A Living Building Project Journey, Part-11

The Role of Research

By Ramana Koti, BEMP, LEED AP BD+C       September 13, 2017

A Living Building Project Journey, Part-11

As building performance has grown in importance, the incorporation of quantitative analysis and research in architectural practice is gaining increased traction. A typical project delivery process might occasionally dabble with research in a limited fashion to answer particular design questions, but research is yet to have a formal place and role in most practices. Even when research does occur, researchers rarely document the methodology and reasoning for the benefit of people outside the project team. Depending on your perspective, concerns such as project budget, project schedule, and client requirements, could be either drivers or challenges.

A logical and philosophical question to ask would be: “What is the distinction between research and design?” According to Linda Groat and David Wang of Architectural Research Methods:

"Design and research constitute neither polar opposites nor equivalent domains of activity. Rather, the relationship between the two is far more nuanced, complementary, and robust."

While there might be an academic bias to this statement, there is no doubt that targeted research has the potential to improve the quality of design, even for practitioners.

Research on the Georgia Tech Living Building project has either already spanned, or will span, across all Petal areas: Place, Water, Energy, Health + Happiness, Materials, Equity, and Beauty. We will explore the role of research on this project using three examples.

Site and the Building

The team studied the history of the site from 1928 to 2016, examining changes in use, development, and topography.

A Living Building Project Journey, Part-11

Developing an understanding of the site has helped inform several critical areas:

  • A site hydrology design that mimics the Piedmont forest in the way it absorbs and releases water. This strategy is integral to the net-positive water performance of the project.
  • An approach to landscape design that, while engaging the community, complements the larger vision for the Eco-Commons context and is culturally and environmentally responsive.
  • An understanding of the locations of undisturbed soils on site, which is critical for effective natural wastewater treatment design

The initial design schemes, Porch and Bridge Trot, resulted from research into vernacular architectural precedents in the Southeast, were considered to understand traditional architectural responses to the region’s climate in the era before artificial lighting and mechanical cooling.

A Living Building Project Journey, Part-11
A Living Building Project Journey, Part-11

Material Vetting

The requirements of the Materials Petal has necessitated the most laborious focus of research on the project to date.

Since the Materials Working Group’s kickoff in August 2016, the group and the design team have vetted dozens of building materials and products. The most challenging criteria has been to avoid the 22 red listed chemicals and their 800 or so variants. Considerable research went into choosing and employing the web-based software tool ‘Portico’, a cutting edge and one-of-a-kind program being pioneered by Google and Healthy Building Network. The project team’s use of the tool should add a plethora of new products to its database and inform future development in other ways.

The team has scoured local projects for their potential for salvaged materials. Granite from the Georgia Archives building and timber from a local church, tower and downed trees are just some of the salvaged materials the team is tracking to incorporate creatively into the project’s design.

FIGURE 1. Granite curbs salvaged from the Georgia Archives Building. Image by Jimmy Mitchell.

FIGURE 1. Granite curbs salvaged from the Georgia Archives Building. Image by Jimmy Mitchell.

All wood on the project, excluding salvaged wood and intentional harvest of on-site timber, must meet the Forest Stewardship Council’s (FSC) 100% labeling standards. The owner and the design team started the project with the goal of specifying as much wood from Georgia as possible. Early in the process, the project team compiled a detailed list of all potential wood-based products on the project. Initial market research included web research, emails and phone calls.  Based on the potential wood product list, research conducted by the Construction Manager and the designers, in collaboration with FSC staff, revealed that most of Georgia-based FSC-certified wood was being used to produce pulp for paper and cup stock. There was little to no potential for dimensional lumber or other conventional wood building products. Although this was not surprising, the research served the purpose of due diligence and met the LBC’s intended benefit of advocacy.

Post Occupancy Evaluation

For successful Living Building Challenge (LBC) certification, the project must demonstrate net positive energy and net positive water performance over a performance period of 12 months with full operational occupancy. The performance period begins at substantial completion (anticipated in 2019) and success is based on collected data during the performance period. The project team expects the comparison of predicted and metered performances and the adjustments, if any, necessary to demonstrate net positive performance to provide a rich source of research data for both practitioners and academia.


These three examples provide a sense of the ongoing and future research conducted for the Georgia Tech Living Building project. Biophilia (Health & Happiness Petal), art (Beauty Petal), and social justice (Equity Petal) are some of the other noteworthy areas. Green Building Certification requirements continue to emphasize research and retrospection, extending their roles well beyond the design phases of a project.


Funded through a private grant from The Kendeda Fund, the Living Building at Georgia Tech is expected to become a Living Building Challenge 3.1 certified facility – the built environment's most rigorous and ambitious performance standard. The project’s design and build partners include architects Lord Aeck Sargent in collaboration with The Miller Hull Partnership, construction manager Skanska and design team consultants: Newcomb & BoydPAE Consulting EngineersUzun + CaseBiohabitatsAndropogon and Long Engineering.


No comments yet

Leave us a comment




Notify me of follow-up comments?