“Think about how a flower works”

Released April 23, 2018

BOY 1: There’s a cart with a bunch of compound microscopes on it.
GIRL 1: And then we have our own skeleton -- What’s her name? Susie. Susie the skeleton. And then there’s also like a salmon tank. We grow salmon eggs.
BOY 1: There’s like a bunch of science-related things like pictures of Albert Einstein.

JULIA: In a small elementary school called Bertschi, four fifth graders are showing me around their science room.

GIRL 1: Oh do you want to see the toilet?!?

JULIA: She’s pointing to a composting toilet, which means it mixes the waste with wood chips to make fertilizer.

GIRL 1: Oh yeah, the compost in the garden… does the poo go there? *GIGGLETOWN* Um, it helps fertilize our plants

JULIA: And that’s not the only thing that makes this classroom a little different. They show me a glass-topped stream that runs under the floor, carrying water through the room when it rains….

BOY 2: Yeah I remember actually a lot of times, when it was raining really hard. It literally looked like a real river or a real stream because there was so much water coming through.

JULIA: There’s a big green wall, packed floor to ceiling with plants…

GIRL 2: The water from the sink goes to the green wall so it can grow.
GIRL 1: It’s real big, 25 ft tall, and there’s a lot of plants on it, like different types. And then we don’t have -- we are off the grid for energy because of our solar panels.
BOY 2: We produce a lot of energy from them, like today we produced almost 10 kWh of energy.
GIRL 1: There’s only a couple fully certified living buildings in the world and ours is one them, I think the fourth?

JULIA: That’s not an exaggeration. When this building was finished in 2011, it became the fourth of its kind in the world: A certified Living Building. That means that it generates all of its own power, collects and treats rainwater, and is built using local materials. Seven years ago, designing this kind of building was a pretty long shot for architects. But now, it’s a reality for these kids.

BOY 1: I never actually thought about that, because science is so fun. But when you think about it more, you realize how cool and interesting this building is.

JULIA: This is the story of a little school that took on a big task. It's about fateful encounters, enthusiastic kids, and one hell of a science teacher.

JULIA: This is….

KIDS (TOGETHER): Design..? Build…? Create...? Design can...save...the world. Design can save the world!

JULIA: …I’m Julia Drachman

ULA: And I’m Ula Kulpa.

ULA: So Julia. When we first met, you were working at an architecture firm.

JULIA: Yep. I actually worked for a firm that designed Living Buildings.

ULA: What exactly is a Living Building?

JULIA: Basically, the Living Building Challenge is a sustainable architecture metric. You can think of it as next-level LEED. But LEED is very technical. The living building challenge is based on this idea that our buildings can function as elegantly and efficiently as a flower.

ULA: Ok...a flower building. What does that mean?

JULIA: Think about how a flower works. It gets water from the rain, it’s part of an ecosystem, and when it decomposes, it adds nutrients back to the soil. It’s also a beautiful thing that brings joy to people. It has this net positive effect on the planet. The metaphor of a flower reframes how we think about sustainability (doing less bad) as something positive (doing more good). The actual challenge gets into all the specifics about what that means for a building -- how much energy needs to be generated, which materials are kosher to use, etc. And it’s really hard to get that certification. It was even harder back in 2010, when there were almost no examples to work from.

ULA: So how did an elementary school do it?

JULIA: To understand that, let me introduce one of the people who made it happen.

STAN RICHARDSON: First off, it's called the Living Building Challenge, so that's an interesting thing for a school to take on challenges, to promote challenges for students.

JULIA: This is Stan Richardson -- the Campus Planner at Bertschi School.

STAN: And in the end, the kids end up asking, why aren't all buildings built like this?

JULIA: Stan’s been at Bertschi for almost 30 years. He has a no-nonsense way of talking, but you can tell he’s a softie. You can think of him as the school’s sustainability advocate. A few years before embarking on Bertschi’s Living Building, Stan led a campus project that achieved LEED Gold. He was leading a tour of that building when he happened to meet:

STAN: Chris Hellstern and Stacy Smedley. I did the tour for them.

JULIA: Chris and Stacy were with a firm called KMD Architects. They were young, early in their careers, and a little idealistic. And, as it so happened, they had recently attended a conference about the Living Building Challenge earlier that year.

STACY SMEDLEY: This man was up there talking about this wonderful metaphor of a flower and the Living Building Challenge and then said, “You're the audience that has to go out and show that these buildings are possible.” That's really where that, kind of, initial seed got planted.

JULIA: As Stan showed them around Bertschi, they couldn’t help but think of the challenge...

STACY: I can't remember if he said it first or if we asked him the question because the light bulb was already starting to go off, but we said, "Well have you heard the Living Building Challenge." Chris and I looked at each other kind of sideways and didn't say anything else about it, but on the van ride back to the office, we're like, "OK well, there's our project... now what do we do?"

JULIA: When they got back to the office, they fired off these long emails to engineers and contractors to see if anyone might be interested in joining them. The responses surprised them. Here’s Chris:

CHRIS HELLSTERN: Just one word responses. "Yes." or "I'm in.” They were all so enthusiastic. We're going to build something that's not been built before and we're going to do it for free for the school.

ULA: That’s kind of unusual right? Why design it for free?

JULIA: There are a couple reasons, I think. 1, It was so early in the Living Building Challenge, and these were people who wanted to be a part of this new movement and have their firms on the leading edge of sustainability. 2, it was for a school, and I think that makes everyone’s hearts a little squishy.

As soon as they started the project, they decided to get the kids involved, too.

CHRIS: We knew the project would be most successful if the students had some ownership in it, they had some part of the process.

STAN: We asked them, "If you were going to build a science room, what would you put in that room?" And a whole list of ideas came out of that.

STACY: Their answers led to some of the coolest things that are up there, like the stream in the floor and green wall that's treating all the water.

JULIA: Did it help that kids don't have architecture degrees or engineering degrees?
CHRIS: It really does. It really frees up the students to not think about all the restrictions that we have as adults. Our first instinct as architects is to keep water out of a building but when the students say they want to put a river in it, It really opens us up to find different avenues to make it happen for them.

JULIA: When the kids said they wanted a “place where something was always growing,” they built that huge indoor green wall that doubles as a way of treating water. When one kid said he wanted a “river running through the classroom,” they designed the glass-topped stream.

The challenge seemed to light a spark in the kids in that classroom, and then their ideas helped push the architects out of their comfort zone. But for a project like this to work in the long term, you need someone who can interpret the building and make it something the kids can learn from.

ULA: Like, a teacher?

JULIA: Exactly

JULIE BLYSTAD: I’m Julie Blystad and I teach science and robotics here at Bertschi School.

JULIA: Julie now integrates the daily operation of the building into her curriculum.

JULIE: We look at this almost daily and this shows -- these are our solar panels.

JULIA: She’s showing me this website with daily readouts from the solar panels on the roof.

JULIA: It says, "19 minutes: lighting the Eiffel Tower for one minute uses three point three seven kilowatt hours of energy." So that's... what does that mean?
JULIE: With the amount of sunlight we've had today, we could light the Eiffel Tower for 19 minutes.
JULIA: Oh I see. Oh cool.

JULIA: 16 years ago, long before the Living Building Challenge was even a thing, Julie was my science teacher. Being back at Bertschi, with her showing me around, was a little surreal. The way she uses the building as one big teaching tool reminds me of what her class was like. She has always used real life examples to teach her students about the natural world.

I remember hatching Chinook salmon eggs and raising the them until they were old enough to set free in the local salmon run. I remember some owl pellet dissections and papier mache maps of the state’s watersheds. My memories from that time have that childhood fuzziness, but I remember Julie as a super patient, engaging teacher. And I’m not the only one.

MEGAN: I think what made her so special is that she really treated us like we were the future leaders.

JULIA: That’s Megan -- a current 9th grader. She remembers Julie teaching her and her classmates about solar power.

MEGAN: We can essentially replace our current power grid, and you guys can do that. That's going to happen in your lifetime. Like, which one of you is going to do it?

JULIA: That is exactly how Julie wants all her kids to feel -- like they can make a difference.

JULIE: I just feel it's really important not to be negative. To empower them, to make them feel like they can make a difference. Once you, speak about their future in a way that they don't have any control over it. I just think that's stripping them of their power. I hope that I've inspired all of them to think that, you know, they -- even on an individual basis -- they can make a big difference.

JULIA: Julie has been teaching at Bertschi for over 20 years. She’s watched her students grow up through two decades of environmental change and technological growth that she couldn’t have predicted. She realized a long time ago that her classroom had to be a place where students could bring their questions about the changing world around them.

JULIE: I think kids see this as a little sanctuary place where we address issues. I'm constantly being brought in articles from magazines and papers about environmental issues, and oftentimes we'll start off a class that way because somebody will have a specific question about something that's happened in the news.
JULIA: Do the kids surprise you with the questions they ask and what they bring in?
JULIE: Very much so. Yeah. And how deeply they understand it oftentimes. They want to know what they, as an individual, can do. Or they, as the class, can do. That's just very important for them to feel like they're empowered to change what they see is...a wrong way of doing things.

JULIA: The Living Building is a particularly effective classroom for Julie. It lets her show the kids that -- when she says the world is theirs to change -- she means it. This building wouldn’t exist without the input of kids just like them, kids who are now in high school.

MORGAN: Yeah I was in fifth grade when the building opened. I totally was that nerdy kid who was like gushing about like the roof is inverted and water goes in and it's so cool.

ANA LUCIA: It tied into everything we had learned
about how that energy that we created went back to the system.

MAX: I remember answering that we should put, like a little Dick's stand so we could get, like, Dick's Cheeseburgers.

BEN: When you're in that building and you see all these positive effects that it's having firsthand, it really does seem like wow, this is actually something that I can do.

JULIA: Hearing these high schoolers reflect on their childhood makes me think back to those fifth graders you heard at the beginning. Next year, they’ll all be in middle school, bringing everything they’ve learned with them. But for now, they’re still running the show.

JULIA: Do any of you guys have any idea what you want to be when you grow up?
GIRL 2: I want to be an astronaut and fly to Mars.
BOY 2: I either want to be an entrepreneur or a businessman or a football player.
BOY 1: I want to be a video game designer and/or coding, program dude.

JULIA: Julie empowers kids to see the future as theirs to shape, rather than as a lost cause. It’s just like the Living Building Challenge. It’s easy to be jaded and let yourself lose faith that we can solve the world’s problems. But when you look into the eyes of a bright, creative 10-year-old, it gets a little harder to give up. You start to believe in a more beautiful, sustainable future.

JULIA: A lot has changed since the Bertschi Science Building was finished in 2011. The kids who were in fifth grade that year are about to graduate from high school. And as for the Living Building Challenge, it seems to be moving the needle on the sustainability conversation. It’s still only a small group of 16 buildings that have ever achieved full certification, but that number’s growing. And for architects, the job of making these buildings is only getting easier. Here are Chris and Stacy again:

CHRIS: So when we first started it was a big education process. We hadn't done one of these. But we've really seen the market change. People now recognize Living Building Challenge. Clients are coming to us asking for these types of buildings which is really great.

STACY: It's really fun to have been in that moment when it was kind of painful, and see that transition over time to know that it's picking up speed.

JULIA: Both architects look back on Bertschi as a pivotal project in their careers. It set them on the path to become leaders in sustainable architecture.

CHRIS: Bertschi school project means a lot to me. it was an unbelievably lucky turn of events to find such a great client. I mean they took a chance on something that we were also taking a chance on.

JULIA: And for the kids who take science there, the living building isn’t this new thing anymore. It’s just their science classroom.

GIRL 1: I don’t think it’s that crazy -- it just seems very natural and...naturous.

JULIA: That’s exactly what advocates of radically sustainable architecture want to hear. You want those buildings that were once crazy and groundbreaking to become the status quo, at least until the next, boundary-pushing thing comes along.

JULIE: Somebody the other day asked me, "Is this building still at the forefront of innovation for environmental architecture?" and I said, "I hope it isn't." We had one of the very first buildings, so all the ones coming after us should be even better.

JULIA: If you look at the seven categories of requirements for the Living Building Challenge, you might see something surprising. Among the things you’d expect, like Energy, Water, Materials, there’s one called “Beauty.”

LELAN: I just remember walking up the stairs...

JULIA: This is Lelan -- another Bertschi alum.

LELAN: Seeing all the plants around us, like, listening to the water filter through the building..I could hear the rain on all sides. And like you could hear it hitting the roof. You know that sound of the rain, when you're inside and it's just hitting like everything and it's just like really serene? That's what that was. It was just kind of like… peaceful.

JULIA: Unlike the other requirements in the challenge, it can be pretty hard to measure the “beauty” of a building. But that requirement -- like the rest of the challenge -- just makes sense. Beautiful things that really work for the people who use them are loved. And things that are loved tend to stick around.

JULIA: Design Can Save the World is produced by me, Julia Drachman, and Ula Kulpa.

ULA: Our music is by Phoenix Glendinning with additional tracks from Blue Dot Sessions. And our artwork is by Will Stack.

JULIA: Special thanks to the people you heard from, and some you didn't: Anya, Cayden, Efe, and Mia, Megan, Morgan, AnaLucia, Ben, Max, Lelan, Julie Blystad, Stan Richardson, Chris Hellstern, Stacy Smedley, Dan Clarkson, Rafael DelCastillo, Midori Saito, and Brigitte Bertschi. And a special thank you to Andy Clark and Blake Gallagher for the use of their beautiful recording studio.

ULA: You can find us on the Internet at dcstwpod.com, or @dcstwpod on Twitter and Instagram. That's D-C-S-T-W-Pod. This week, we've got pictures of the Living Building at Bertschi School. And if you are interested in making your own flower building, we’ve got links in the show notes.

KIDS (SINGING): …The nucleus takes over, controlling everything…the party don’t stop til the membrane blocks the scene…cells! Oh yeah!