Santa Rosa’s Sonoma Academy Meets Tough Environmental Standards

Santa Rosa, Sonoma Academy, Grange and Studios Project, XL Construction, WRNS Architects, Living Building Challenge, WELL Building Standard, U.S. Green Building Council, Zero Net Energy, International Living Building Institute,
XL Construction - Sonoma Academy

By Meghan Hall

After months of careful planning, Santa Rosa-based Sonoma Academy revealed its newly expanded campus in 2017. Called the Janet Durgin Guild and Commons, construction broke ground in September 2016 with the aim of making its new buildings as environmentally friendly and sustainable as possible.

Constructed by XL Construction and designed by WRNS Studio, the school’s expansion met not only the requirements to receive a LEED Platinum certification, but also the rigorous criteria set out in the Living Building Challenge (LBC) and the WELL Building Standard certification, as well.

LEED was almost an afterthought because the Living Building Challenge requirements superseded anything we were pursuing through LEED

“LEED was almost an afterthought because the LBC requirements superseded anything we were pursuing through LEED,” said Courtney Lorenz, XL Construction’s sustainability manager.

LEED certifications have become somewhat of an industry standard in recent years, since the certification’s unveiling in March 2000 by the U.S. Green Building Council, and many builders today automatically incorporate basic materials and energy-saving elements into their designs. And, while LEED measures are focused on the sustainability of construction, newer standards such as Zero Net Energy and WELL are ushering in a new era in sustainability by measuring how efficiently the building is used once the construction process is complete.

The toughest standard to meet, however, is the LBC. Although the concept originated in the 1990s, the International Living Building Institute certified the first projects in 2010. The LBC requires the developer to disclose every material used in the buildings to ensure no toxic chemicals are used during the project’s construction. Both WRNS Studio and XL Construction tackled the challenge head-on.

“A lot of companies will simply hire a consultant,” said Lorenz. “Our approach was to really empower the project team to not just know about sustainability but the green building systems and the products they were using and investing in, so we could replicate these processes later on.”

The certification process is long and laborious; most manufacturers do not include ingredient lists on their products, meaning that the Sonoma Academy team—composed of an array of designers, engineers and architects—had to work closely with one another to track down manufacturers willing to disclose what went into their products.

“Just determining the chemical make-up of some of those materials was difficult, and sometimes we had a hard time getting that information from vendors,” admitted Lorenz.

“The systems side, the food services side, those industries are not as used to getting calls regarding what their products are made of,” added WRNS Studios Partner and Director of Sustainability Pauline Souza. “It was a long conversation.”

Both WRNS Studio and XL Construction navigated around the Red List—the LBC’s version of harmful chemicals and products—by constantly looking for re-usable, local materials. Steve Winslow, XL Construction’s senior vice president, said that sometimes meant sourcing materials previously not approved by the City of Santa Rosa for construction. One of these materials, which both Souza and Lorenz also highlighted, was the project’s use of locally-manufactured earth blocks in place of traditional concrete masonry units.

“The City of Santa Rosa had never approved the material through the building department, and so we worked with both our structural engineer and the City to get approval to use the material,” explained Winslow. “That was a fun, yet challenging situation that we never foresaw ourselves involved in.”

In addition to the earth blocks, WRNS Studios and XL Construction sourced salvaged wood from an old home in Petaluma, Calif., and a tunnel in Oregon. The wood is one of the project’s main features and is used extensively both inside and outside the building in beams and siding.

“The wood and the blocks had great stories, because they not only have a regional tie, but they also ended being a little less expensive,” said Souza. “We’re trying to find someone locally who can make something wonderful and showcase what they care about and the story they have. We see this project as a laying of stories and intents.”

The expansion included two new buildings: the Commons building, which is 20,000 square feet, and the Maintenance building, which is 3,000 square feet. A new student center and food service center were part of the plans, and the buildings include rainwater harvesting, radiant heating and cooling systems and a living roof. According to Winslow and Lorenz, while some of the planning aspects took longer, the project came in around its budget of $26 million and was worth every penny.

“I think what we believe to be true is that although the first cost may be a little higher, these are projects for entities that are going to be around for the next 30 to 50 years,” explained Winslow. “When you look at how much it costs to provide water and power to a building versus harvesting water and sunlight, all of the sudden that lack of expense pencils things out pretty easily.”

Both WRNS Studio and XL Construction are taking their experiences from the Janet Durgin Guild and Commons project forward with them. WRNS Studio is currently using similar criteria to renovate their own offices, and XL Construction has been offered a similar project, although details have not yet been announced.

“We are taking all of our lessons learned from Sonoma Academy and applying it to that project,” said Winslow. “We will work more efficiently because we have done it once before.”