This year I attended the Living Future unConference for my fifth consecutive year. The first time I went was with the newly formed Brock Environmental Center team—owner, contractor, and program manager—for a crash course on what our team needed to achieve Living Building Challenge certification. We came back in 2013 after the design was nearly complete, returned in 2014 near the end of construction, and participated in 2015 at the on-set of our one-year reporting cycle. The 2016 event, when Brock was named the 10th Living Building Challenge certified project in the world, was probably the most memorable conference because Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s (CBF) Mary Tod Winchester and I were both named Living Building Challenge heroes. But I’ll remember this year’s unConference as a great opportunity to celebrate Ecotone Publishing’s new book, the Brock Environmental Center for a Living Chesapeake, which was released this May. During the conference, I connected again with Juliet Grable, the book’s author; Michael Berrisford, Ecotone’s editor-in-chief; and Mary Tod Winchester for a reunion and book signing.
I always remark that this project was a “twice in a lifetime” opportunity; recognizing how lucky I was to be involved with CBF’s Merrill Center and then again with the Brock Environmental Center. I was 28 when I began working on Merrill, without any foresight that the building would go on to be the world’s first LEED Platinum and an AIA COTE Top Ten award winner. The building itself endured and continues to be a benchmark. The story behind the Merrill Center had remained untold, beyond a myriad of publications that focused on its composting toilets and operable windows. So when the opportunity emerged to see Brock as the subject of an Ecotone publication, I was thrilled to participate in retelling the story behind both the Merrill and Brock Center projects. Both buildings’ sustainable design attributes have been well documented in books and case studies, but Juliet’s book would document the process—the thinking, collaboration, inspiration, perseverance, and love that led to the Center’s achievements. And I was not disappointed; Juliet’s well-researched and well-written book does just that.
The process of writing a book about the Brock Environmental Center began with a “book charrette”. Most of the team responsible for bringing this amazing facility to life—including CBF, WPL Site Design, Skanska, Hourigan, and SmithGroup—reunited at the project site to meet Juliet and relive the four years spent working closely together to design, construct, and operate the building and reflect on its first year operating as a net-zero structure.
In an effort to find the most sustainable way to bring the team to Virginia Beach, I rented a small bus and 12 of us from SmithGroup, CBF, Ecotone, and the International Living Future Institute took a road trip and began recounting anecdotes. Once we arrived, we connected again with the local team and started the conversation by giving Juliet a tour of the building and grounds. Chris Gorri, Brock’s facility manager led the tour, which was perfect. For two or three years, I was the one at the podium describing the Center’s features, but the reins had been passed to Chris and the story is richer because it’s shaped by his experiences running the Center every day. In case you haven’t noticed, architects often think of their designs as “babies” that they’ve nurtured and brought to life. Unfortunately, many times they leave their babies at the Owner’s doorstep and disappear. Because of the Living Building Challenge, I was able to stay engaged during that first year, working in partnership with CBF to ensure that Brock was operating as designed. This was critical because buildings aren’t static objects. They are living things. Brock was nurtured by a team of people, had grown strong and flourished, and we stepped away confident that it was ready to flourish on its own.
Back to the charrette…Juliet had structured an agenda for the day, largely leading the conversation about the Center. The day needed little steering and was threaded together by a series of anecdotes and stories filled with laughter and love. The vibe in the room was not one of a project meeting or a design charrette. The room felt more like a Thanksgiving dinner and those around the table felt like my family. Over the last four years we had bonded. We tackled challenges (which we tongue-in-cheek called ‘opportunities’), poured our hearts into our work, and smiled with pride as everything came together.
In the year following that gathering, we each had an opportunity to talk more with Juliet one-on-one as she worked to bring the book closer to publication. We gathered illustrations of design concepts, waited outside the Center at sunrise to capture the perfect photograph, and recounted lessons learned that we hoped to pass on to other ambitious teams. There were flurries of activities followed by moments of pause, where Juliet worked to synthesize the barrage of information symptomatic of the team’s passion. After reading an early draft, I felt assured our story was in good hands. In early 2017, during a cross-country flight, I had an opportunity to read the final draft. I know it’s cliché, but I laughed…I cried. I felt incredibly lucky to have the best, most rewarding professional experience of my career captured in print!
Gathering with Juliet and Mary Tod one last time in Seattle at the Living Future unConference was a proud day for me because I realized that the love that you put into creating something always comes through in the final product. I know Mary Tod and I felt that way about the Brock Environmental Center, and I could see the same was true for Juliet and the book. CBF didn’t set out to create a building that would meet its functional needs. Rather, they set out to create an example of what is possible so that people can come and see what a living future looks like. With the launch of Brock Environmental Center for a Living Chesapeake, I hope the collaborative and integrative process that led to the Center’s success reaches a whole new audience poised to pursue a living future.