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Wolf Ridge opens sustainable lodge

Wolf Ridge Executive Director Pete Smerud and Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies Board Chairperson Christine Morse cut the ribbon on the newly renovated Margaret A. Cargill Lodge on May 5. (Photos by Teri Cadeau/News-Chronicle)1 / 5
Donors, educators, tradespeople, volunteers and others clap for the new Margaret A. Cargill Lodge ribbon-cutting. 2 / 5
A TV screen in the lobby of the Margaret A. Cargill Lodge displays the overall energy net usage. The building must maintain a net-zero usage, offset by sustainable energy production, for a year in order to receive full Living Building Challenge certification. 3 / 5
Wolf Ridge education director Shannon Walz leads a tour of interested individuals through the newly rennovated MAC lodge. The lodge is the first in Minnesota to pursue all of the components of the Living Building Challenge. (Teri Cadeau/News-Chronicle)4 / 5
Wolf Ridge's newly renovated Katharine A. Cargill lodge. 5 / 5

Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Finland held a ribbon-cutting and open house for the opening of the newly renovated Margaret A. Cargill Lodge, a participant in the Living Building certification challenge. Formerly known as the "West Dorm," the renovation planning process started in 2011.

"It's been in the works for a long time, " Wolf Ridge Executive Director Pete Smerud said. "But we've done something here with a team of people that is phenomenal and will truly enable life changing experiences for decades to come."

The West Dorm was included in the organization's strategic plan as staff reported that the lodging center was running out of space. So as the organization started to plan a redesign, they decided they wanted their campus buildings to "reflect their mission of innovative environmental education and stewardship," Smerud said.

Enter the Living Building Challenge. Board members suggested that the renovation pursue the LBC certification. Requiring building owners to achieve stringent standards in seven areas — site, water, energy, health, materials, equity and beauty — the LBC is considered the most rigorous environmental and sustainability standard in the world.

Unlike other sustainable standards, for example, the more commonly known LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design),which mostly contains a checklist of standards, the building has to prove itself. The building must perform according to LBC standards for 12 consecutive months before it receives certification.

"We're not done yet," Smerud said. "We've done most of the building work, but we've still got to remain net-zero energy and water, meaning we don't use more energy or water than is generated on the site."

To ensure the building remains net-zero energy and water consumption-wise, the building has a built-in monitoring system. In each of the cabin rooms, there is a small screen that displays up-to-the-minute water and energy usage. This information is also displayed on a screen in the building's lobby. Education Director Shannon Walz said this system is meant to encourage less consumption.

"We think the kids will run downstairs every morning to see who is the leading room," Walz said. "But we think they'll really want to check in on how the adult rooms are doing. Plus, it's a way to see energy consumption, which is something we don't usually think about."

The process from design to construction was not an easy one.

"There's a reason why it's called a 'Living Building Challenge,'" Smerud said.

Wolf Ridge formed a team of architects from HGA and found a contractor willing to take on the project with Garner Construction. Once the team was assembled, the organization decided to take a practice run by working on a new building on campus. The Lakeview House was built in order to move the staff and graduate students out of the West Dorm building and allowed the staff to see how difficult the LBC would be. It was designed and built with LBC standards but it's not a registered product.

Deconstruction on the dorm began in June. The existing structure was kept intact, but the interior was completely redesigned to feature new and larger common spaces to accommodate groups of varying size, and renovated sleeping rooms. The LBC standards required that all of the materials be recycled, but Wolf Ridge instead chose to get an exception and donated most of the wood and various materials to Habitat for Humanity.

The construction process stretched into the winter, which meant Wolf Ridge had to find other places to house over 13,000 students who visit the site annually via camps and school trips. The parking lot was turned into a 30-unit RV park to serve as temporary housing.

Visiting students also received the chance to learn about and work on the project.

"When we were talking to contractors, we'd always ask them to tell us about safety because we have all these kids on the site. Gardner was the only one who said, 'I want to actually invite the kids in,'" Smerud said. "So the kids got to pound in nails and run beads of caulk and other activities to help lend a hand."

The building embraces technology to help keep energy consumption low. Automatic, low-energy lights turn on and off in the hallways, big gathering spaces are given more light via solar tubes that radiate sunlight, and solar panels for heating water and electricity generation from the sun.

No mechanical cooling system is installed in the building. Instead, a passive system uses the cooling effect of the bedrock on which the building sits. Fan-assisted ventilation towers on the roof pull the cool air through the building and push hot air out.

The lodge is the first and only building in Minnesota that is going for full LBC certification. If attained, it will be only one of 40 worldwide.

"This means a lot to Wolf Ridge," Smerud said. "It means a lot to the people who work here. It means a lot ot the kids who will come, the school teachers, parents, families, who will spend time here."

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