See inside Utah’s first ‘living building’ — Can this approach help save the world?

Architects transform their Salt Lake City offices into a workspace that is greener, healthier, happier and prettier for them and the planet.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Courtyards at the offices of Arch Nexus in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021.

Amid the all-too-many painful signs that the worldwide climate crisis is worsening, Utah’s first try at a “living building” offers a beam of hope.

Architects at Arch Nexus in Salt Lake City used their time working from home during the coronavirus pandemic to transform their office on Parleys Way, lifting it to a whole new level for health, eco-friendliness and regeneration.

The Living Building Challenge far surpasses the exacting LEED and other green building standards for sustainability, which are based on design. This is more about how a building performs.

Depending on when this next year the flat silver building at 2505 E. Parleys Way receives official certification, the Arch Nexus offices will become somewhere around the 30th living building worldwide — and Utah’s first commercial structure to attempt the program’s standards.

Backers liken its tenets to the life of a plant.

“This goes way beyond reuse into creating something that can regenerate itself and its ecosystem in the same way a tree or a flower is regenerative,” said Brian Cassil, spokesman for the firm. “It gets its food from the sun. It gathers the water that falls on it. It doesn’t produce any waste that isn’t simply food for some other element.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A design lab at the offices of Arch Nexus in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021.

Ornately designed solar panels installed on the rooftop and parking lot gather all the energy that Arch Nexus office dwellers inside need — and more. The same goes for water, which is collected as rainfall then used, recycled and treated on-site with appealing indoor wetlands known as living walls. The building seems to breathe through open doors, windows and sumptuous courtyards, digitally adjusting to its surroundings and connecting inhabitants with natural daylight, fresh air, copious greenery and vibrant art.

Every last scrap of construction material used in the renovation was carefully vetted to be free of toxic chemicals, creating a more healthful indoor environment. Employees are learning to be mindfully involved in how the building operates, adapting their routines to its needs and rhythms. They, too, are part of why and how it lives.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Art at the offices of Arch Nexus in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021.

More fundamentally, the 30,909-square-foot, two-story edifice, built as a warehouse in the 1950s, now functions completely free of carbon emissions, at a time when buildings represent roughly 45% of global greenhouse gases.

Utah’s own air pollution picture is shifting, too. With the advent of cleaner, tier 3 gasoline for automobiles, efforts to reduce smog and the region’s suffocating inversions are likely to focus more on pollutants from homes, shops and offices.

That, in turn, is likely to make the Arch Nexus approach and others like it more of an example to other office owners. The overhaul already has many of the firm’s 100 or so employees feeling healthier and more creative as they gradually venture back to in-person office life.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sustainable landscaping at the offices of Arch Nexus in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021.

“It’s just a very comfortable space to be in,” said Kelly Holland, one of the firm’s architects who added that he relished doing away with cubicles in favor of creating a variety of interesting spaces where colleagues can interact.

“It inspires me to be more collaborative,” Holland said. “I can work long hours and still not feel like I’m missing out on work-life balance.”

Arch Nexus President Kenner Kingston put the renovation in terms of owning more of the true environmental impact of unchecked power and water consumption. “What’s the real cost of a cheap building?” he asked. “Well, the real cost is fundamentally catastrophic.”

“Hotter and hotter years, weirder and weirder weather, more and more climate crisis,” he said. “The Great Salt Lake is shrinking. It’s reaching historical lows. Every local and national news outlet is covering it, but what’s funny is, everyone stops at hopelessness and ‘well, there’s nothing we can do.’”

“Pardon me for being myself,” Kingston said, “but that is total bulls--t.”

In addition to being net positive on electricity and lowering water consumption by nearly 80%, the Arch Nexus project is also novel among living buildings as a renovation as opposed to being built new — taking advantage of an axiom in the adaptive reuse of existing structures that “the greenest building is one that is already built.”

“There is really something tremendous about taking a building that was not particularly energy efficient or nice to look at and renovating it into something that’s beautiful and that inspires,” Cassil said during a recent tour, “as well as something that generates more energy than it uses today.”

Adding some ‘jet fuel’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Solar panels provide covered parking at the offices of Arch Nexus in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021.

The Living Building Challenge was created in 2006 by Canadian architect Jason McLennan as a philosophy and tool to advance greater sustainability in the built environment. The challenge’s seven key performance areas — energy, water, materials, a sense of place, health and happiness, equity, and beauty — are compared to petals on a flower.

The organic yet high-tech standards have since been applied to public and private buildings in a variety of uses and scales around the world, as well as to entire communities and to lines of building products.

Folks at Arch Nexus are well-known architects of such Beehive State landmarks as the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City, Murray Park Amphitheater, the Carbon County Courthouse and many more. The firm considers sustainability a core part of its mission and successfully renovated its Sacramento offices to the living building standard culminating in a 2018 certification, the first of its kind in California.

The firm last overhauled its Parleys Way digs in 2010, including a solar upgrade that made it one of the greenest buildings in the Intermountain West and earned a LEED platinum ranking. As an employee-owned company, Arch Nexus had long envisioned doing additional sustainable improvements in several phases — as time and economic conditions permitted.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A conference room at the offices of Arch Nexus in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021.

“Our building is our 3D business card,” said Kingston, “so we can’t afford to let it fade.”

COVID-19 blew that up. As mid-March 2020 office closures and work slowdowns dragged into May and beyond, Kingston said Arch Nexus’ Salt Lake City employees and managers, conferring remotely, settled on a bold new idea:

“What if we put some jet fuel in this project, finished up the drawings and bid on it as soon as we could,” Kingston recalled. “From there, it changed from a refresh to a regenerative design project and the full breadth of the living building challenge became available to us.”

So, imagine scores of partly stir-crazy architects, designers, landscape specialists and other creative types dialing in from home to reenvision almost every aspect of their own offices to refashion them into something akin to a living creature.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lighting in the break room at the offices of Arch Nexus in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021.

“Yes, it’s hard,” joked Robb Harrop, the firm’s vice president of design. “We are our own worst client.”

The coronavirus timeline actually helped. The firm bid the project in October — before construction costs spiked in late 2020 and early 2021 — and Salt Lake City-based Jacobsen Construction had finished the brunt of the work by the time the vaccines became available and employees started trickling back to the office.

“It’s like we had a crystal ball, but we didn’t,” Kingston said. “What we had was fantastic, thoughtful, strategic planning.”

Let there be light

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) One of the Solatube skylights illuminating the offices of Arch Nexus in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021.

Of all the renovation elements, Cassil said, energy and emissions were the biggest no-brainers. Solar arrays now generate about 115% of the company’s needs, with battery storage for days with surpluses. The firm, which plans to own the commercial building indefinitely, expects to recoup its investment costs on photovoltaic arrays in less than 20 years.

Office developers intent on realizing short-term profits “are going to have a difficult time financially justifying zero-energy design,” Cassil said. “But if you’re in your building more than five years, there’s no reason not to strongly consider it.”

Solar power is only part of the challenge’s approach to energy efficiency. Glass walls make the outdoors visible from just about anywhere in the Arch Nexus offices for a sense of place and light. The ceiling also is riddled with new Solatubes, which capture sunlight with prismatic lenses on the rooftop and funnel scads of that natural light into spaces inside.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sunlight is diffused by a Solatube skylight to illuminate the offices of Arch Nexus in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021.

“You would just never think you’d have to turn the lights on,” Cassil said.

Other lighting has been converted to LEDs, and digital controls are everywhere. Newly operable windows and a series of expanded courtyard spaces help ventilate work and common areas. During a recent rainy break from a spate of 100-degree weather, the main doors at Arch Nexus stood open and waves of fresh moist air suffused the building’s work and conference spaces and break rooms, making it feel like a refreshing day outdoors without getting wet.

‘Living walls’ bring air and beauty

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A living wall in an open office space, watered via treated greywater at the offices of Arch Nexus in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021.

The Living Building Challenge requires that all nonpotable uses of water be served from on-site water collection. The Parleys Way building now has storage capacity for 250 gallons for washing clothes after employees work out in the in-house gym; 180 gallons for storing used grey water for reuse to flush new low-flow toilets and urinals; and another 2,250 gallons of outdoor storage for urban farming on its grounds.

Some of that grey water also feeds absorbent interior walls embedded with plants, known as living walls, which filter and process recycled water instead of putting it down a sewer drain. The manicured vertical wetlands then help oxygenate work areas and provide splashes of natural beauty as part of its “biophilic” ecosystem.

When grey water supplies recently ran low, managers put out a call for more employees to ride their bikes to work, then shower on-site.

Finding the right stuff

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Conference and meeting rooms are availble to reserve at the offices of Arch Nexus in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021.

Adherents of the living building approach seem to agree that the most difficult aspect is vetting building materials. Transparency among manufacturers as to what goes into the products they supply, according to Cassil, “is shockingly nontransparent.”

Firms such as Arch Nexus and Jacobsen Construction using the standards often work with suppliers for months to ascertain everything in their goods, with those deploying noxious or unhealthful components being tallied on a “red list” that can’t be used.

“We break it down to the chemical level,” said Matt Nelson, a project manager with Jacobsen. Components are tracked at parts per million, he said, “and that’s every plumbing fixture, every electrical component and so on.”

“It was just a huge team effort,” Nelson said. But the result is a healthier workspace, free of harmful residual emissions and reliant on clean supply chains.

People make it all work

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Collaborative workspace at the offices of Arch Nexus in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021.

The human factor is also crucial to the success of a living building. Office workers have to adapt a range of habits to help the structure function correctly, from shutting down unused appliances and opening and shutting windows and doors at the right time to not dumping coffee or Coca-Cola down the communal kitchen sink. (Some of the living wall plants don’t do well with it.)

The Arch Nexus office is divided into five themed areas — with distinct colors and geographic names such as the Basin and the Lake — and under a program called Inhabit, managers run periodic competitions between area teams, Cassil said, to instill best daily practices on its power, water and other facets of the design.

The new awareness also helps educate them as architects and designers, he said. “That state of mindfulness is enhanced as it pertains to sustainable and regenerative design,” Cassil said, making them more knowledgeable on how to serve interested clients.

Though only some customers will consider a full living building, he said, “any project can use some aspects of regenerative design and what we’ve done here.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Open office space at the offices of Arch Nexus in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021.