Living Building at Georgia Tech Moves to Design Development Stage

The Living Building at Georgia Tech has reached a major milestone, with the approval of the schematic design. Approved by Georgia Tech’s Planning and Design Commission in December, the schematic design essentially provides a working blueprint for what is anticipated to be the most environmentally advanced research and educational building ever constructed in the Southeast.  

“The Living Building is moving into the design development stage where the building and its immediate surroundings really start to take shape based upon the program goals, Living Building Challenge certification requirements, and the project’s budget,” said Howard Wertheimer, assistant vice president for Capital Planning and Space Management. “It has been a collaborative and rather intense analytical process to get to this celebratory stage of the project.”

What’s in a Design Plan?

Since spring of 2016, a team of architects, engineers, landscape architects, cost estimators, and other professionals, have been hard at work analyzing mechanical systems and carefully weighing the tradeoffs to strike the ideal balance between form, function, and cost for this unique building.

“We look for solutions that can serve the needs of the building and its occupants with minimum resources required to operate it,” said Joshua Gassman, lead project manager for Lord Aeck Sargent. “For instance, the schematic design proposes automated venetian blinds on the east façade of the building, which will reduce heat gain by shading when its needed and opening up to provide daylight when needed — all with minimal energy requirements from the building’s photovoltaic panels.”

Other win-win plans that received the green light include:  

  • Incorporating glu-lam (glue-laminated wood) for the majority of the building’s structure. Wood is a preferred material due to its aesthetics, low carbon footprint, and regional availability — all of which are important variables to Living Building Challenge certification. While steel and concrete won’t be eliminated entirely, these materials will only be used strategically where needed for structural support.
  • Installing radiant flooring that utilizes the building’s thermal mass to stay cool in the summer and to stay warm in the winter. In addition to maintaining thermal comfort, this strategy will also significantly reduce the need for traditional large fan systems — and the associated cost — to circulate air throughout the building.
  • Installing composting toilets. While Tech is still exploring the cost benefits of a blackwater treatment facility as part of another project, composting toilets were deemed a far more practical solution for the Living Building based upon their low energy and low water requirement, simplicity to use and maintain, and inexpensive lifecycle cost.

Programmatically, the schematic design promotes flexible space with purpose. Plans include an auditorium that seats 170 people for educational purposes and events. The building will also feature two 75-person classrooms and an open collaboration area — complete with makerspace — adjacent to the the soon-to-be developed Eco-Commons. While the upper rooftop will contain a 260 kW (approximately) photovoltaic array to harness the sun’s energy, a lower occupiable roof will feature a rooftop garden complete with honeybee apiary and pollinator garden.

Lessons Learned

One of the main objectives in creating a Living Building Challenge certified building is to help transform the industry by challenging the status quo and applying lessons to other projects. Even at the beginning design stages, the Living Building at Georgia Tech is proving to be an educational platform for all involved.

One of the lessons learned so far is that early and frequent collaboration with system engineers is a key ingredient for success.

“You have to know how the building must perform, and design to that. So involving the [system] engineers is vital on a project with very specific and stringent performance requirements,” stated Gassman. “This technical expertise must be integrated from the very beginning of the design process, not toward the end, which is often the case in traditional construction projects.”

Another guiding principle is that simplicity rules even when employing the best available technologies. Choosing materials, mapping out the interior structure, and understanding how to best leverage sunlight are examples of incorporating basic design principles that are effective and can be easily repeated on other projects.

“Our aspiration is that the systems being employed on this project, and the mechanical solutions in particular, will serve as an example to be replicated by others in high humidity climates,” said Greg Spiro, senior mechanical engineer with Facilities Management’s Design and Construction team. “This project has the potential to fundamentally change the way we think about heating and cooling buildings.”

Lastly, form can co-exist with function. According to Wertheimer, it used to be an either-or decision. But the careful analysis performed leading up to the schematic design of the Living Building at Georgia Tech has shown that you can create a fully functional, high performance building that is aesthetically pleasing and meets all of the programmatic requirements.    

For more on the Living Building at Georgia Tech, including updates on the design development, visit

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Rachael Pocklington
Institute Communications