Skip to content

The Kendeda Building is “the greenest in the Southeast”

Leed is for wimps; the Living Building Challenge really pushes the building envelope.

The Greenbuild conference is built around the LEED certification developed by the US Green Building Council, but LEED is for wimps compared to the Living Building Challenge (LBC). A tour of Kendeda Building on Georgia Institute of Technology campus is a great example of the standard's ambitions and contradictions. It's also a really lovely building designed by Lord Aeck Sargent and the Miller Hull Partnership, the same firm that designed the other great demonstration of the LBC, the Bullitt Center in Seattle.

Brian Court and Brad KahnBrian Court and Brad Kahn/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

In fact, architect Brian Court of Miller Hull worked on both buildings. He and Brad Kahn (who took me on a tour of the Bullitt a few years ago) showed me around the just-completed Kendeda Building.

The Kendeda Building represents the next step in regenerative design for Georgia Tech and Atlanta, both of which have a well- established record of commitment to sustainability. Funded by a $30 million grant to Georgia Tech from the Kendeda Fund, the project is designed to be a living, learning laboratory, showing what’s possible in the Southeast in order to catalyze even more ambitious green buildings across the region.

The Living Building Challenge is organized around seven ‘petals', or different aspects of the building, including Place, Water, Energy, Health and Happiness, Materials, Equity, and Beauty.


It is a beautiful site, surrounded by trees, but LBC buildings cannot be on Greenfield sites. This one was previously a parking lot. “Pedestrian and bicycle mobility are enhanced through the site, with several connections to campus and public transportation.”


aerial view Kendeda buildingThat's a lot of solar panels! / Vertical River/CC BY 2.0

Georgia Tech projects that about 120% of the energy needs for The Kendeda Building are being supplied on-site through a renewable energy source: the Photovoltaic (PV) array, which is a key design feature for the building and provides a large shaded porch. The array is 330 kW (DC) and is expected to generate over 450,000 kWh per year. The mechanical systems of the building include radiant heating and cooling throughout most of the building, dedicated outdoor air system (DOAS), and ceiling fans.

Solar panels over porchSolar panels over porch/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

My first reaction on seeing the building was that it had the same issue as the Bullitt Center, which didn't have the roof area to generate enough power, so they negotiated overhangs over the property lines into the road allowance and the park. That's not the case here; Brian Court notes that, traditionally, Georgian architecture included porches to provide shaded outdoor space and to keep the sun off the building. (Think Tara from Gone with the Wind.) That's what the solar panels do here.But I have always considered this to be a fundamental problem with the Living Building Challenge, that it doesn't scale vertically very well, that you run out of roof pretty quickly. It works best on a site like this, with lots of room to make the panels as big as you need.

Columns over porchSkinny columns hold up solar panels/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Note the design of the columns holding up the panels; they are braced like sailboat masts, or as Brian Court noted, tensegrity structures. Without the bracing, those 4-inch diameter columns would have been 12 inches.

Health and Happiness:

Ceiling in the classroomSome of the prettiest exposed pipe and conduit work I have ever seen/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

You can't live in Atlanta without air conditioning; it's got heat, humidity and pollen. But you can do everything possible to minimize it and maximize access to fresh air and daylight. So the Kendeda building has a radiant floor for heating and cooling, a fresh air ventilation system, and some of the prettiest pipe and electrical conduit work I have ever seen. And what really makes me happy is looking at all that wood.

The project helps encourage human connection to the natural environment by exposing the mass timber construction throughout the project and by providing visual and physical connections to the porch, Eco-Commons, and roof garden.


Red List materials, 22 of the worst-in-class chemicals and materials on the market, are generally not permitted in the project.

This is a tough part of the Living Building Challenge, with many common materials (like PVC and neoprene) not allowed. When Miller Hull did the Bullitt Center, they had a really tough time with the red list; I asked Brian Court if it was easier, if there were more products available, and he said that the market had responded and there were a lot more options.

Interior of spaceSteel truss holds up roof and walkways/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Another requirement for materials is to calculate the embodied carbon footprint, to minimize it, and offset it. That's why there is such extensive use of wood, recycled and salvaged materials. Even that beautiful wood decking alternates new 2×6 wood with salvaged 2x4s.

connections and roofBeautiful steel connections and beautiful woodwork/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

And look how they are supporting that roof and the walkway; that beautiful steel truss gets the long span out of a smaller beam, and supports those walkways. It's elegant and minimal, using the least material possible.

Equity: Support a just, equitable world.

assembling floor panelsAssembling floor panels offsite/ Skanska/CC BY 2.0

Building users have equitable and universal access in and throughout the building. The project does not block natural daylight for surrounding buildings. No noxious emissions or chemicals are emitted from the project. …Skanska constructed a major portion of the floor deck by partnering with Georgia Works, a non-profit that trains and employs economically disadvantaged Atlanta residents.

Beauty: Celebrate design that uplifts the human spirit.

Interior ground floor with CoreyInterior view at ground floor/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Always in the eye of the beholder, but the “iconic design makes it immediately obvious that the Kendeda Building is different from other buildings, inviting people to learn more.” It is also put together really well; the craftsmanship in every trade is out there for everyone to see.

Water: Operate within the water balance of this place and climate.

All water in The Kendeda Building is collected, treated, and used on site. Rainwater from the roof and solar array is captured and treated. Stormwater is retained and managed on site with minimal run-off through bioswales and rain gardens. Greywater is cleaned and put back into the ground to recharge the aquifer.

Clivus Multrum foam toiletClivus Multrum foam toilet/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I always leave the water petal to last because I have a fundamental disagreement with the Living Building Challenge here. I am always excited about the elimination of black water through the use of composting toilets, which give you the sweetest smelling bathrooms because all the air is sucked down through the toilets. Gray water being returned to the aquifer is also a wonderful idea.

Drinking water purification systemDrinking water purification system/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

It's the drinking water that worries me. It's collected off the solar panels and treated on the lower level.

I live in Ontario, Canada, where 20 years ago the government downloaded responsibility for water management to the municipalities. In the town of Walkerton, the water system was run by two brothers with no training, who didn't test it adequately, and who didn't put in enough chlorine. Six people died and 2,000 were sickened and are still dying from organ failure attributed to the tragedy.

Atlanta doesn't have the best drinking water in the country, but it it is checked by experts constantly and the city is spending $300 million to improve the supply. Potable municipal water is a collective good that all should be able to depend on; I am not sure that the Living Building Challenge should be promoting making your own. If the rich can make their own drinking water or buy bottled, who is going to stand up for the municipal systems? This is how you get Flint, Michigan. As I noted after touring the Bullitt Center, “If you're part of a larger community with a safe municipal water supply, you should use it. There are some things that we do better together.”

Regenerative Design:

But that's just me, and is not a reflection on this wonderful project. It goes beyond our sustainable design; it's regenerative.

Roof terraceRoof terrace with planting/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have degraded natural environments – to the point where our activities are impacting the entire world today in what’s known as the Anthropocene Era. Our climate is changing, species are going extinct at an accelerating pace, forests are being lost to agriculture and sprawl at record rates, our trash litters every corner of the planet, and hazardous chemicals are ubiquitous. Regenerative design moves well beyond mere sustainability, setting a goal to restore or regenerate the natural systems we all depend upon to live. It is a practice that merges building design with the surrounding natural environment.

In creating this building, “the Kendeda Fund wants to transform the understanding of what’s possible by architects, engineers, general contractors, policymakers, the philanthropic community, and others.” They are succeeding.

Leed is for wimps; the Living Building Challenge really pushes the building envelope.