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Wolf Ridge determined to achieve net-zero status

Aug 29, 2017 08:27AM ● By Editor
A new staff house at Wolfridge Environmental Learning Center (Photo Courtesy of Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center)

By Frank Jossi - Midwest Energy News - August 29, 2017

An environmental camp on Minnesota’s North Shore has spent more than a year constructing two high-performance, energy-efficient buildings in one of the coldest climates in the country.

Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Finland — about 65 miles northeast of Duluth — made a goal to construct two net-zero residential buildings that could be certified by the Living Building Challenge (LBC), according to executive director Peter Smerud.

Collectively the two buildings contain 30,000 square-feet of living space that can house more than 200 people. Residents will bathe in water warmed by solar thermal panels, experience rooms powered by solar photovoltaic installations and be warmed by a biomass system. An additional classroom will be nearly net zero, except for heating.

But it has not been an easy process for Wolf Ridge, the largest residential environmental center in the country. “There has been some complexity to it,” Smerud said. “It has been very challenging.”

The Seattle-based International Living Future Institute developed the LBC several years ago, and it is considered the most rigorous building standard in the world. It requires building owners to reach stringent standards in seven areas: site, water, energy, health, materials, equity and beauty.

Wolf Ridge will be the northernmost site ever to receive LBC certification.

LBC’s chief counterpart is Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), a building certification program created by the United States Green Building Council that awards structures for reaching certain levels of sustainability (bronze, silver, gold and platinum).

“The Living Building Challenge is a lot more comprehensive (than LEED), not just in terms of building performance but in terms of the effects of building materials upstream and downstream — how they’re made and how they perform,” said Daniel Yudchitz, an architect with HGA Architects & Engineers who worked on the project.

LBC looks at the “embodied energy” produced in creating products and gives preference to locally made products. The documentation demanded by certification is extensive, including post-occupancy data on how the systems perform, he said.

If a product does not fit the criteria, it must be removed before any project is certified, an issue that has not arisen at Wolf Ridge. “It’s a serious and challenging system,” Yudchitz said.

Preparing for LBC

The 2,000-acre Wolf Ridge site is on a property with two lakes, several streams and one river on a perch overlooking Lake Superior and not far from the Boundary Waters.

Started in 1971, the center today hosts more than 15,000 children annually in camps from 165 schools, and another 3,000 adults and families.

While conducting strategic planning in 2011 with his board, Smerud considered a policy whereby any new buildings on the campus would be built to LEED-Gold standards. Then two board members suggested the LBC, and Smerud liked the idea.

If Wolf Ridge would really live by its environmental creed, he figured, it should aspire to the highest standards of construction and sustainability. It would mean Wolf Ridge would have to look at the tiniest details in products, such as the paint components of the lettering on the exterior of a heat pump.

Architects and contractors employed by the center also would have to figure out how to heat and cool buildings in what would be the coldest climate ever attempted by an LBC applicant, Smerud said.

“Wolf Ridge is focused on sustainability and how people live on this planet,” he said. “We’re not just about looking at how we connect with nature but about how we look at actions relative to our impact. We look at buildings as part of the living, learning experience.”

Creating a net-zero future

The center’s project started with a simple problem: the need for more bathrooms and dorm rooms. Parents weren’t comfortable with shared bathrooms and having their children in the same rooms as adult leaders, said Smerud.

Many architecture firms bid on the project, but HGA Architects and Engineers seemed to have the best grounding in LBC, although Yudchitz noted that it is the firm’s first LBC project.

The Minneapolis-based firm suggested a total overhaul of the West Dorm, removing a maintenance area in the basement and transferring equipment to a new maintenance building, which aims to be net zero but not certified.

Gardner Builders was chosen as the contractor. Owner Bob Gardner has served as a chaperone for two of his four children at Wolf Ridge. The company had previously done a small LBC project at an architectural office in downtown Minneapolis.

“They teach you at Wolf Ridge that the most important thing you can have to survive in the wilderness is PMA: positive mental attitude,” Gardner said. “Our team has that, and that makes us a phenomenal match for this project.”

The new plan called for a separate staff house and a total renovation of the existing dorm, complimented by two small additions. Wolf Ridge’s board bought into the plan, and HGA designed what turned out to be those three buildings and one other — a classroom overlooking Lake Superior that would not seek LBC certification.

One aspect to getting the dorm certified was to conduct a trial run on the 7,800-square-foot staff home, said Smerud. The idea was to build it with LBC in mind while creating a well-functioning team of contractors, architects and builders.

“We knew we were going to have to execute at the highest level of efficiency, work together, learn new rules, meet materials acquisition guidelines, and so forth,” he said. “We’re so glad we did with an unregistered project.”

Opened this year, the $2.5 million Lakeview staff house can offer living arrangements for 24 to 30 people. It has an eight-panel solar thermal array providing hot water and a 27-kilowatt array that produces electricity, Smerud said.

Still under construction, the $4.8 million renovation of the West Dorm reconfigures and adds space, replaces old building materials with new sustainable products, from insulation to Duxton Windows, Yudchitz said. Habitat for Humanity will repurpose the old windows.

The building was gutted to the studs and the team overcame some supply issues to meet its goals. The Midwest’s huge window manufacturers — Andersen, Marvin and Pella — had no models that complied with LBC, so Wolf Ridge found a triple-paned Duxton model from Winnipeg, Canada to fit, Yudchitz said.

A ventilation system was installed in the dorm’s two cupolas to flush out hot air and cool rooms, a strategy allowing for Wolf Ridge to avoid having to install any sort of air conditioning for the few hot days the region experiences, he said.

Key again to the goal of net zero for the dormitory — rechristened as the Margaret A. Cargill Lodge — is a 40-kilowatt solar array and 16 domestic hot water solar thermal panels.

Every room will be individually monitored for electricity and water consumption. “We assume 12-year-olds are going to be a little competitive and begin asking other kids what their energy and water use is,” he predicted.

LBC buildings aren’t cheap to build, and Smerud is still seeking donations to finish off the $9.4 million project, which includes the Lake Superior classroom. The environmental center created a separate website to keep people apprised of progress on the project.

Debate over standards

Smerud has argued with LBC officials over a few requirements of certification. For example, the organization requires that no combustion can used for heating.

However, Wolf Ridge has used a biomass system since the 1980s that has been updated over the past decade with new boilers and other equipment. LBC’s staff suggested geothermal heating until Smerud pointed out that the North Shore has only two feet of soil and gravel above bedrock.

Part of a maple forest would have to be leveled to install enough geothermal wells to warm the center’s many buildings, and solar PV or thermal would require the same destruction of wooded areas.

When it was suggested that Wolf Ridge put geothermal heating and cooling next to the center’s main road, Smerud told them snow plows would break off the geothermal wellheads.

Other countries where biomass is used to heat and cool buildings, such as Sweden and France, have been pushing the LBC to allow its use. The debate remains unresolved, but in the meantime Wolf Ridge continues to burn tons of wood pellets annually brought in from a manufacturer in Hayward, Wisconsin.

Smerud, however, won an argument on landfills. LBC wants 90 percent of landfill items diverted. No contractor in Duluth, the nearest big city, could make that promise, he said. A contractor in Minneapolis laid out a plan to make the quota by bringing items to the Twin Cities, a more than nine-hour round trip.

LBC officials saw the potential pollution from trucks traveling for hours as a bigger threat than items ending up in a landfill, and allowed the exception.

Perhaps one of the biggest impacts of the project came when HGA changed paint vendors due to the LBC requirements. The firm used Sherwin Williams paint until learning it was not on LBC’s approved list of vendors.

Wolf Ridge and HGA instead went with Benjamin Moore, sparking a visit from a Sherwin Williams executive to Minneapolis to discuss the situation with Smerud and the architecture firm. The executive promised the company would change its ingredient mix of every product it makes in the future to comply with LBC standards.

“What a cool outcome that is from this tiny little project in Finland,” Smerud said.