Community Rebuilds takes on the ‘living building’ challenge

The frames and trusses are up on this pair of Community Rebuilds homes on Mill Creek Drive. The homes are part of the Living Building Challenge. Photo by Doug McMurdo

The Moab nonprofit organization Community Rebuilds has partnered with the “Living Building Challenge” effort, in what its executive director says is an “additional leap forward” toward “like-minded aspirations to build the best building with our impact on the environment and our futures in mind.”

Rikki Epperson says its future affordable homes will be the first living buildings in Utah. “We weren’t sure how this rigorous challenge would change us, but we knew it would enhance our curriculum and create a ripple effect for regenerative thinking through our program graduates. Additionally, our future homes will be healthier as a result of our materials research and findings.

“The Living Building Challenge design process has already shifted our sustainable focus to a regenerative one, unlocked the first residential permitting for composting toilets in the State of Utah, and gotten our team obsessed with dissecting materials to make sure they are ‘red list’ free. The construction phase is scheduled for July 2019-July 2020. We are excited to see how the Living Building Challenge changes Community Rebuilds’ focus after the homes are complete.”

Living buildings function as a part of the natural ecosystem, said Epperson in a press release. To do this they must employ several regenerative features. A few of those features include passive solar design, highly insulating straw bale wall construction, heavy focus on salvaged materials, and materials with low embodied carbon footprints. Other features include composting toilet systems, rainwater collected and stored for toilet flushing and irrigation, and greywater reuse for agriculture. Permaculture landscape design is also part of the goal, and earthen plaster finishes throughout the interior including adobe floors. Lime-plastered exterior walls will be built, and solar PV arrays designed to offset annual energy usages.

To achieve living building certification, Community Rebuilds has hired Architectural Nexus, a firm with offices in Salt Lake City and Sacramento that designed, owns and operates the first living building in California. Kenner Kingston, president of the firm, will serve as principal architect on the future Moab homes. “Community Rebuilds is an inspiring organization that is tackling climate and housing challenges in the communities they serve. It is inspiring that they would advance their already high-performance, zero-energy model into the realm of regenerative design by pursuing the Living Building Challenge,” said Kingston. “These desert homes will produce more energy than they consume and will store more than enough rainwater to flush toilets and irrigate on-site urban agriculture over the course of a year.”

A worker pounds rebar into the ground at the site of two builds underway on Mill Creek Drive at Sand Flats Road. The homes are being constructed under the Living Building Challenge guidelines. Photo by Doug McMurdo

In the press release, Community Rebuilds proffered that, “Buildings have, and continue to be, designed, built and operated in ways that harm our environment. The past couple of decades have seen trends in design and construction that have moved the building industry towards doing less harm, but the idea of making buildings that regenerate the environment and operate as thriving, living entities is something that remains very novel. The hope of Architectural Nexus, the International Living Future Institute and Community Rebuilds is that by demonstrating how architecture can be a regenerative part of the environment, these kinds of buildings can move out of the novel and into the norm.”

Kathleen Smith, vice president of living buildings at ILFI said, “The International Living Future Institute is proud to be working with Community Rebuilds, Architectural Nexus, and the rest of the team through our affordable housing initiative. Community Rebuilds is a leader within the region and in the country, proving that sustainability and affordability are not mutually exclusive, and that the way to create true, long-term affordability and stability is to create a home that frees its residents of utility bills, provides a healthy environment, and connects residents with nature and their community. These homes are seeking to be the first affordable homes in the world to be “living certified.” As participants in this pilot program, the strategies, techniques and lessons learned from this project will be shared with the rest of the affordable housing sector to inspire and equip others to pursue the Living Building Challenge on their affordable housing projects.”

Community Rebuilds is a non-profit general contractor that has been building energy efficient housing in Utah, Arizona, and Colorado with low-income families since 2010. “ The LBC framework is described using the metaphor of a flower to demonstrate that buildings should function as cleanly and efficiently as any part of nature,” said the organization’s press release. “An ideal building would operate pollution free, be comprised of integrated systems and healthy materials, and of course, be beautiful.”

The organization’s affordable housing program combines USDA Rural Developments’ Mutual Self Help program with a natural building internship/work exchange program. Together, the labor participation of the homeowners and students offsets the construction costs to actualize homeownership for low- and very-low income households.