In view of the White House, just off Farragut Square, sits a little catalyst for big change. The 5,000-square-foot headquarters of The Summit Foundation was the first building in Washington, D.C. to achieve Living Building Challenge 3.0 Petal certification from the International Living Future Institute. Moreover, it redefined what a sustainable project looks like.
The Living Building Challenge (LBC), a green building certification program, calls itself the “world’s most rigorous proven performance standard for buildings” by the International Living Future Institute. The LBC is composed of seven performance areas—Petals—that represent how a building should operate: as cleanly and efficiently as a flower. And like how a flower is a powerful symbol for both form and function, The Summit Foundation proved that design need not be sacrificed in pursuit of sustainable construction.
The Tesla of Workplace
Of the project’s four Petals—Place, Materials, Equity, and Beauty—the Materials Petal has the most precise requirements. All materials must be evaluated for responsible industry practices, sourcing/manufacturing location, and chemical makeup. (Not surprisingly, only a few projects to date have achieved this.)
A project stripped of excess was the path of least resistance to achieving the Petal, but this strategy evoked images of bare concrete, reclaimed wood, and exposed ceilings—not Summit’s preferred aesthetic. The goal was richly nuanced instead of austere, and complex versus simple, complete with top-of-the-line products and furniture. Together, we were going to make a Tesla.
Our team, including designers from Perkins+Will, Stok, and Rand, was challenged to source responsibly and avoid the 22 Red List substances and their 800-plus variants without sacrificing elegance and sophistication. The commitment to elegance and quality proved to be more complicated than anticipated. Compliance with the LBC required exhaustive research to identify material ingredients by weight and volume (sometimes down to .01%)—but from this, we created a rich map illustrating the makeup of each product and how that makeup could be changed to encourage greater material health. We used this knowledge to prototype and set a precedent for a new picture of sustainability.
Rigorous research paired with close collaboration with manufacturers allowed us to make some important material substitutions. Formaldehyde was a primary concern due to its appearance on our firm’s Precautionary List, a database of potentially harmful building materials. Urea-formaldehyde is identified as a known carcinogen found in adhesives as well as composite wood products and furniture, two elements that would otherwise be integral to The Summit Foundation’s elevated design. To avoid using it, we guided production of composite wood ceiling and workstations using NAUF mdf substrate. We also incorporated FSC-certified American White Oak, a veneer that was sourced domestically and produced responsibly.
Collaborative research with a stone supplier yielded a stunning domestic equivalent to stone found overseas. The graceful white marble throughout the space was sourced thanks to the nearby Danby Quarry. We also worked with a tile supplier to identify a cutting facility up the coast that manufactured backsplash tile. Further, we procured templates from the furniture manufacturer and fabricated stone tops locally.
As our expertise grew, simple solutions emerged. Research on a Declare Label paint led to discovery of a Red List-compliant ceiling varnish. Collaboration with the lighting manufacturer led to the replacement of a PVC cord with a more sustainable product.
The high-end, complex materials used in pursuit of this elegant space had one thing in common: They were all the product of dedicated research until simple moves in the right places resulted in big change. In concert with its vision of a world where people and nature can thrive alongside each other, The Summit Foundation achieved a quietly elegant workplace that exemplifies sustainability, healthy materials, and classic beauty.