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BNIM Architects, Kath Williams, Bozeman Montana, 1994


Located in Bozeman, Montana, the EPICenter (Educational Performance and Innovation Center was a NIST (National Institute of standards and Technology) demonstration project, with the goal of developing an academic laboratory prototype for 21st century energy and resource efficiency. The objective of the project as described by BNIM Architects, who were chosen to design the building, was a zero-polluting-emission laboratory, having no impact whatsoever in its adjacent environment. A key term that emerged throughout the design process of the center was “Living Building,” indicating a direct analogy between living systems and building systems and the intention to replicate natural ecosystems using technological innovations.

Kath Williams, who was the project chief for Montana State University from 1993-1999, was a driving force for developing methodological approaches for EPICenter’s design and eventually became the Founding Executive Vice President of the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories. With her guidance, the team mapped regions within a 300-mile radius of the site to maximize use of regional materials, while Pliny Fisk of Center for Maximum Potential building systems and Greg Norris of Sylvatica conducted life-cycle analyses (LCA) for these local materials. This thorough research led to the development of a new tool for material selection called “Baseline Green.” The majority of the local materials were sourced from Montana’s waste stream, including recycled glass and coal fly ash, used as part of structural concrete, especially in cold climates like Montana and sourced from nearby power plants.

The EPICenter was designed to have no sewer system, meaning that wastewater would be treated using constructed wetland systems. The project contained two streams of waste treatment - domestic and laboratory. The domestic was the primary treatment of solids stored in the basement of the building. The waste would undergo aerobic digestion, which could then be reused within the building. The laboratory waste treatment was left for chemical disposal, while chemical waste was to be flushed into an experimental living machine designed by John Todd. If harsh chemicals do no adapt to the living machine they would be transported and disposed off-site.

One of BNIMs goals for the Center was to reduce the load on the mechanical systems, given that laboratories typically have extensive mechanical systems. The team explored the possibility of improved natural lighting to reduce the need for electric lighting and further limit dependency on mechanical systems. They also tested the building in Radiance, a simulation program, to determine its overall performance. Another way to limit the ductwork was through a lower pressure drop design. Ducts were eventually incorporated as a highlighted element within the atrium space, allowing improved access to the lab spaces.

Ventilation was another significant consideration in the design process. BNIM Architects mapped the airflow patterns within the building to ensure that air circulation worked in tandem with the necessary heating and cooling systems. Given the criticality of air quality in the laboratories energy-efficient fume hoods were employed to reduce the exposure of humans to harmful chemicals. The fume hoods ensured the pilot building would meet ventilation requirements of a minimum of six air changes per hour, maintaining high air quality within the research labs. The fume hood exhaust systems were stacks, intended to provide a high dilution rate with minimal energy use.

The EPICenter was an ambitious project described by its architects as a ‘living building.’ The efforts of designing EPICenter focused beyond the specificity of the specific problem at hand; it was more about the development of a new language for sustainable building design and a series of methodologies that could later be institutionalized. Energy efficiency, recycling of waste and the footprint of materials were re-thought and new benchmarks were established, many of which have influenced the standards of certifying entities, such as LEED. Numerous manufacturers were afforded the opportunity to test out new building products and various organizations such as the Green Building Council were established throughout the design process of this project. Despite the political and industrial successes of the sustainable building movement, the fact that the EPICenter remained largely hypothetical may have been an Achilles heel; let alone the fact that the strategies of autonomy and methane digesters, previously used both as tools and as political statements, have now become part of a corporate entity and, frankly, an uninspiring design solution.

KEYWORDS: Living Building, Fly-ash, Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)


SQUARE FOOTAGE BEYOND ORIGINAL BUDGET: Large amounts of space were promised to too many departments, raising the total square footage beyond the budget.

OPEN-ENDED PLATFORM: Constraints were not seriously established within which the project might have actually been realized. While there was the ambition to create a closed system the managing team failed to realize it and ultimately produced an open-ended platform from which other projects could be established.

TECHNICAL PARAMETERS: The compost chamber required regular raking and emptying to function properly, which the Vales described as being about as tedious as the conventional cleaning requirements of flush toilets.

LACK OF ICONICITY: The building design was only motivated by technical parameters and was truly uninspiring leading to the common assumption that building invested in green certification are only invested in technics.