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The Ecology School in Saco has begun constructing campus structures designed to meet what are said to be the world’s most rigorous building performance standards.
“We’re doing development in a whole new way,” Drew Dumsch, the school’s president, CEO and founder, told Mainebiz in an interview. “This Living Building Challenge is LEED certification on steroids. It’s super rigorous.”
The school’s new dormitory and dining commons will be built using designs and materials that aim to meet specifications of the Living Building Challenge 3.1 certification.
The challenge, created in 2014, is a program of the Seattle-based International Living Future Institute. The goal is to create buildings that generate more energy than they use, capture and treat all water on site, and are made using healthy materials. The specifications exceed the rating program of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, as well as the Passive House Institute, according to a news release.
For the Ecology School, the goal is to be the most sustainable building in the Northeast, offering not only experiential programming but also modeling conservation-in-action, Dumsch said.
The Ecology School is a nonprofit ecology education center for students of all ages. By engaging in hands-on programming, students learn to become stewards of the environment as they explore local forests, fields, and food systems. Founded in 1999, the school has hosted more than 185,000 students and teachers from across the country, educating them about nature and human impact on the planet.
For its first 19 years, the school operated at a leased summer camp property at Ferry Beach in Saco, Dumsch said. There, the school offered spring and fall residential programs.
After the lease ended about a year ago, the school continued its programs by renting the main lodge at the Poland Spring Resort, he explained.
But the school has known for years that, if it owned its own site, it would be able to provide year-round programming, including onsite school vacation and summer program offerings for children and adults, while increasing engagement with the community.
In 2017, the school closed on the purchase of the 105-acre River Bend Farm, which fronts Simpson Road in Saco. A former horse farm, it includes a 3.5-mile trail network and a half-mile of frontage on the Saco River.
The long-term vision includes a full-scale organic farm with crops and livestock that will adhere to a conservation easement on 96 acres held by Maine Farmland Trust.
“This easement limits use of the 96 acres to farming, education, scientific research and recreation, which is exactly what we do,” Dumsch noted.
The farm operation will be a key component of the new site and will significantly expand programming in agroecology, the study and practice of ecology through the lens of sustainable agriculture.
The remaining 8.7 acres, comprising the driveway and farmyard, are open to development.
While other programs provide checklists designed to meet performance standards, the Living Building Challenge requires a year of operation before the project can be certified, he said.
“You have to show, when you’re operating, that you’re net positive in energy, that you’re 105% or more in meeting your energy needs,” he said. “So we’ll be putting more power onto the grid than we’re using. This will be a real demonstration project on how to generate power on-site.”
Components to meet the standards include installation of 718 solar panels and a non-combustion, all electric-powered kitchen. More than 200,000 board feet of local Maine wood will go into construction of the 9,000-square-foot dormitory and 7,000-square-foot dining commons. The campus will also feature permaculture landscaping, a working agroecology farm, and other “live what you learn” educational assets built to Living Building Challenge 3.1 specification.
The campus will also utilize existing buildings on the farm. That includes a 1794 farmhouse in excellent condition that now serves as the school’s offices and meeting spaces. Insulation was added a year ago, but further retrofits are envisioned in the future to boost the building’s energy-efficiency.
An 1840s barn is also in great shape and will likely continue to be used as an agricultural building for housing livestock and storing vegetables.
Ownership will allow the school to more broadly implement sustainable practices than it was able to on rented property.
For example, “Now that we’re on a farm, we can grow our own food,” Dumsch said. “The goal is that 100% of the products in the dining hall is grown here and in partnership with other local farms.”
Food systems are a significant modeling component for the school’s mission, he noted.
“When I started the Ecology School, it became evident, a few years in, that the best way to make the science of ecology come alive is through food systems,” he said. “Every time you eat, you’re connecting yourself to the earth and to ecology. So the fact that we’re a residential learning program, where people eat three meals day, means the meals themselves become a learning opportunity.”
Partners on the project include Kaplan Thompson Architects, Briburn, Scott Simon Architects, Richardson & Associates, ReVision Energy, Zachau Construction and Hancock Lumber.
The project will make the Ecology School one of fewer than 25 buildings in the world to attain Living Building Challenge’s highest certification, said Kaplan Thompson Architects Principal Jesse Thompson.
Thompson expressed admiration for the school’s determination to meet the challenge’s rigorous standards.
“This is their first big construction project, and they set themselves very challenging environmental goals,” he said. “They’re the kind of folks who say, ‘No one’s done this, but it’s important to do, so why shouldn’t we be the first?’ They took a pledge to do things in a way that no other project in Maine has pulled off yet.”
The challenge’s high standards make the project particularly complex, Thompson said. That includes sourcing environmentally sustainable materials.
“Our team has done net-zero buildings before, but proving that every building material was manufactured in a healthy way for everyone from the people manufacturing it to the workers on-site to the kids who will be staying there, that’s been a challenge,” he said.
For example, the team had to find a sustainable, non-toxic substitute for PVC, which is commonly used as a jacket around electrical wiring; and ensure that wood met Forest Stewardship Council certification. In searching for local wood, they found many Maine mills produce wood that meets the certification standard but haven’t actually obtained the official stamp. In one case, he noted, Hancock Lumber got the needed certification specifically for this project.
Other suppliers have been similarly helpful in finding products that meet the standards, he noted.
“The construction team is excited about this,” he said.
Construction began this past October and the plan is to open by October 2020, said Dumsch.
Future plans include building a second dormitory.
Earlier this year, the Ecology School was awarded a $8,660,000 loan from the USDA Rural Development’s Community Facilities Direct Loan and Guaranteed Loans program to build the campus. It was the largest community facilities loan granted to an educational facility in Maine within the past decade.
In addition, the River Bend Farm project is supported by Coastal Enterprises Inc. through a bridge loan, construction financing from Camden National Bank, and a capital campaign with a goal of $2.9 million, of which $2.36 million has been raised.