Bob Shallit

Architecture firm aims to create ‘living building’ on Sacramento’s R Street

Arch/Nexus plans to create an open office environment in its new “living building” space on R Street.
Arch/Nexus plans to create an open office environment in its new “living building” space on R Street. Arch/Nexus

A Utah-based design firm is building new offices here with the most ambitious of goals: securing a sustainability certification now held by only eight other projects in the world.

Architectural Nexus of Salt Lake City recently acquired a warehouse at 930 R St., and has begun the permitting process to make that building its new Sacramento location, replacing one now on Third Street.

But instead of seeking certification through the widely used LEED program that tracks energy use and other “green” features, the local project is pursuing a “Certified Living Building” designation that one of Arch/Nexus’ execs describes as “LEED times 10.”

“It’s extremely difficult to do,” Arch/Nexus’ president, Kenner Kingston, said of completing the process developed by the Seattle-based International Living Future Institute.

Meeting those standards will cost the firm about twice the amount of normal construction. But Kingston said Arch/Nexus felt an obligation to do its part to combat global warming – a phenomenon that he links in part to his own industry’s history of designing buildings that are high users of energy and big generators of carbon emissions.

“I see a direct connection between the things we do and the problems we’re experiencing,” he said, including California’s prolonged drought.

But, he said, “if architecture is the problem, then it also can be the solution” if more firms and their clients opt for buildings that generate their own energy and water.

That’s the goal for the new Arch/Nexus offices, to be completed by spring in an 8,200-square-foot warehouse that previously housed a printing facility.

Plans call for an array of solar panels on the roof and over the parking area that will generate at least 105 percent of the company’s needs. Huge cisterns will collect rainwater, a filtering system will enable reuse of all “gray water” – from showers and sinks – and toilet waste will be converted on-site to compost for agricultural uses.

“It’s crazy to take something that is normally plentiful – water – pipe it in from miles away, use it and then pipe it miles away to a sewage treatment plant,” Kingston said.

Conserving water and energy are just a few of the requirements in what is called the “living building challenge.”

Not to mince words about it, the world is in a crisis and California is one of the best places to observe that crisis in terms of the drought.

Kenner Kingston

The certifying organization also requires participants to avoid using building materials on its “red list” – 20 products that contain chemicals deemed harmful for the environment.

In addition, applicants must meet “social equity” standards calling for participants to donate a fraction of the cost of their projects to local charities.

“The suggestion there is, if you’re wealthy enough to build a building, you’re probably wealthy enough to support your community,” Kingston said. “We just love that idea.”

8The current number of Certified Living Buildings. They are in six states.

The company, with about 20 local employees, also is making a contribution to the American River Conservancy to preserve undeveloped land, per certification rules, he said.

For the “beauty” standards, it’s creating plenty of plantings – some fruit-bearing – outside the building, along with a “green wall” of vegetation inside.

Kingston, who operates mostly out of the company’s Utah office, said the living building standards are daunting and that only a couple of more buildings are likely to be certified over the coming year. (Applicants must show a year’s worth of operating results before being considered for certification.)

But he noted that LEED standards seemed impossible to meet only a decade ago and are now becoming an almost routine goal in new construction.

In another 10 years, Kingston hopes meeting the living building standards will be much more common.

“They’re seen now as tremendously challenging,” he said. “We’re trying to break down those barriers.”