1 of 2
Tyson Living Learning Center
Photovoltaic solar panels help heat and power the Tyson Living Learning Center.
2 of 2
Tyson Living Learning Center 2
Water drains off the roof into pipes that send the water into the canisters for sterilization.
This building lives, and it may be greener than you.
Blue solar grids shine on its roof. Rain-catching pipes on the walls of its structure guide runoff from off the grid into underground filters, where ultraviolet light zaps biological gunk into nothing. A deck wraps around its backyard, and three walls made of sprawling glass windows can each lift, as a garage door slides into the ceiling, to convert a classroom inside into an indoor-outdoor room that students can enjoy when the weather is nice.
It’s hard to look at the Tyson Living Learning Center without thinking its engineers were trying to camouflage it into the woods. Even its white-pocked timber was harvested within two miles. Located in rural Eureka, twenty miles southwest of St. Louis, the Center is part of a gated satellite campus for biological research at Washington University in St. Louis. It is one of two buildings in the world that are certifiably “living.”
“Living” means the Center makes all its own energy. In 2006, an organization devoted to environmentally responsible buildings called Cascadia Green Building Council initiated a global challenge to build net-zero-impact buildings. They called it a “Living Building Challenge.”
That was about the time the staff at WUSTL was deciding the fate of that plot of land earmarked for research in Eureka. WUSTL decided to build a totally self-sustaining structure, as part of its overall plans to build an environmentally conscious campus. Construction began several years ago, but the 2009-2010 year was the first year the Center proved it could operate with a net-zero impact. Its method is not mad, but it is unconventional.
Human Waste Not Wasted
In a locked concrete cellar beneath the Center, below its male and female bathrooms, a machine named Clivus digests human waste. Clivus is a Scandinavian composting system hooked up to waterless, flush-less toilets above.
Live red worms and bacteria inside Clivus digest the waste that falls through two big pipes in the ceiling. Despite piles of sewage inside, Clivus smells like nothing;
Clivus smells like freshness if freshness had a sanitary, abstract smell. You can stare straight into the waste and smell the nothing. Clivus contributes to the center by making fertilizer for gardens.
Drinkable Gutter Water
Metal pipes and canisters hang on a wall opposite Clivus, winding out of the cellar, through the ground, into an underground storage cistern, up the walls of the Center, to the roof.
This is the Center’s filtration system. Each of the canisters beside Clivus perform an increasing level of filtration. The rainwater starts by funneling through micro-filters to sift larger particles from the liquid. Carbon fi lters cancel out pollutants, and then a blue UV light sterilizes biological gunk. You could drink what’s left.
Up to 3,000 gallons of clean water—more than the Center ever needs—flows into an underground storage tank. Yet another tank holds used water. Even this water gets treated, so the Center isn’t releasing potential pollutants into the environment when it sprinkles the water on its gardens.
Energy on Reserve
Solar panels dominate the Center’s look. They hang like massive plaques off the rooftop and spring up like blue-leafed trees in the yard. They shine, the whole time converting sunlight into energy so that the computers inside juice up when you push the button. The panels work by clonking single electrons off light particles and channeling these into a current, which becomes the building’s electricity. This fuels everything—outlets, lights, heating, and cooling—whatever the student and professional researchers inside need.
Some days, the Center makes more electricity than its occupants use. Others, the sun doesn’t shine so generously. Because of the sun’s variability, the Center has contracted with Ameren to donate its surplus energy to the utility company when sunlight is good. Then the Center can take back what it needs—up to that amount—in dark times. At the end of the year, the Center has created as much energy as it uses, reaching the net-zero goal.
Maintenance technician Tim Derton keeps the Center running on just these few elements.
“Sun, electricity, water, and then a little bit of poop,” Tim says. “That’s it.”
For more information, visit tyson.wustl.edu/llc/index.php.