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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Co|Lab is a HITT:
Innovative Facility Serves as Hub for R&D of Emerging Materials

HITT Contracting’s demo facility was designed to highlight circular design; focus on healthy material selection; and meet the most rigorous, sustainable standards for the construction industry.

For the second year in a row, Shaw’s sustain[HUMAN]ability® Leadership Recognition Program recognizes a diverse slate of organizations that are working on innovative projects and initiatives that support the wellbeing of people and the planet. HITT Contracting, a leading general contractor based in Virginia, provides a wide range of construction services from core and shell building and renovations to interior fit-outs and service work.

Shaw recently spoke with Isaiah Walston, Director of Sustainability at HITT, about the company’s work on Co|Lab — an innovative demonstration facility that serves as a hub for research and testing of emerging materials, construction methods, performance and technology. The building was designed to "highlight circular design; focus on healthy, red-list-free material selection; and meet the most rigorous environmentally sustainable standards."

Q: How was Co|Lab conceived?

Isaiah Walston: Historically, the construction industry has only invested 1 percent into research and development. Co|Lab was conceived to fill that gap. It was designed to break down silos between clients, architects, manufacturers, and subcontractors — to bring them all on board to really change the industry — as a safe space to test materials, approaches and technologies. We always want to mitigate risk, so everyone involved feels confident using a new material or implementing a new technology on their own project. We also want subcontractors to feel safe, because they’re contractually obligated for the material that they're installing. The ultimate goal is that everyone feels confident taking that next step and using a new material or technology

HITT partnered with McDonough + Partners to build this state-of-the-art facility that really went above and beyond market standards. Co|Lab is LEED v4 Platinum certified, LBC Petal certified, and designed to be net-zero energy.

Q: What were some of the most surprising challenges along the way?

IW: Anytime you try something new, you have to highlight the challenges as well as your successes. So HITT tried to be as transparent as possible with Co|Lab. Three challenges come to mind:

  • The first is the building structure itself. Co|Lab was the first mass timber building constructed in the state of Virginia — and only the second one in the Washington, DC area. Mass timber consists of multiple solid wood panels nailed or glued together, and offers a low-carbon alternative to concrete and steel. There is a smaller supply of mass timber materials right now; and because it’s not being used as readily across all building structures and types, there is a small pool of expert installers. You really need experience to realize the speed to market and an expedited construction process.

  • The second challenge — which also provided a great reward in the end — s the need to educate subcontractors and some manufacturers on the Living Building Challenge Materials Petal Intent, specifically around Red List materials. We experienced some lag time with due diligence in the submittal process; thus, Co|Lab required extended time to track down all the needed information regarding chemicals that were implemented into the space. But in the end, we did succeed in achieving the Materials Petal.

  • The third challenge we faced was building codes — or lack thereof. Anytime you're trying something new, it’s important to remember the local jurisdiction might not have building codes developed. Mass timber is an example of that situation, but Fairfax County was excited and ready for a mass timber building. Although they didn't have building codes written at the time, they worked with us to develop a process and allowed us to build with mass timber. Broadly, we're seeing building codes evolve to accommodate forward-thinking components like mass timber, healthy materials, net-zero energy and carbon reduction.

Q: In what ways do you see this cutting-edge demonstration project changing how we build — and how has this specific project helped educate your supply chain?

IW: HITT really wanted to swing for the fences here and wanted Co|Lab to be innovative. We wanted to show our clients that it can happen today — that this is not some lofty goal in the future. This building was designed to be net-zero energy — and with it came major thought into circularity. How could it be designed for disassembly? How do we, at the end of the building’s life, take it apart and recycle and/or reuse those materials that are in that space? We also placed a major focus on material health. Co|Lab is not a large building, but going through the process really allowed us to identify some lessons learned; and it was rewarding to succeed in the end. This effort allowed us to hit the ground running when our clients come to us to investigate new technologies and materials for their projects.

We learned a lot in the process about how important it was to work with subcontractors to educate them about Red List chemicals — and how to talk to manufacturers and vendors to find that information. This proved to be a major learning curve. It was something our subcontractors had never had to do before, and it enabled us to develop a system. We believe that we will be able to more easily achieve LBC Material Petal certification in the future now that we have a base of trained subcontractors that have already worked through the process.

Q: The HITT team has mentioned to me on numerous occasions how much attention the "plastic bottle floors" [Shaw Industries’ PET Resilient flooring] have received. Why does that seem to capture attention and resonate with people touring the building?

IW: It's a great talking point and every time we give a tour, there is excitement and positive feedback about the flooring. It’s two-fold. First, we are able to say that this is the first time this product was installed — and designers get excited about that. Second, if you can say there are 13,600 plastic bottles in the floor they’re physically standing on, that's tangible. People can grasp that and understand it because everyone is aware of the challenges with one-time-use plastic bottles. [The floors] allow you to take that next step to educate about circularity and a circular economy.

This article is one in a series of articles recognizing the second slate of organizations to be honored by Shaw’s sustain[HUMAN]ability® Leadership Recognition Program. The nine organizations selected for this year’s recognition program have displayed tremendous effort and progress to support the wellbeing of people and the planet amid the unprecedented challenges of 2020. To read more about the other organizations recognized by Shaw, visit the landing page for this blog series.