Designing a Living Building… on Mars

The premise was simple. Design an ultra-efficient net-zero energy and net-zero water building to withstand -50 F degree temperatures and 150 mile per hour winds. Straightforward, no? As an added note, not much is known to have survived in this subarctic climate, and water must be shipped from a far-off land.

Mars: Wikimedia

This is not in fact a brief for Elon Musk’s next Martian colony, nor a ‘can you survive on a desert island’ leadership training course. Situated 14,000 feet above sea level and smack on top of the continental divide, this is Pikes Peak, America’s Mountain. And a team of builders is about to break ground.

The project is the Pikes Peak Summit House, a visitor’s center for anyone coming by car, railway, foot or bike. The emphasis here is on visitors, because no one actually lives on the mountain, except marmots, which would explain the eponymously named jacket company. With so few peers, it may come as no surprise that the design and engineering team took inspiration from the one other organism that thrives in the mountain crags: lichen.

Lichen slinks its way around rocks and crevices, and remains very low to the ground no matter the variety. According to M.E. Group engineer Pete Jefferson, one of the key challenges facing the project is sheer durability, and remaining sheltered from the wind is the first major step. “The mountain is essentially bench cut,” explains Jefferson. “Three sides of the building will be buried in the mountain, and there is no greater insulator than earth itself.”

Lest the marmots feel left out, the building also takes its temperature regulation from some very extreme mammals. In the same way that mammals maintain different temperatures in their legs and paws, the building’s outside, like the lobby and the viewing area, will remain relatively cold. Areas that are essential to the building’s function, like the dining or exhibit areas, will be maintained at a more consistent temperature.

With all of the biomimetic design elements, applying for Living Building Challenge Certification really wasn’t a far off step, and in fact, follows the Challenge’s guiding principle to a T. Says Jefferson, “Nature has been testing survival techniques for 3.8 billion years, and it’s really an infinite lab for efficiency. We just have to take the time to learn.”

The design team still faces steep challenges from Colorado’s water laws, and they continue to problem solve questions of durability and material health. Luckily, there’s still 3.7 billion years of expertise at their disposal.

Join us on Wednesday June 13th to hear from the Pikes Peak project team in person (!), in addition to other projects around the nation built by incredible Pittsburghers.  

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