Waste stream helps put NE Minnesota learning center on the map

July 2022

A northeastern Minnesota learning center is receiving international acclaim for earning a Living Building Certification. Awarded by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), the Living Building Certification is the world’s most rigorous standard for green buildings. Located in Finland, Minnesota, Wolf Ridge Learning Center is the 30th building in the world to receive this type of certification and the very first to do so while using waste stream to generate energy.

“Our Living Building approach is really a philosophy cloaked in a certification,” explains Wolf Ridge Executive Director, Pete Smerud. 

Founded in 1971, Wolf Ridge’s remote campus hosts 14,000+ visitors annually, many are students staying for overnight immersive experiences.

“At our center we’re inspiring people through the simple act of living in a building. We’re demonstrating that it’s not just a shelter, not just a place to eat or sleep, it’s a paradigm shift in philosophy”

Pete Smerud, Wolf Ridge Executive Director

Driven by bedrock beliefs that buildings should serve as a teaching tool for sustainable living and construction, in 2014 Wolf Ridge decided to renovate parts of the campus and its practices in pursuit of the Living Building Challenge. To earn the certification, the center needed to meet ambitious requirements tailored to focus areas like water, equity, environmental and human health, and net positive energy. But Smerud says they ran into a roadblock when it came to heating their buildings in a certification-friendly way.

In the 1980’s Wolf Ridge decided to use wood to heat the 100,000 square foot campus in order to move away from fossil fuel usage. First, the center began with cordwood, then moved to partially recycled wood fiber pellets, or compressed wood particles as fuel. When the center started seeking the Living Building Certification, one proposed upgrade was a move to 100% recycled pellets.

“At first, ILFI would not consider waste fiber as an option under the certification because biomass combustion typically produces pollution. But that was before we could show the positive impacts of our system.”

Located 70 miles north of Duluth and situated on rocky terrain, Finland, Minnesota is nestled in one of the coldest environments in the continental U.S. Due to unique environmental factors such as bedrock at the surface, a remote location and the energy requirements for a building that houses many people, traditionally green alternatives for heating like geothermal and solar, weren’t plausible options to cover Wolf Ridge’s heating demands. 

“We went back and forth many times with ILFI,” recalls Smerud. “The concept of net zero is not simply demonstrating how to do less bad, we want to actually do good in the world, or give more than we take. And what’s good in Des Moines, Iowa might not be the right choices in Tucson, Arizona. We had to work with them to figure out, ‘What does good look like in Finland, Minnesota?’”

Citing site-specific standards as an important part of the certification process, ILFI eventually agreed that waste stream was the greatest good for the learning center’s particular positioning.

“We demonstrated that if we went to 100% waste stream fiber, we could actually have a carbon positive outcome. ILFI said if we could do that, they would give us the energy certification, it would be a special scenario and we would be the first in the world to have earned it this way.”

Pete Smerud, Wolf Ridge Executive Director

With the promise secured, Smerud turned to the task of finding 100% waste stream fiber pellets. That’s when Wolf Ridge began working with Easy Heat Pellet Company, which is also a wooden pallet producer located in Hugo, Minnesota.

“We learned that their wood pallets are repaired an average of five times before their end of life. Before they would just throw old pallets in the landfill. But we said, “If you build 100% waste stream pellets from those pallets, we will buy hundreds of tons every year.’”

According to Smerud, with the new waste stream fiber source secured, the transition was a piece of cake. 

“I gotta be a little candid here, the guys running the center’s heating plant don't really notice a difference. The difference is that we know we are no longer cutting down trees in the forest. We are also diverting wood fiber from the landfill. So it helps the circular economy, it diminishes our carbon footprint, and it really doesn't change the economics or the business operations at all.”

Thank you Mr. Plumber

Not only does the waste fiber system heat Wolf Ridge’s building and domestic hot water, it also stokes curiosity in the minds of the center’s thousands of young tenants, primarily middle schoolers, who visit the center each year.

“Kids go down to the heating plant in our Renewable Energy class, they see the boilers and they get a handful of pellets in their hand,” says Smerud. “We explain that a handful of pellets may be 10 minutes of heat in your building or what it takes to create your hot shower. We’ll use it to teach about the carbon cycle, carbon neutrality, and energy conservation.”

While pursuing the Living Building Certification, in addition to upgrades to heating operations, Wolf Ridge’s facility underwent extensive renovations. Instead of taking a hiatus, Wolf Ridge saw a learning opportunity.


“Everyday we had children on the construction site wearing hardhats, safety vests and safety glasses. Our students were regularly engaging with trade partners such as concrete workers, electricians, and plumbers. The students would tour the job site, learn to pound a nail, run a bead of caulk, or construct a mock high performance wall section,” recalls Smerud. “At the end, the kids would often yell, ‘Thank you, Mr. Plumber for what you’re doing for the environment!’ Plumbers and these trades people aren't used to that, and they loved it.”

Smerud says one of the coolest things about the renovations was the opportunity for kids to see local trades people from places like Ely, Grand Rapids, and Duluth, performing the highest level of sustainability work in the world.

“These kids and this work are the future of sustainability, proof that we are collectively achieving the outcomes we need.”

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