This article is part of gb&d‘s Green Typologies series The Kids Are Alright: Five innovative schools.


Location Seattle
Size 1,425 ft²
Completed 2011
Cost $930,000
Program Elementary school classrooms and lab areas
Awards AIA Seattle What Makes It Green? Award, 2012; SBIC Beyond Green High-Performance Building Award, 2012; National AIA Educational Facility Design Award, 2012

If LEED-certified buildings have become a thriving class of smartly planned, efficient structures, Living Buildings, certified under the Living Building Challenge, are a related but far more rare species. In 2011, when the Bertschi School in Seattle completed its 1,425-square-foot science building, there were only three Living Buildings in existence. The Bertschi project recently entered those exclusive ranks, becoming the fourth Living Building and the first on the West Coast. As it did, it also heralded a new approach to classroom design.

Back in 2003, the Bertschi School, a pre-K–5 school in Seattle’s Capital Hill neighborhood, had launched a multiphase, $3.4 million master plan, hoping to green its one-block urban campus, which serves 235 local students and includes sustainability as a cornerstone component of its curriculum. In 2007, Bertschi completed its 12,290-square-foot Bertschi Center, which became the first LEED Gold-certified building on an independent school campus in the Pacific Northwest. But by 2009, funds were running low, and it seemed the school wouldn’t be able to deliver the final step of its master plan: a sciences building.

That’s when the local firm of KMD Architects stepped up, seeing the opportunity to offer pro-bono design services to the school (after assurances that Bertschi would cover the construction costs) in order to create a true Living Building for the Seattle area, built to meet standards set forth by version 2.0 of the Living Building Challenge and complementing Bertschi’s already collaborative educational program with an interactive design scheme.


Architect KMD Architects
Client Bertschi School
Structural Engineer Quantum Consulting Engineers
Civil Engineer 2020 Engineering
Geotechnical Engineer GeoEngineers
MEP/Energy Engineer Rushing
Landscape Architect GGLO
Pre-construction/Construction Skanska
Building Envelope Consultant Morrison Hershfield
Sustainability Consultant O’Brien and Company

KMD’s involvement with the project, aptly named the Living Science Building, was headed by KMD associates Stacy Smedley and Chris Hellstern. Although Smedley recently joined Skanska (who performed construction management on the project) as a pre-construction manager, she upholds her and KMD’s work at the Bertschi School as a chance to experiment and as a bold entry in the changing landscape of education. “KMD has a portfolio of some very large-scale projects,” Smedley says, “so this opportunity provided the firm a way to learn about Living Buildings as a case study.”

The building is located on the 3,800-square-foot site of a former asphalt basketball court used by the Bertschi campus, with one wall shared by a converted church building and the surroundings planted with an ethnobotanical garden. The garden is an instructive tool that grows plants similar to those grown by former indigenous tribes of the land while also informing students about agriculture and gardening. The building exterior is clad in FSC-certified cedar timber and insulated with FSC-certified structural insulated panels.

A photovoltaic system provides all of the energy for the building, which has an annual carbon footprint of 2.4 pounds of carbon dioxide per square foot and an annual energy purchase of nine kBtus per square foot. Air in the building is scrubbed by a living wall, which is drip-irrigated by classroom-sink outflow. All of the systems in the building are exposed, saving on materials costs during construction but also serving as valuable, hands-on teaching tools, allowing students to see and learn how the systems work firsthand.

This massive green wall treats all greywater moving through the Bertschi School’s Living Science Building through closed-loop evapotranspiration. Despite floor-to-ceiling windows on the north side of the building, the architects added a skylight above the living wall for additional sunlight. Photo: Benjamin Benschneider

This massive green wall treats all greywater moving through the Bertschi School’s Living Science Building through closed-loop evapotranspiration. Despite floor-to-ceiling windows on the north side of the building, the architects added a skylight above the living wall for additional sunlight. Photo: Benjamin Benschneider


Certification Living Building Challenge

Site Urban city block in dense Seattle neighborhood

Landscape Planted with an ethnobotanical garden

Energy Net-zero supported by on-site photovoltaic system

Water Living wall in classroom doubles as greywater treatment system

Materials FSC-certified wood, formaldehyde- and VOC-free materials

Education Exposed systems and student-led green ideas for interaction

Additionally, an in-floor, glass-covered rainwater channel, referred to as a ‘river’ by Bertschi School students and faculty, runs through the concrete floor of the classroom, eventually feeding inground rainwater cisterns. It’s another visual educational tool, and it came from the students themselves. “We involved the kids from the beginning of the process—they were active designers,” Smedley says. “When you start with the kids in this way, it becomes really easy to engage them in the learning process.”

The building also has a composting toilet system. “Kids don’t have the trained fear of waste that adults acquire over the time,” Smedley says. “The kids think it’s the coolest thing ever that the waste eventually gets turned to compost and is spread on the garden.”

The Living Science Building ultimately represents a new type of classroom—one that is healthy, interactive, and transparent—and provides students hands-on access to what they’re learning in textbooks. The success of the project has led Smedley, along with one of her project partners, to start a nonprofit business called The SEED Collaborative, which is attempting to introduce living classrooms to other educational programs, nationally and internationally. “People and educators are getting excited about the idea because the healthy building component is great,” Smedley says, “but when they walk in and see the teaching opportunities—that’s when they really get excited.”

This article is part of gb&d‘s Green Typologies series, which in each issue explores a single type of building. For more of our most recent collection, The Kids Are Alright: Five innovative schools, choose from the list below:

  • Plant Power: The Hotchkiss School by Centerbrook Architects and Planners
  • Modeling Virtue: The Willow School by Farewell Architects
  • Solar Prowess: Green Dot Animo Leadership School by Brooks + Scarpa Architects
  • Alternative Reuse: The Met High School by Stafford King Wiese Architects