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Environment and Outdoors

Ecology School's New Campus Among Few Dozen Worldwide To Earn Living Building Challenge's Highest Certification

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Ecology School
The dining commons at the Ecology School's River Bend Farm campus.

For decades, the Ecology School has held program and camps for students from across Maine to teach them about nature and their own relationship to it. This week, the school is unveiling its new campus, which it says will be the most sustainable in the Northeast.

Ecology School President Drew Dumsch stops every few feet as he walks along the trails overlooking the Saco River on the school's new campus at Saco's River Bend Farm. At each stop, Dumsch points out secondhand objects that are being reused.

There's an old horse shed the school bought on eBay. Wooden boxes that held windows are being turned into raised garden beds. And alongside the walls of the new dormitory are several giant, plastic totes.

"We're using repurposed IBC — those food-grade liquid tanks — to transport soy sauce and maple syrup. They're great. We got them for like $100 each, used. They hold, like, 300 gallons. They're huge. We'll be using those under the downspouts of the dormitory and then using that to water our permaculture education gardens that surround the buildings," he says.

All this repurposing is part of an ambitious goal by the school to make these buildings the first in Maine to achieve the highest certification from the Living Building Challenge.

If you haven't heard of that certification, it's because it's relatively new, and hard to reach. It's even more strict than other green standards, such as LEED or Passive House certifications. Among the requirements, buildings must generate more energy than they use, focus on using local and salvaged material and capture and treat water on site. Only a few dozen buildings around the world have been fully certified.

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Robbie Feinberg
Drew Dumsch by the Ecology School's new dormitory.

"It's an iterative, almost nearly impossible challenge. The idea being that you move green building forward. That we're all working together. That includes starting to really educate planning boards," Dumsch says.

The results of the efforts can be seen across the campus. Rain gardens and giant tubs collect rainwater to be used for local crops, which will eventually be used to make meals on-site. Solar panels line roofs and fields.

"So up on the roof we have 200 solar panels. And you see just to the top of the field array — we another have 512 panels down there," Dumsch says.

The total cost of the project is about $14 million. More than half of the funding comes from a loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And while this one project in Saco may potentially reach the rigorous standard, the question is how replicable this model can be.

Some experts say that while sustainable building practices are becoming more cost-effective, they still have to overcome zoning barriers in many communities.

Marty Grohman, the executive director of the Environmental and Energy Technology Council of Maine, says that a building like this in the state won't mean that the average project going forward will implement all of these features, from solar panels to recycled rainwater. But he says these types of projects do lead more builders and contractors to gain experience with sustainable building practices, and eventually adopt them in other projects.

"Just to see them demonstrated, and to understand that it's not that tough to do — it can actually save me money on electricity, water, make a more comfortable space — definitely can bring it to the next project," he says.

Grohman adds that the pandemic has highlighted the need for people to feel healthy and comfortable in their own space, whether that's an office or their home, which he thinks could lead more people to seek out greener buildings.

"That's the pivot that green building is going through. And I think that's what will bring it now to the next level, the next generation, and it'll become more widespread," he says.

The Ecology School expects to launch its first day camps on the farm this summer and is planning to open the campus to other school programs by fall.