Archive for the ‘Living Building’ Category

Sharing Green Energy

January 24th, 2018

Sharing Green Energy

Did you know that just down the hill from the Alice Ferguson Foundation’s historic home and office, the Foundation’s educational center is one of the greenest buildings in the world? As of this year, our community remains just one of just 15 places in the world to have a Living Building helping to power their neighborhood. 

The Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Environmental Education Center at the Alice Ferguson Foundation is just one of seven such buildings on the East Coast.


One of the most obvious “green” elements of our building is visible almost as soon as you turn into the campus. The environmental center’s roof is covered with solar panels. This past year, these panels, along with our geothermal wells and thick insulation, combined to generate 25% more electricity than we used. This excess energy, generated from the sun, and enhanced and made more efficient through our geothermal system, was sent back into the grid.


We’ve invested more than a decade in understanding, exploring and now reaping the benefits of an investment in green buildings and technology.

Learn more about the building here.


Going Green is Good for Business!

April 29th, 2016

AFF award pic2Ten years ago, the Alice Ferguson Foundation began the design process for a 4,200 sq. ft. carbon neutral, net-zero energy, net-zero water education building. Yesterday, this state-of-the-art “green” education building was listed as one of Washington Business Journal’s Top 25 Best Real Estate Deals for 2015. The only nonprofit in attendance, we were recognized in the cadre of 24 other projects in the Washington D.C. metro area.

Our day-use education building is on track to meet strict certification requirements for the Living Building Challenge. Currently, only eight Living Building projects in the world are certified. To be fully certified, living buildings must prove that they are net-zero energy and water, and carbon neutral by operating for a full year and documenting those results…and we are on track.

farmWhen this project began there were no certified Living Buildings in existence, which meant we were entering unchartered territory. We overcame many hurdles and challenges to make the building a reality. The entire process took ten years—we finished construction last October and the final product was worth the wait!

The “Grass” educational building, as it is nicknamed for its plant-like ability to absorb the energy of the sun, is located at the edge of a south-facing field. Its roof spreads out like wings to capture the sun’s energy and a network of 20 geothermal wells, located in the grassy field in front of the building, help ensure we use this power most efficiently. These wells, along with solar panels on the roof, provide all of the renewable energy needed to power the building.

Living Buildings are designed to function like species in an ecosystem and mimic the beauty, resourcefulness and efficiency of nature. They are designed to regenerate—not deplete— their surroundings.

The building works in harmony with nature, aligning with the Challenge’s seven performance categories, which include:

  • Restoring a healthy local ecosystem
  • Sourcing all its water from rainfall
  • Harvesting all its energy from renewable sources
  • Choosing non-toxic materials
  • Supporting a just, equitable world
  • Maximizing physical and psychological health of guests
  • Celebrating beauty, inspiring transformative change through design

Once certified, AFF will join an elite group of leaders dedicated to the newest in sustainable technologies and educating the next generation of environmental stewards. We are honored to have been featured in Washington Business Journal’s list, and invite you to learn more about this innovative project.

Flora, Fauna, and…Fire

February 5th, 2016

By Karen Jensen Miles

Breezeway Fireplace with concretre stainedWhen students and other visitors visit Hard Bargain Farm Environmental Center, they are immediately struck by a sense that they are in the midst of something special. First, the land itself is a widely varied mix of habitats, each of which has its own beauty as evidenced by the senses that are awakened—lichens on the trees, the raucous chatter of the red-headed woodpecker, or the aroma of the many habitat components.

To add to this aura, the Grass Building has an outdoor fireplace and a wood-burning stove in the large common room. The fireplace is strategically placed in the breezeway, which is the main entrance to the building. The north end of the breezeway frames a real-life painting of treetops and distant fields that is enchanting. The breeze caresses one’s body as it accelerates through the passageway. Some of the gray-brown stones that face the fireplace have moss and lichens growing on them and the many shapes are pleasing to the eye. There are two large openings that face the firebox itself. These store firewood that is procured at the Farm from fallen trees and split into long triangles of differing sizes. When the openings are full of the wood, they are interesting to look at as well. White and red oak; red maple; beech; tulip poplar; and sycamore all have characteristic colors and textures that cause one to reflect on their beauty. There is a raised hearth where persons wanting to feel the radiant heat from the flames may sit.

Visitors that come to the farm frequently gather ‘round a roaring fire to hear ghost stories such as the one about the ‘goat man’ that wanders at night (great fun for grade schoolers) and roast marshmallows and hotdogs on sticks over the fire. These experiences promote a sense of inclusivity, contentment, and the creation of lifelong memories for so many who have never had an experience like this and may never have again. We frequently hear tales of adults who, as children, came to the farm and one of the highlights was the campfire.

The ceramic wood-burning stove in the common room evokes a sense of warmth even when there isn’t a fire set in it. All year long, people remark about how nice it would be to feel the heat radiating from it. There is something primeval about man’s fascination with flames and how they can mesmerize and allow persons close by to dream and meditate. These things are not measurable and there are no rubrics, but they are very real.

Neither the fireplace nor the woodstove will be used to heat unless there is a prolonged power outage, but the value they add to this project and the experience for all who visit is undeniable.

Embracing the Living Building Challenge

November 19th, 2015

By Karen Jensen Miles

Sponsored by the United States Green Building Council, Greenbuild is the world’s largest conferenceLiving Building and expo dedicated to green building. The green building community gathers annually to share ideals and mutual passion. The conference features uplifting speakers, unparalled networking opportunities, showcases, LEED workshops and tours of green buildings in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. Greenbuild offers a place for thousands to gather and renew their commitment to the green movement.

This year, Greenbuild is hosted by the National Capital Region chapter. The Alice Ferguson Foundation is honored to have been chosen as the site for two of the carefully vetted tours. On Monday, November 16th, we were the last stop on a day long tour entitled ‘River Ride Along the Watershed’, where attendees visited our new education campus that contains the region’s first ‘Living Building’. Attendees learned how this site embraces the principles of the Living Building Challenge (LBC), while also continuing their day of education about the perils threatening, and opportunities arising, for the area’s watershed. The presenters discussed the foundation’s mission and history and why it was important for our organization to embrace the LBC; an introduction to the LBC; and an overview of the building and the site’s water systems that included existing site conditions, project priorities, supply water, waste water and stormwater. Attendees also participated in an interactive, educational lesson called ‘Who Polluted the Potomac?’ that highlights the types of activities that all of us do that impacts our natural waterways. They also walked the site to see the ‘flow’ of water on the site.

On Friday, November 20th, a technical tour comprised of about 50 attendees and ten presenters will arrive at Hard Bargain Farm Environmental Center to learn about the Living Building Challenge (LBC) in the context of our project. There will be information about AFF as a whole; the project description and development to include: design process, charrette, construction process; rainwater and the site; water and energy; materials used; and LBC lessons learned. Our LBC project is being monitored carefully by the ‘green’ world of architects, engineers, planners, contractors and governmental agencies. We are very excited to be under the microscope since our experiences will aid others as they determine the various routes and responsibilities they want to undertake in the future.

Alice Ferguson Foundation Unveils One of the Greenest Environmental Education Buildings in the World

October 22nd, 2015

Buildings as Teaching Tools

Since its founding more than six decades ago, the Alice Ferguson Foundation has been students-at-buildingdedicated to educating visitors of all ages about the natural world, inspiring them to recognize their role in protecting it and seeking innovative ways to solve environmental challenges. When it came time to renovate and refresh our educational campus, we challenged ourselves to incorporate the latest advances in environmental design and construction. Our goal is for students to have an inspiring place to learn and to construct buildings that serve as powerful and innovative teaching tools.

The unveiling of our Living Building, marks a major milestone in our multi-phase project that provides educational facilities constructed with the greenest building standards in the world today. The thousands of students who visit our Hard Bargain Farm Environmental Center will learn how design and construction can make the world a better place. In keeping with the Foundation’s mission, the building will work in harmony with nature, allowing us to utilize the building as both a classroom and a teaching tool.

All building users will have an energy and water ‘budget’ to manage during their stay. Electronic tablets that are connected to the buildings’ infrastructure will allow constant monitoring of resource use, even when students are not in the building. The data will inform any adaptations and new strategies that may need to be made as each group of students seeks to help the Foundation meet the net zero energy and water goals inherent in the Living Building Challenge. The data will be analyzed, synthesized, and shared as part of our commitment to sustainability, learning, and innovation.

Our core values of Education, Inspiration, and Innovation are serving us well as we transform our aging infrastructure into one of the most innovative and inspirational education facilities anywhere in the world. The Living Building will not only enhance and upgrade our structure but also serve as a tool for teaching Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) concepts, as well as augment our core ecological curriculum.

Creating The Ultimate Environmental Education Classroom

September 7th, 2015

As students return to their classrooms this fall, the Alice Ferguson Foundation is readying its own new state-of-the-art environmental education campus, unlike any other in the world! When we made the commitment to the Living Building Challenge© nearly a decade ago, we had no idea what the journey would hold. Today, we stand ready to share the first phase of that journey with students from throughout the Washington, DC metropolitan area.

This week, students will begin learning not only how to use a net-zero energy and water building, but also what it takes to construct it in a carbon neutral way with non-toxic materials. As they explore the first of our two-building environmental education campus, they will learn of the building’s role in the campus ecosystem.

Code named ‘Grass,’ for its location in a sunny field, this first building’s ‘job’ in the educational campus ecosystem is to gather solar energy to power the building. Combined with geothermal wells along with walls and a roof designed to be a three-fold energy efficiency improvement over the average building, this first part of the Potomac Watershed Study Center (PWSC) represents a light year leap ahead of the current best practices in construction.

Complementing the Grass building are two sleeping cabins along with a special boardwalk/nature trail through an emergent wetland on the Foundation’s 330-acre working farm that serves as the backdrop for our environmental education endeavors. Welcoming students to these new facilities this fall is a fitting capstone to the celebration of our 60th year of operation. We will be officially cutting the ribbon on the new facility in early October. Soon thereafter, we look forward to beginning Phase Two of the project, which will include replacement of our current overnight lodge that has served students for nearly half a century.

Sunny Days at AFF and Solar Energy

October 6th, 2014

By Lindsay Renner, AFF Communications Coordinator

As the construction of the first portion of the Potomac Watershed Study Center nears completion, one thing is readily apparent: we’ve come a long, long way but there is still much to be done! Mere weeks ago, the solar panels that will eventually come to power the entire complex were installed on the roof of the Grass Day-Use building. This is but one small step on the path to completing the Living Building Challenge© and thus continuing on the path of innovation that has marked nearly 60 years of tradition here at the Alice Ferguson Foundation.

On September 3rd, there was an event at the farm that featured panelists well-versed in solar energy, along with its uses, benefits, and how it can be a reality for everyone, even private homeowners. Although there are many things that will separate the PWSC from other green buildings, its reliance on solar energy as its sole source of power is, to my mind, perhaps what sets it apart the most. It’s impossible to deny that the world’s resources are facing rapid depletion, and that irresponsible building practices play a huge role in unnecessarily high energy consumption. Marked changes in the way we approach the design and construction process are the only way to combat this.

solar outside
When he was discussing the building construction, the PSWC project manager, Brandon Gamble of Facchina Construction, spoke of how the solar panels will allow the building to create its own energy and use only that. That, to me, is what brings home the point that this building will truly be “living.” They’re silent and consistent, as Beth Kennedy of Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative pointed out, and they don’t produce any greenhouse gases and are incredibly low maintenance.

solar wiring inside
By 2020, as representatives from the Maryland Energy Administration pointed out, the state goal is to ensure that two percent of all energy is solar. With that in mind, it only makes sense that AFF spearheads the effort to have buildings powered entirely by solar energy. If we truly care about the preservation of the environment and natural resources, this is the least that we can do. Every day, we connect people to the land around them: our newest buildings, in turn, should be just as much a part of the land as the trees and grass and other features, and these panels are just one step down that road.

Decisions, decisions, decisions…

October 31st, 2013

By Karen Miles, Land Use/ Facilities Manager

Backfillingaround FOundationLots of things to report on in this Blogpost! Decisions, decisions, decisions. The project architects have given the AFF staff materials and color options for the floors, walls, exterior siding, roofing, windows and (wait for it) bathroom stalls. So many decisions; but we think that what we finally came up with will be wonderful here at Hard Bargain Farm Environmental Center. We kept in mind the natural color palette for our area. Now, we just have to wait for the project to come along to the point where they can be seen.

Have you ever heard of FSC certified lumber? It stands for Forestry Stewardship Council Certification and is the best indicator in the United States that the wood used for construction is harvested sustainably. Responsible forest management includes:

  • Protecting fragile ecosystems
  • Respecting native cultures and economies
  • Preventing illegal logging
  • Restricting clear-cutting (removing all trees in a tract) and pesticide use
  • Monitoring the “chain of custody,” or ensuring that the wood in the product you’re looking at really came from the forest that was certified.

All of the lumber in a Living Building must be FSC certified and come from local sources, if possible.

We are working with the local electric energy provider, SMECO, to ensure that their electric lines can handle the excess power that is generated by the solar arrays that will be installed on-site. As luck would have it, they are in the process of installing a three phase line in the area and will be more than adequate for this purpose. Modifications in engineering plans have been made for the specified equipment to be changed from single phase to three phase lines.

ReadyingSlab The concrete pouring is coming to a close next week with the slab-on-grade pour. This means the flooring for the kitchen and mechanical equipment rooms will be poured. The kitchen will have a colorant (La Crescenta Brown) used. The waterproofing has been applied to the exterior underground walls and backfilling is in process. For the first time in about six months, one can see the natural lay of the land again.

Once the floors have been poured, the next steps are installation of the expanded metal trusses and Glulam beams (laminated wood). We will begin to see the building take shape more with each addition. It is very exciting to be a continuing part of this process. Stay tuned for the next installment.

Great Progress Made on the PWSC

September 23rd, 2013

By Karen Miles, Land Use/ Facilities Manager

Retaining WallThings are in full swing at the PWSC construction site.  There are contractors on-site for concrete work, geothermal hookups, electric and plumbing hookups and fire protection piping.  At long last, our project superintendent, Matt Burwell of Facchina Construction, may be getting electrical power to the construction trailer.  As you can see in the attached photographs, you can now begin to see the day-use building take form!  The flour should be able to be poured next week after the three feet of rainwater (from this past weekend’s down pour) is pumped out of the trenches After that, the framing contractor will come in and we will see above ground progress.

Green Wall

Another exciting development is the construction and planting of the green retaining wall near the existing lodge.  It snakes along the base of a very steep hill and keeps the soil from eroding down into the lodge area.  It has been planted with about 500 native plants of three species – Christmas fern, Pennsylvania sedge and Virginia creeper.  When they fill in, the effect should be lovely, with sweeps of different textures and hues undulating along the more than one hundred foot wall.  There is a temporary pathway leading to the lodge deck that will be in use until final grading sometime in the spring of 2014.

We are working on getting an alternative gray water septic system to handle water that comes from faucets, showers and sinks in the buildings.  We have received permission from the Prince George’s County Health Department to conduct dry season percolation tests and they should be completed in the next couple of weeks.

Grass day-use building under construction


PWSC Construction Journal Entry 3

August 6th, 2013

By Karen Miles, Land Use/ Facilities Manager


August 2, 2013

PWSC Construction August 2013The last two weeks have been a flurry of more trenching, pipe laying,  third party and County inspections, and trench filling.  The lay of the land at the construction site is finally looking similar to what was there prior to site work and most excitedly,  all of the inspections passed muster.

The next piece of the puzzle was removal and storage of the topsoil in the footprint of the day-use building.  A crew is currently on-site surveying the correct spots for footings for the building.  Four men are hand-digging these footings and the first concrete should be poured within the next couple of days.  An item that has taken up many nighttime ‘thinking’ hours for our construction project manager is how to get the sleeves for all of the various underground lines (geothermal, water, fire protection, electric) under these footings so they can eventually meet up with the connecting ones in the building and on to the other planned buildings in the near future.  I can see how important it is to have someone on the job who can put all of these pieces together out in the field.

We had just shy of two inches of rain last evening, so the foundation footings are full of water and will have to be pumped out.  The importance of the sedimentation and erosion controls that were the first thing to be put in place is very evident and thankfully are working according to plan. To learn more about erosion and sedimentation, check out our BTW module ‘Don’t Get Sedimental’.


August 5, 2013

PWSC Construction August 2013-2It is now three days later.  The trenches were pumped and mucked out and more foundation trenches were dug in preparation for additional footing concrete pourings.  This process should last until the end of the week.  The construction office trailer was delivered this morning.  Now, our Facchina Project Manager, Matt Burwell, doesn’t have to conduct work in his truck cab!

Very shortly, we will actually see the building’s shape begin to rise from the ground – something that we have been waiting for several years. J