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Wolf Ridge tackles Living Building Challenge

May 03, 2018 04:47AM ● Published by Editor


By Katya Gordon for the Lake County News-Chronicle - May 1, 2018


An exciting project along the North Shore has broad implications for our economy and our future. Wolf Ridge ELC, a nationally acclaimed environmental learning center near Finland, has embarked on a building project slated to pass the Living Building Challenge (LBC), the highest international standard in the world for sustainable infrastructure.

The expectation for this building is that not only will it be built with local, non-toxic materials, with 90 percent landfill diversion (10 percent of the waste for the project, including the demolition of the old building, can go into a landfill), but that once the building is in use, it must perform sustainably as well. The certification, in fact, will not be granted until 12 months of proven use.

Once it is fully functioning, it must sustain zero output for both water and energy. It can't use more energy than it creates or harnesses. It can't use more water than flows into the immediate vicinity via rain and snow.

Katya Gordon

Katya Gordon

The scope of this vision takes my breath away. How does one even begin? According to Director Pete Smerud, this project answers the increasing imperative to live more lightly on the land. We are not connecting kids to the earth very well if we are not teaching them to protect their climate, their water and their soil at the same time. He makes no claim that this is an easy job, but it's one of those projects whose process is as impactful as its product.

"Make the right decision the normal thing to do and people will rise to the challenge," he said.

In describing conversations he's initiated with contractors, the process is anything but quick. For instance, he explains that he needs paint, pipes, insulation, wood, even light switches — and none can contain any of the top 800 "Red List" toxic chemicals.

He also needs to know where the materials came from, and that they were sourced as near to his site as was possible — in some cases, within just a few miles. Who knew you can make countertops from granite quarried right along the North Shore in the unincorporated community of Isabella?

Not surprisingly, he gets a lot of incredulous stares at first, and not a small number of rejections. "Can't be done" is a phrase he has learned to expect, and considers only the beginning of the conversation. With paint, he not only found what he needed, but his original paint contractor, though he was no longer on the project, came back to tell him that their most prominent line of paint was now LBC-compliant.

In another example, windows without PVC weather-stripping did not exist until Duxton Windows, based in Winnipeg, figured out how to make them.

Clearly, this building is more than a building. It is a conversation changer nationwide. The fact that we are having the conversation in our neck of the woods makes it possible for local contractors to gain knowledge and skills that will be invaluable as more people prioritize materials and manufacturing that utilize local economies and resources.

Local heroes are emerging, such as Agate Electric's Mike Norlen, who went to Wolf Ridge as a child and is now in charge of the electric installation there. Or Heritage Window and Door in Superior, that managed to ship hundreds of windows to Wolf Ridge encased only in recyclable cardboard.

The cost? Cheaper than the standard shipping.

The downside? Pete needed to be there to supervise the arrival of the windows on a semitrailer and the careful transfer onto the site. Not much of a downside, in his book, for a zero-waste shipping order. All he had to do was ask.

Climate change is making abundantly clear that we need to do much more than switch light bulbs. Big projects, funded by foundations and individuals that have the resources to make big investments, are leading the way so that tomorrow, everyday people can live more lightly on the earth. To do this, we can't be shy about asking unusual questions. In a few years, thanks to people taking on the Living Building Challenge, the question, "What is it made of and where did it come from?" may become commonplace — and if so, the local contractors working today at Wolf Ridge will be in the best position to provide the answers.

Wolf Ridge is still raising money for its landmark building and land project. To learn more or support this project, contact Pete Smerud at pete.smerud@wolf-ridge.org.

Grand opening and ribbon-cutting

  • Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center's new Margaret A. Cargill Lodge
  • 2-3:30 p.m. Saturday, May 5

Katya Gordon is a volunteer for the Citizens’ Climate Lobby and a Two Harbors resident.

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