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Meeting the Living Building Challenge at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center - an Interview with Executive Director Peter Smerud

By Martin Graefe, Senior Director, Concordia Language Villages | Published: May 10, 2022

At Concordia Language Villages, we know our alumni engage in the world with passion, drive and purpose. Today we feature Peter "Pete" Smerud, a Waldsee (German Language Village) villager and staff alumnus and also a 1986 Concordia College graduate. His work as the executive director at the Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Finland, Minnesota, stands out as a model not only in the United States, but also internationally. In his quest to ‘make our relationship with the planet better,’ Pete has presented and consulted in Argentina, China, Hungary and the Netherlands for example. Read below what he’s been up to most recently.

Exterior shot of the Margaret A. Cargill Lodge on the 2,000-acre Wolf Ridge Campus in Finland, MN. Credit: Photo courtesy of HGA and Chad Holder

What influenced you in your career to want to help others understand their impact on the environment and, hopefully, develop them into influencers of others through their experiences at Wolf Ridge?

I have spent the last 35 years at the Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center. What really stirred my soul early in life was my experience in scouting… experiencing and living in the outdoors in a way that is interactive, practical and meaningful. After having experienced Concordia Language Villages (CLV) as a camper and later as a camp counselor, I wanted to see and do what is possible. CLV embodies a learning environment that resonates with me, that makes sense to me. And experiencing the BioHaus at Waldsee was definitely an inspiring point in my career.

Tell us about the Living Building Challenge (LBC) and how that has challenged the work of your team at Wolf Ridge.

When the Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center opened its doors in 1970, the focus was  on connecting students to the outdoors, to the environment and to nature. We wanted students to learn the facts and about the interconnectivity of organisms and the natural world. Today, environmental education is an act of citizenry, focused on developing environmentally literate people, not just at Wolf Ridge but around the world.

Wolf Ridge recently achieved the first-ever Living Building Challenge recognition in the world for a renovated building. Wolf Ridge needed to update a 1980’s student dormitory, which resulted in the new Margaret A. Cargill Lodge (MAC Lodge), an award-winning living building designed as a teaching tool for sustainability. LBC is so much more than a plaque on the wall or an award that helps with PR and marketing. Before discovering LBC, all the other ‘green’ building standards we were looking at were design-based vs. performance-based. They focus, for example, on achieving net-zero energy consumption or meeting a set of standards to reduce the energy and environmental footprint of a building. LBC challenged us, and really challenges everyone, to think net positive. How can we give back more than we take? LBC is a philosophy vs. a certification, supporting equity, health and happiness. 

How did you get all the stakeholders at Wolf Ridge on board with this idea of going after the first LBC certification of a renovated building? 

The first time I heard of the Living Building Challenge was at a strategic planning session with our board. Two of our board members almost simultaneously blurted out Living Building Challenge, as the rest of us were debating Net Zero, Passive House and LEED certifications. By  enthusiastically, and perhaps naively, connecting LBC to our vision and passion, we said to ourselves, “if we don’t do this work, who will?” 

Once we committed, our work was guided by three overarching themes. We set out to:

  1. Create a home away from home. We want the LBC philosophy to come across as attainable in everyday life and thinking.
  2. How can the design support the theory of living at the highest level of sustainability? We want to model the LBC philosophy as something that goes beyond ‘fixing problems’ and acts as an inspiration.
  3. Ensure that the building serves as a teaching tool. People staying in this dorm monitor their own consumption of energy and water against established LBC goals.
Students preparing for a bird studies class at the original Environmental Learning Center in Isabella, MN (circa 1970s).

What words of encouragement can you offer other educational non-profits who want to optimize their mission beyond the immediate impact of their programming? Any concrete tips and suggestions?

Organizations that embrace change cast a wide net. Take the time to build a team and to practice how you might achieve a certain vision or a big idea, without necessarily expecting to succeed on the first try. Being able to budget for initiatives like this comes from building support among constituents and stakeholders from the get-go. Big initiatives like this don’t necessarily achieve big results the first time around. At Wolf Ridge we practiced the Living Building Challenge on another building remodel (the Lakeview Student Lodge, completed in 2017) before accomplishing what we did with the Margaret A. Cargill Lodge. Another motto for us was to aim high: Do not prepare to do less bad; aim for the best. People’s well-being is connected to the well-being of our natural systems. In the end, think about the impact on those whom you serve. Or in our case, we always thought about the students first!

Here you can learn more about the specific case study of the Living Building Challenge at the Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center. For media stories on their remarkable achievement, check out MPR News, Directions (Journal of the Assn of Nature Center Administrators) and gb&d Magazine (the leading information source for sustainability professionals). 

About the Author

Peter Smerud is the executive director of the Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Finland, MN. He started at Wolf Ridge in 1987 as a naturalist and has worked in nearly every aspect of the operations during his career with the organization. Peter first came to Concordia Language Villages in 1972, participating 10 years as a villager, later worked many seasons as a staffer at Waldsee, the German Language Village, and was part of the team that created the Waldsee BioHaus, the first certified Passive House building in North America. He is also a graduate of Concordia College. 

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