigorous rating system in the world today. It places imperatives on project teams and owners across several areas of a building, including sustainable design, how a building addresses the culture of a place, how it meets social equity norms and goes beyond them to create a more socially equitable future, and how the building restores the natural flows that existed on the site.
We decided to investigate using the Living Building Challenge, and we quickly learned that using this system would require a fundamentally different approach to building. It forces you to build beautifully, not just by creating an aesthetically beautiful building, but by being mindful every step of the way. The result is a Building-Beautifully approach. This mindfulness requires that we are intentional with each decision, and that we understand the impacts of those decisions, not just on the building occupants but on the neighbors, the community, and the environment.
It requires that we ask and answer three fundamental questions. Why am I building? What am I building? And how will I choose to build? After we concluded our investigation, we took the leap and registered Oklahoma's first project seeking Living Building Challenge certification.
A True Challenge: Creating a Community-Centric Family Residence
With less than two dozen living buildings in the world today, we realized the word challenge was intentional. We knew we needed a framework of values that would help us make the right decisions. We grouped those into three significant areas.
Our First Value
The first area is creating a community-centric home rather than an owner-centric home. Yes, this is a single-family residence, and yes, it is built for a specific family, but there's a significant twist.
Just outside the walls, robust urban agriculture will be taking place on the site. The Picard family is also planning to host large gatherings of community members, friends, and neighbors to continue the discussion about healthy food production and meal planning.
Our Second Value
The second area is to generate more energy and water than the building needs while creating a healthy indoor environment and eliminating waste. We're creating a healthy indoor environment by exhaustively screening each new material that comes into the building, making sure that it's free of chemicals that release gas into the interior and cause health problems. Because of this, we're focusing on using salvaged materials wherever possible.
Our Third Value
We are also eliminating waste on the project. We're looking for people who can take the construction and demolition debris and repurpose it to use it in a meaningful way.
We also understand that this extends into the life of the building. The Picard family will be composting food as well as examining products that they bring into their home. They hope to allow only products that are free from packaging or that have packaging that can be recycled or repurposed. We have a solar array on the roof, and excess energy that's created and but isn't needed is transferred back to the electrical grid for others to use.
The building design uses a thermal mass wall that is twelve inches of solid masonry. We've coupled this with a simple mechanical system, LED lighting and energy-sipping ceiling fans to create a very comfortable and yet very efficient interior environment.
Like all residences, this home also has operable windows, and these operable windows are a good example of our value to balance opposing systems. You see, the more energy-efficient we need our buildings to become, the more control we need to exert over those buildings. Striking this balance between systems that help us achieve energy efficiency and systems that are essential for our happiness and comfort is critical to achieving a truly sustainable building.
Overcoming Our Biggest Challenge
Our biggest accomplishment on this project was, without a doubt, related to water use and wastewater disposal. We learned from other Living Building Challenge Project teams that this would be our biggest challenge, and they were right. We worked with the City of Tulsa mayor's office, the Tulsa City Council, the Tulsa County Health Department, and the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality. We tried to educate them about what we were doing and how unique this project was, and worked with them on strategies that we could employ to achieve our intended outcomes.
All of the people that we talked to were so enthusiastic about this project, and they cheered us on, wanting to see it become a reality. But the fact is, we needed regulatory relief. So after three years of discussion with all parties, the Tulsa mayor's office stepped up to the plate and drafted a residential net-zero water ordinance. This ordinance was then unanimously adopted by the City Council. The ordinance relieves approved projects from connecting to city water and sewer systems, and it also allows them to install onsite wastewater systems to allow them to become net-zero water. This is a monumental step for Tulsa, and it is our belief and our desire that future project teams will advance on-site water strategies even further by building on this precedent.
We're doing this by capturing all the water that falls on the roof during rain events. We're filtering it and storing it in cisterns. Then when it's needed for use in the building, we filter it again. It runs through a UV treatment system to remove any remaining harmful bacteria. The wastewater goes through a series of composting toilets that sip water rather than flush. And we're coupling that with an aerobic system on site, thanks to the new ordinance.
Three Simple Questions, One Important Approach
I posit that the Building Beautifully approach should become our new normal. If we continually seek new ways to build a more sustainable and equitable future for ourselves, our neighbors, our community, and the environment, we can, and we will achieve this together.
It requires that we ask and answer these three questions every time we build.
Why am I building?
What am I building?
How will I choose to build?
No matter the size or scope of a project, these fundamental questions allow us to create beautiful, functional places. As an architect, I choose to improve lives, heal communities, and be a good steward of the environment. I choose to build beautifully.