Few people would have taken the instruction so literally. When Jason McLennan told attendees of the 2009 Living Future conference that it was up to them to prove that it is possible to design buildings that have no more impact on their sites than a wildflower has on a field, Stacy Smedley took him seriously. She left the conference thinking, “I need to go do one of these. This has to happen.”
Two years later, she made good on her promise, completing a classroom building that became only the fourth Living Building in the world. Seattle’s Bertschi School Science Classroom subsequently won a slew of awards, and Smedley decided to apply the same ideas to a modular classroom. The SEED Collaborative was born.
A SEEDclassroom makes the average portable classroom look like a dungeon. It is brightly daylit, well ventilated, and has both a living wall and a usable swing inside. It is net-zero-energy and net-zero-water, and its exposed systems—with accompanying lesson plans—make it the ultimate teaching tool. The first SEED (an acronym for Sustainable Education Every Day) was installed this year at the Perkins School in Seattle, and another is being installed at the Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh.
When we began planning our second annual Education Issue, Stacy’s name was at the top of the list. Much of this issue is a result of her passion and expertise, and we are thrilled to collaborate with such a bold and generous leader. I have little doubt that one day, a young person will walk out of the Living Future conference having heard Stacy speak, and his or her life will be changed forever.
PART 1: “GUYS, WE’RE NOT MAKING NET ZERO”
gb&d: The Bertschi School Science Classroom was the first building to be certified under version 2.0 of the Living Building Challenge and only the fourth certified at all. Three years later, there’s only one more that’s been fully certified. It’s such a rigorous and demanding thing—what was it like for you going in to it? Was it daunting at all, or was it just exciting?
Stacy Smedley: For me, it was exciting because it was a challenge. If we succeeded, we were showing people that indeed this is possible, and we now have the knowledge of how it can be done and can apply it to more projects. It was definitely challenging, though. It’s called the Living Building Challenge for a reason. And we were doing it at a time when—well, we truly were the fourth. And we were small—it was only a thirteen-hundred-and-fifty-square-foot project, so calling up Dow Corning or Knauff Insulation or any those big companies and asking them, “What’s in your product?” was the hardest part. We were basically asking [them] to give us a no-holding-back list of what’s in their product.
gb&d: Which is heavily guarded.
Smedley: Yeah, especially for the big companies. So that definitely was the hardest part. But we knew it was going to be hard, and that it might take extra work, but that if we did it, then… wow, we’d done it. We could say that we’d done it and anyone else who wanted to do it might be more motivated knowing that it could be done.
gb&d: A big part of the LBC is that you have to prove that [a project] is performing at the level it’s designed to perform at. Were you confident that it would hit all the targets it needed to, or was there relief when it became officially certified?
Smedley: There was some relief. It took almost two years for us to certify because when we got things up and going, kids would take weekly readings of the graphs and tell us how we were doing on our [goal of] net zero. There came a point when they said, “Guys, we’re not making net zero. Something’s wrong.”
We had to go back in, and we found out the composting toilets were using some energy we didn’t know they were going to for a heater, and we added more solar panels, and our date for turning in all the documentation of that year’s reporting got pushed out.
Some members of the team were saying things like, “Oh my gosh, this is taking too long.” But I thought, “This is all part of a process, though, right?” I didn’t have this urgent need for it to happen quickly. I wouldn’t have cared if it took four years, as long as we were all learning and the building was becoming better and eventually became net zero because we took the time to understand.
gb&d: From there, you launched the SEED Collaborative, taking what you learned on that project and applying it to a modular classroom that can be implemented anywhere. Where all can a person find a SEEDclassroom right now?
Smedley: Right now, there’s one at the Perkins School in Seattle—it was the prototype we built. The Perkins School is a K-5 independent school, and they purchased the prototype to use as their science classroom. There’s the Phipps SEED—Phipps wants it there as soon as possible so it will be finished sometime this summer. Then there’d be one set on each coast. Then Simon Fraser [University] up in Burnaby [British Columbia] is looking at a feasibility study where they’re going to essentially use SEEDs as a modular building option for expansion in a school district. The list goes on and on. We seem to get calls all the time.
PART 2: CLIMATE, CURRICULUM
gb&d: How did you go about meeting Living Building Challenge requirements for a building where you won’t know the site ahead of time?
Smedley: To make a SEED functional, it comes with the solar panels to cover the energy costs—and that can fluctuate depending on where it’s going, so we do energy modeling for every place it goes. You need an electrical hook-up, so you have to have a place to plug in to the grid so you can take energy and give back. It’s self-contained in terms of water, unless your jurisdiction—and this is still the case in a lot of places—requires you to have potable water for the sink. Phipps and Seattle both require the sink to have potable water so there’s a utility line, but if it was going to Africa or somewhere else where those crazy jurisdictional requirements don’t exist, there’s a water-treatment system that can treat the water you collect to potable standards. It’s meant to be off the water system completely.
gb&d: What about more arid climates, like the desert southwest?
Smedley: All you’re using the water for, really, is hand washing. We have a small living wall inside the classroom, but that could be full of plants that are drought-tolerant. In an arid place, we’d have to do what we do with larger projects and size the cisterns to be able to hold every drop of rain that you get and plan use and operations around that.
gb&d: So small changes are made depending on the site.
Smedley: We currently have a model where we have designs for regional climates and partners who help us build them. We were going to have Method Homes, who is based in Seattle and who built the prototype, build the Phipps SEED in Pittsburgh, but when we went to pricing and we started looking at local requirements, it became clear that what makes a lot more sense is finding a regional manufacturer. We found this great company called EcoCraft Homes in Pittsburgh and had a mechanical engineer create a mechanical design for the Pittsburgh climate. If we got one in the southwest, that would become the southwest regional design, and we’d find a manufacturer in the Southwest.
gb&d: What’s the advantage of SEED being a nonprofit?
Smedley: There are modular-classroom manufacturers all over this country, and their sole purpose is to build them as cheaply as possible, as many as they can, and get them out as quickly as they can. We didn’t want to be in that same bubble. We don’t want to be a production business. We want to find ways to educate and inspire kids to see the importance of sustainability and the role buildings can play in our lives. SEED really isn’t about the classroom building per se, it’s about what the classroom is doing for the students and teachers.
gb&d: Does the SEEDclassroom come with curriculum? Obviously, the tools are built in; does it come with an educational component for the teachers to then know all the ways they can teach with the classroom?
Smedley: Yes. Firstly, everything’s exposed. Conduits and junction boxes and all the data readers and pipes—there’s not a thing in the wall. We had a first or second grader walk into the prototype, and he went up to the outlet and followed the conduit up the wall and across the ceiling and to the electrical box and had this look of wonder on his face, like, “I never knew there was anything behind the wall…” You know, they just see the plug cover and assume that magically electricity is coming out of the plug.
All the sustainable systems are exposed and integrated as well. A kid can go up to the cistern and watch the pipe go over to the hand pump, and then to the living wall, and then to the greywater tank. They can trace it with their finger if they want to. But the way to make that available as a lesson is in the operations and maintenance manual, a book you usually get with a building. We’ve turned it into an educational reference guide and have it organized by LBC petal, so underneath “Water” would be all the water systems and technical data, and behind each piece of equipment are K-12 lesson suggestions. We don’t want to call it curriculum because we don’t want to say that we’re creating something new that a person has to teach, but if a teacher wants to integrate a lesson about water conservation, at a very young level, it would be, Here’s a dial that goes from full to empty. Have the kids pump some water with the hand pump and see how the dial changes. Have them turn on the sink and see how much the dial changes in the same period of time.
PART 3: “I MAKE THEM UNCOMFORTABLE FOR TEN MINUTES”
gb&d: What’s something you’ve learned from your interactions with young students and your own two-year-old son?
Smedley: The capacity for a child to not ask why, and to be able to just imagine. As we get older, we’re trained not to do that. I do Living Building workshops with kids all the time now, and I’ll just say, “Imagine that you’re a flower. It gets all its energy from the sun, water from the rain, and looks beautiful. What if a classroom was like that flower? What would that look like?” That’s all I ask them. And they draw these amazing things. Trees growing on roofs, butterflies inside, fish in the wall, beehives, grass on the floor—all these things.
I do the same exercise with adults and they just sit there in this complete, uncomfortable horror. Because they have no idea what I’m asking them for. They want to know what they’re supposed to do. So I make them uncomfortable for ten minutes—I give them crayons and paper and tell them to draw these things—and then I pop up the drawings the kids have done in that same amount of time with the same question. And that’s my lesson. We need to have the freedom to think like kids again and not be concerned with the why or the how but start only with the what if?
gb&d: Going completely to the other side of the design world—the much more technical, much more political one—let’s talk about the legislation requiring life-cycle-cost assessments in certain states for certain facilities. Washington has passed theirs. Tell me a little bit about what kind of impact that’s going to have, especially on schools.
Smedley: Well, it’s fantastic. I’m super excited about it. The one downfall for SEED is that it’s only for buildings over five thousand square feet so portable classrooms can still be as inefficient as they want to be. So we’re actually writing a letter to the governor, Jay Inslee, to amend it to include portables.
But for larger buildings, new schools and things, what it requires you to do is—normally in school districts the capital-planning money and the operations-and-maintenance money are in two completely separate buckets. So capital planning is worried about first costs and meeting their construction budget, and the operations-and-maintenance guys, who are going to have to take care of it and make sure it’s efficient, are sometimes not in the conversation. [The legislation] is going to force the conversation and bring both groups together, and force contractors and designers to understand and learn how to assess those things by mandating it.
PART 4: MOTHER AND DAUGHTER
gb&d: What was it like where you grew up?
Smedley: I call it the edge of suburbia. It was in Clackamas, Oregon. My grandpa had bought a plot of land that was about three acres before I was born and built a house on it. It was designed so that my mom and I would basically have the lower floor and my grandma and grandpa had the upper floor. It was sitting on this acreage of land that was wooded, and we had a garden with grapes for making wine and a pond with ducks.
When I was eight, my grandpa succumbed to the pressure and sold our land to a developer. We were still living in that house at the top of the hill, and I watched as all of my trees were cut down and my blackberry bushes went away and my grapes and tree swings and ducks were lost. My mom always tells this story about how we were out on the deck one day and I was watching them cut down my trees, and I said to my mom, “One day I’m gonna find a way to build buildings and not cut down someone’s trees.” She reminds me of that all the time now because that’s what I’m still trying to accomplish.
gb&d: Growing up, it was just your mom and your grandpa?
Smedley: And my grandma. My mom’s parents and my mom and I.
gb&d: Are you an only child then?
Smedley: I am. There’s a whole story behind my only-child-ness too, but I don’t know how relevant it is. I’ve been on Oprah because of my upbringing.
gb&d: Well, I’m really intrigued now…
Smedley: I’ll give you the nutshell. My mom used a sperm donor back in 1979 when that wasn’t a common thing, being a single woman. She’d been through a marriage and lost her first child and wanted another child without the whole starting-another-marriage thing. She worked for OSHU in Portland, which is a big hospital and which had just started an insemination clinic. And she was the first single woman they allowed to do it. She had to go through psychological tests and all sorts of stuff.
Then, six or seven years ago, there was a thing on 60 Minutes about this woman who had started a website where you could go put in your donor information and get matched with other siblings, which I had never even thought about. So I did it and found a brother online, and Oprah called us because we were the oldest matching siblings on the site. So they flew him home from Africa where he was a Peace Corps volunteer and had us meet and then flew us to the Oprah show.
gb&d: Do you and he still keep in touch?
Smedley: We do. The similarities between us for being half-siblings are pretty amazing. We look like twins. He graduated from college with an environmental studies [degree]. He was living in Togo, West Africa, speaking fluent French, and I also speak French. All these things.
gb&d: That’s mesmerizing. You’ve written that one of your main mentors was your mom, which now makes a lot of sense. You must’ve shared a really special relationship if it was just the two of you.
Smedley: Yeah, and then having my grandparents there too, my mom and I were more like best friends because my grandma was the one who cooked us dinner and did all those things. My mom worked full time, so she’d get home and we’d have dinner, then my mom and I would go play and do whatever we wanted to do. It was an interesting family dynamic, but it allowed us to really enjoy each other.
I think part of the reason she’s such an influence on me too is that she left college to get married to her husband, who she had her first child with, so she never got her college degree. She started at OSHU as an admin in their technology group and worked her way all the way up to chief information officer. That was a big part of what I saw growing up, a strong woman moving up in leadership.
gb&d: That makes sense why Sheryl Sandberg’s book resonated so much. I haven’t read it, so I can’t give any informed thoughts, but I’d be interested in a companion book called Lean Back, sharing insights on how to create room and allow for more leaning in. Women have been incredibly successful in talking to one another about all these various challenges and the things they struggle with, and for some reason, men have been tight-lipped, almost just observers of all these changes. I think men need to start talking to each other about these issues as much as women have been for decades.
Smedley: It talks a little bit about that in the book. The thing that made me read it was that it was recommended to me by a senior VP at Skanska because he’d read it and taken away all this stuff from it that he could apply not only to management of female employees but to all employees. So I think if more men would read Lean In, it would help them lean back.