Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Virginia's Coastline Hosts the Newest 'Living Building' in the World


An environmental education center off Virginia’s coast is set to be certified as one of the first structures in the mainland U.S. to achieve the most advanced measure of sustainability in the built environment: a “Living Building.”

That honor is to be conferred upon the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s “Brock Environmental Center” by the International Living Future Institute.  As a Living Building, the center, located in Virginia Beach, is be permitted to supply all of the water and energy it needs while composting all of its building and human waste.

The center is an encore investment of the Foundation’s Philip Merrill Environmental Center headquarters environmental center in Annapolis, Maryland. That structure was the first to achieve “LEED Platinum” certification in the world in 2001. So this extends an impressive pedigree.

Living Buildings are how architects and other design and building professionals are raising the ‘bar’ on structures that actually enhance human health along with the local habitat and ecology. Joan and Macon Brock, as well as many other donors, took aim at the Living Building certification when they contributed $11 million to pay for the Brock center. While precious few organizations can afford, much less justify, these types of investments, the Foundation and their donors consider it an investment in the future of civil society.

“Thus far, the center has generated 80 percent more power than it’s used,” said Gregory A. Mella, the leader of SmithGroup JJR architects who designed both structures for the Foundation and shared up-to-date energy and water data at the first-ever Resilient Virginia Conference in Richmond last month. That data can be monitored in real-time on the center’s dashboard here. See the accompanying snapshot for the solar energy produced up to the Noon hour on March 30, 2016.

Because the city of Virginia Beach requires all buildings to be connected to the grid for water, sewer and electric, the center is tied to the grid. But, as Foundation Vice President Mary Tod Winchester asserted, “we rarely use it.”

“We do use the grid for our power storage as the building is designed to use all of its own energy first,” said Chris Gorri, the center’s on-site manager. “However, we generate more energy than we need and send our excess to the grid which powers the homes and businesses around us.” That said, its typical electricity bill is $17.19 – just for fees.

The center is the first commercial building in the U.S. to receive a precedent-setting permit which allows the center to capture and treat rainwater for all uses at the facility, including drinking water.  Cisterns can collect and hold 3,000 gallons of water. After treatment it meets all the relevant standards set by the EPA’s Safe Water Drinking Act and permitted by water and public health agencies in Virginia.

One hundred and sixty-eight rooftop solar panels and two wind turbines power the entire facility.  The orientation of the 10,500 square-foot structure maximizes natural light throughout the year and enables ambient wind currents along with the shaded porch to provide most of the natural cooling needed during Virginia’s hot and humid summer months.

Composting toilets process all waste which is turned into compost and used on site.  The urine from the toilets is collected onsite and brought to an offsite treatment plant where it is made into green fertilizer and sold at local nurseries.

With the help of the Trust for Public Land, the Foundation took aim at the property, slated for development of 1,110 living units, first by partnering with the City of Virginia Beach to purchase the bankrupted property from Wells Fargo Bank. Rather than allow it to be sold to another developer, Virginia Beach agreed to purchase 108 acres and designate it a “passive” park. The foundation purchased 10 acres for its center.


And what better (or more challenging) place for such a demonstration project than one of the most risk-prone, flood-plain, coastal environments on any U.S. coast? It is there, amid the marshes dotting the Virginia Beach region, where the sea level is projected to rise at least one meter by 2100.

Winchester said its leaders debated whether it made sense to build the center in midst of the risks. But in a “design charrette” with Jason McLennan, CEO of the International Living Future Institute; and, at the time, the then-chair of the U.S. Green Building Council, Elizabeth Heider, all of the stakeholders unanimously recommended it pursue the site because of the educational potential of how to deal with those risks - build a model facility and use it as a teaching tool through its education programs.

Greg Mella, the lead architect, explained that to earn the Living Building Challenge certification the center would need to perform up to International Living Future Institute’s standards for 12 months. By the 6th month however – last October -- heavy rains and massive flooding along the Mid-Atlantic coast spawned by Hurricane Joaquin delivered the test of what was considered a 100-year storm. At its peak, Joaquin was a Category 4 hurricane.

As the rains ceased, the water level had risen about six feet above sea level leaving about six inches of standing water at the center’s base. That was no problem because the main floor was built almost 14 feet above sea level.

“We’re getting more 100-year storms than we ever have so we designed and built this to survive a greater than 100 year-storm surge,” Winchester said.

The Future Living Institute carefully audited the center last week to ensure all the criteria were met, while also reviewing  all the documentation including the Institute’s “Red List” of prohibited building materials and chemicals designated as harmful to living creatures, including humans, or the environment. The 12-month test period concluded Thursday, March 31.  The certification is expected to be awarded in May at the Living Building Conference in Seattle.

"The Brock Center illustrates what can be done by committed organizations, working with the public sector, to ensure that energy production, water management, and waste handling not only have less environmental impact but actually give back to the surrounding communities and their ecology,” said Annette Osso, Co-founder and Managing Director of the Resilient Virginia nonprofit.

To hear them articulate the living examples set by the center, go here for a short video of Greg Mella and here for a short video of Mary Tod Winchester. Go here for a video tour of the center, including an aerial view of the site.


Jim Pierobon

Clean energy advocate, strategic marketer and story teller with 15+ years supervisory experience and a proven track record achieving strategic and program objectives for energy, utility, technology and other clients in their marketplaces and policy arenas while engaging their priority stakeholders and target audiences. I'm always on the lookout for innovative policies, people, technologies and businesses that are demonstrating how sustainability can be both healthy and profitable. Catch my blog posts at TheEnergyFix.com. I've also written for The New York Times, Houston Chronicle, The Huffington Post and TheEnergyCollective.com.

Read more stories by Jim Pierobon