Discover how you can green your life by building a knowledge base of current sustainable and eco-savvy trends. This series will delve into hot topics, current standards and practices, ways to design better spaces and specify materials that benefit not only us, as consumers, but the world as a whole. Members of CaraGreen, a sustainable materials distributor, and other industry leaders weigh in throughout the series. This is Build Green live Green.
In this episode, we'll cover the Living Building Challenge. What it is, how it is implemented, and why it is the next step in building design. We are here today with Jessica McNaughton and Kim Loftis of CaraGreen, our show's producer at sustainability think-tank.
JESSICA: Hi, this is Jessica.
KIM: And this is Kim.
JESSICA: We're here with our podcast Build Green Live Green and today we are talking about the Living Building Challenge. The Living Building Challenge is, I consider it kind of utopian standard for buildings. You’ve got lead, LEED, you've got WELL, which just means well. But those building standards they're great. LEED really focuses on the performance of the building. WELL really focuses on the health of the occupants. If you bring those two together you end up with something that looks a lot like the Living Building Challenge. So, the way the Living Building Challenge is constructed is in, you know, its unlike credit categories where you have to you know get individual credits, the Living Building Challenge is kind of structured more around the concept of a flower, right?
KIM: Yeah, yeah, so, it said it really differently a lot of the standards that were used to, they have credit categories and then within that there's credits that you can achieve. So, it's a point-based system. With the Living Building Challenge, like you said, they use the flower as their metaphor. Which is basically looking at the flower and its function and its beauty as inspiration for the built environment. So, they call their, what we would usually consider a credit category, they call them petals and then within those petals there are imperatives. And there's 20 imperatives throughout the whole rating system and they all must be achieved to get credit.
JESSICA: Okay, so, to kind of frame that in terms of other building standards, usually you choose which standards you're going to try to pursue and you're going to get this list of credits and say you can kind of cherry-pick these credits I'm going to get, and if I get 70 credits, I achieve silver or 80, I get gold. This is different in that the Living Building Challenge says these 20 imperatives are things that you must do. So, you have to achieve every one of these. So what building types does this apply to?
KIM: Well, LBC basically says if you can imagine it you can achieve it. They want you to be really open-minded in what you can go for here. So pretty much all project types are something that they want people to try to pursue. They've seen all different type of building types from new construction, single or multi-family residential, institutional like government and education buildings as well.
JESSICA: Okay, so, this utopian standard, which is great, it can apply at the level of Kim's house, you know, all the way up to you know some hospital complex, a community as well. So, one of the interesting examples that I saw was actually an outdoor park that achieved the Living Building Challenge.
KIM: Oh neat.
JESSICA: Yeah, so, it's not just traditional roof and wall buildings. It could actually be an outdoor structure as well. Another important thing about the Living Building Challenge, and this dovetails really nicely with CaraGreen, our “create better” campaign, is that you're not constrained to conventional building techniques. People think building to a standard means you're going to have a standard building. But that's not what Living Building Challenge is about. A big underpinning of the standard is beauty and they want the building to be beautiful inside and out and that does not mean expensive things, that can be shapes and different features. But the purpose is to be symbiotic with nature. So, one of the things that we always say is that beauty does not have to be a compromise. Building and beauty don't have to be kind of perpendicular to each other. They can work together, and the Living Building Challenge really recognizes that.
KIM: Another thing that they really recognized is giving back. So, we'll talk about it when we get into some of the petals and definitely when we get into some of the imperatives, that giving back is really important. So, giving back energy, net-positive water, and net-positive energy.
JESSICA: Okay. So, to back up a little bit, I think it's important to know that the organization behind the Living Building Challenge is the International Living Future Institute and their website, which is ilfi.org, has some really great case studies of buildings that have achieved the Living Building Challenge. The reason they call it a challenge is because they want it to be hard. It’s not supposed to be something that everyone can achieve day one. It’s the utopian standard and there are so many pieces within it that any of our listeners can go reference the Living Building Challenge and pull out a little nugget or two or certain things that, you know, they want to achieve. It’s not, you know, it doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing thing. Think of it as the highest bar has been set and instead of buildings just taking resources from the planet, using energy, using water, they're actually giving back.
KIM: Looking at those case studies is really fun, as well, because it's very inspiring and every project is very different, in my opinion, and you can look at them and look at the different ways they achieved different petals and really be inspired by those projects. And that's one thing about the Living Building Challenge as well, they want you to think about this challenge and this rating system from the outset of designing your project. So, going there for inspiration is a fun thing to do.
JESSICA: The projects are approached by a team holistically and they really look at the building or the park or the community, whatever you're building, they look at it like a flower. So, if you go back and listen to our podcast on biomimicry, we talked a lot about how the ideal is to represent a closed-loop ecosystem. Something that grows, flourishes, dies, feeds itself, grows, flourishes, dies, feeds itself and that's, basically a rainforest does that. Desert ecosystems do that, prairies do that. And the simplest example of that is a flower and that's what the Living Building Challenge did and that's why they are categories are called petals, and there's seven of them that make up the challenge. Before we get into the petals, and the imperatives within each petal in the Living Building Challenge, there's an all types of terminology that people should know are in the standard that represents certain things. Typology refers to the type of building that it is. Is it a renovation, is it a new building, things like that. Transects is another word, and transects are the area, the type of land that you're building on. It could be, you know, a gray-field or it could be an urban core in the center of a city. But those are two different terms that are used within here. Alright, so, why don't we get into the petals and the imperatives underneath the petals. So, picture the standard like flower with seven petals and within each petal there are a set of imperatives.
KIM: So, the first petal is place and there's four imperatives within that petal. The first imperative is limiting your growth. So that basically means developing your site on a grey- or brown-field. So, you're not using an undeveloped site.
JESSICA: And to be clear a grey- or brown-field means it's a site that's been built on before, basically, or used before or contaminated.
KIM: Yes, and the next imperative is urban agriculture. So, this is an area on your site that is dedicated to providing some sort of garden or growth. Imperative three is habitat exchange. So, this is for every amount of space that you take up on your site, that you're replacing that elsewhere by creating some sort of preserved habitat. Imperative four is human-powered living. So, this is the idea of pedestrian above automobile. So, you're giving pedestrians, kind of, the upper hand here. You’re making it easier for them to get around, making it easier for them to access the building, like providing paths or covered bike storage for those that want to ride their bike to work and things like encouraging the use of stairs over elevators.
JESSICA: Okay, so, the first petal, place, is really location, right. Location and making it easy for people to get around, kind of like site in the LEED standard. So, some really good examples of some of the imperatives in place that I've seen in the case studies are at the Hood River Middle School in Hood River, Oregon. It’s a music and science school and for the urban agriculture they have a garden on site, where the artists at the school have these beautiful sculptures and then the science students are growing the plants and they're all kind of working together in this community garden, so, they've set aside space to do that. So, it's a really, really neat example of that and you'll see in a lot of the case studies that gardens and native plants are really important, and they're used in virtually every case study that I've read about and they've done their best to achieve that.
KIM: It's really exciting to see schools doing that sort of thing, because not only are the project teams providing spaces and learning from the process, but then they're creating these beautiful environments for kids to learn the same thing.
JESSICA: Yeah, and it drives me crazy. I mean I go to my kid’s school and there's all this open space outside. There's nothing on it except a slide with a, you know, a broken piece sticking out of it or something like that, and I really think all this land that could be used for gardening and teaching them. And the schools are trying to get better about that, but it's going to take things like the Living Building Challenge to make those things happen. The other example I was going to give you from place was habitat exchange. Google, they did an office renovation in Chicago, and they wanted to the habitat exchange somewhere close enough that their employees, on volunteer work days, which they have, could go to the land that they had done the habitat exchange for to volunteer there. So, they found a land trust within driving distance from the campus, so on volunteer days that the employees can go there.
KIM: I love that. Alright, so, let's get into the second petal. This one is water. So, the idea behind this petal is making sure that people understand that water is a precious resource. So, the imperative here is net-positive water. So, you'll hear that a couple of times in our explanation here, so, net-positive means that you're giving back. So, 100 percent of your water must be supplied and captured rainfall on your site and anything that's being treated on site must be purified without chemicals.
JESSICA: Yeah, there's only one imperative under water and because water and energy are so straightforward. You know that the challenge with water is treating all of that water without the use of chemicals. It is not an easy thing to do. But a great example of a building that was, that did great things for the water petal was the University Child Care in Barnaby British Columbia near Vancouver. Because people wonder how am I going to get water that I can use right? How do I treat my solid waste?
KIM: And 100 percent of it.
JESSICA: And 100 percent of it, and so, they did this, they have this great system with bio-reactors, which use organisms to break down contaminants and things like that, and UV light, which does a similar thing to kind of clean up the water. They used those two things together to close-loop all the water on the site. Now they still had to get potable water from off-site. Because the municipality requires it. So that's where Living Building Challenge has a challenge. A lot of things need to change to make this easy and if there's a regulation that says you can't use on-site treated water, you have to use municipal water.
KIM: For drinking water.
JESSICA: For drinking water. That is a challenge that you run into here.
KIM: Yeah. Okay, great, that was a good example thank you. So, petal three is energy. This is another one that only has one imperative, and this is creating net-positive energy. So, the same as our previous petal for water, creating more energy than you need. So, create 105% of your energy supplied on-site and this is all from renewable resources forms of energy that are not going to create any sort of pollution.
JESSICA: This is things like PV arrays on the top of a building, photovoltaic arrays, solar arrays, solar recapture is another thing, wind energy. What I see a lot of is the photovoltaics, but one of the most interesting ones I saw was one that was designed where the array was not put on top of the building, where most people put it. They wanted the building to be in the shade for cooling and the array was off to the side. It was used as a structure for learning, education, creating community in that, you know, meeting place.
KIM: That's really smart and, again, that's why I like learning about these case studies. Because people do things that you don't normally think about.
JESSICA: Right, and that's what I like about the Living Building Challenge, is they're challenging you to come up with solutions. They’re not laying this out for you and saying, “you have to use this, you have to use this.” They are forcing you to go to the drawing board and come up with these solutions themselves and honestly the case studies are a collection of solutions that other people have made, have come to the conclusion of. They’ve created solutions. So, every time a new case study goes up it gets a little bit easier for the next person to achieve the Living Building Challenge.
KIM: I think it inherently makes your building beautiful when you have to be that creative to figure out how to achieve these things. Alright, so moving on to petal four this is health and happiness. There are three imperatives inside this petal and this is basically to optimize your physical and psychological health inside your building. So, this is a little bit more people-focused for this petal.
JESSICA: Which is right in line with our podcasts on biophilic design.
KIM: And that's actually one of the imperatives inside this petal, is biophilic design. We also have creating a healthy interior environment. So, things like no smoking, which is kind of an obvious thing these days. Limiting your VOC, which is volatile organic compounds. So, paints with no-VOC. We just painted our office and we made sure that they use no-VOC paints, which was really important to us and it looks really good. We are not compromising beauty. So, things like that just to keep your interior environment healthy and then creating a civilized environment.
JESSICA: That’s not going to happen in our office, sorry. You get paint, you aren’t going to get civilization.
KIM: Haha right. This one maybe sounds a little elusive, but basically, what this means is creating a comfortable environment. So, creating an environment that has nice day lighting, operable windows so you can control your environment and just be a little bit more connected to nature through those things as well.
JESSICA: Right, so when Sandy has a hot flash.
KIM: She can turn her fan on.
JESSICA: Yeah. So, biophilic environment, given the podcast that we did on that, that really dove into those 14 different patterns. It was really interesting reading about Google's Living Building Challenge. At the Chicago office, they actually incorporated all 14 patterns. So, they created curved walls to create that sense of mystery. They had the natural forms all throughout. Incorporated a, sort of like a marquee staircase. So, a lot of buildings are making the staircase the center of the room. So, this building I believe it was 12 floors. But they felt very disconnected. So, they built this staircase in the middle where it's had a landing at every floor. Where people could aggregate, and it provided a way to connect all of those floors
KIM: So smart and I think that's a feature where you're probably incorporating a lot of those different patterns all in one feature. So, it's a really smart way to do that.
JESSICA: So, that's great. It’s great to see the word health and happiness be together.
KIM: As part of a building standard.
JESSICA: As part of a building standard.
KIM: We've come a long way. All right so petal five is for materials. So, this is supporting materials that are non-toxic, that are restorative. So that word is kind of interesting to see in a building standard as well. So, products that are going to give back or not take away from the environment and then also products that are transparent. So, we've learned a little bit about that.
JESSICA: You mean that you can see through.
KIM: Not exactly. So, transparency in this sense means information. So, knowing more about the product. Transparency through different certifications or different-
JESSICA: Like an HPD. Like a Health Product Declaration. An Environmental Product Declaration. I think for materials that's kind of important to say, “this is what's in it,” you know, that's what they're looking for and I will tell you that some of the challenges that these companies have had trying to get the information from the manufacturers, it's a huge challenge.
KIM: It's very hard.
JESSICA: And if any manufacturers of products are listening, you should really think about starting to be more transparent with your customers. Because people are going to start asking. In fact, you know, Google was very adamant about not using materials that didn't completely disclose and they actually requested that those materials do disclose as part of the process.
KIM: And Perkins and Will architecture firm, they are very stringent about what they let in their library. So, we're seeing that on the A&D side (architects and designers) as well, where they're requiring that the products that come into their library are more transparent. Within the materials petal there are five imperatives. The first one is Red Lists. So, this is nothing in the material can contain a Red List item. So, this is actually something that the Living Building Challenge created was this Red List. So, its things like PCB's and PVC cannot be in your products.
JESSICA: Right, and just to clarify for people listening that may not know what those are- those are chemicals like, PVC is polyvinyl chloride. You know about PVC pipes and all that stuff. But PVC is actually on the Red List. So, it's a bad chemical and there are a lot of these bad chemicals in our furnishings, in our walls, in our composite materials. So, the number of chemicals on the Red List are things that are known carcinogens or toxins.
KIM: And this goes back to the imperative that we've already talked about where you're creating a healthy interior environment.
JESSICA: Right, you don't want material which has volatile organic compounds, which are VOC's. Which basically is that they smell and they off-gas. So, this kind of takes this step further in limiting what ingredients can be in your building materials.
KIM: Right. The next imperative is embodied carbon. So, this is offsetting your carbon. You can do this by purchasing a credit to offset your construction process.
JESSICA: So, you look at the whole construction process and you say, “here's how many tons of carbon dioxide this whole process created,” that includes the building materials, the transportation to get them there, the construction, the demolition of any temporary structures and whatever that number was you go to a third-party service who, kind of, aggregates these carbon credits and you buy an equivalent amount of carbon offsets that are going to, you know, basically, so you end up neutral in the transaction.
KIM: The next imperative is responsible industry. This is things like FSC and NSC. FSC is Forest Stewardship Council, NSC is Natural Stone Council, and then you must have a Declare label for every five hundred square meters of building space that you construct.
JESSICA: So, we didn't really talk about Declare labels. But that was also kind of like the Red List. Declare label was created as part of the Living Building Challenge. So, it's one of the nice things about the standard- as they've run into areas and identified a need, they realized there's a need for a label to be on building products. So, you can quickly look at it and know what criteria it meets. So, they created this Declare label and we're having a lot more people start asking for that and we're seeing a lot more products come to market that have a Declare label.
KIM: So, Declare label isn't something specific to the Living Building Challenge. Even if you're going for a LEED building or even if you're not going for any sort of rating, you can still have Declare labels on your products.
JESSICA: Right, it was created as part of this process. But it's since become an independent thing as well as being integrated into the standard. The other thing I would mention is FSC, Forest Stewardship Council, for our listeners who may not be familiar with this, for building products that really means wood and wood based building products should have FSC certification, which is an auditing body that comes in and makes sure that, you know, you're responsibly harvesting trees, responsibly harvesting wood and that you're not clear cutting and burning down villages or anything. And then the Natural Stone Council- that's an interesting one we talked about, you know. Yes, natural stone and mining is not really a sustainable practice. They’re trying to put some requirements around it. But it's really tough. If you're going to build a Living Building, you should probably look to more sustainable surfacing options. One interesting example I saw in the responsible industry was where one of the buildings, they had sourced all their FSC material, but they couldn't find a millworker that could handle the volume that had chain-of-custody and that's an interesting thing from the FSC standpoint is everyone in the process has to be honoring the intent of FSC. You can't just buy FSC material and then throw 80% of it away or mix it with non FSC material. So, it's very stringent requirements about how you manage that sustainably harvested wood. So, the company went and worked with the millworker to get them chain-of-custody so that they could do all of the FSC work for the project? It’s another example of how this is evolving and there are going to be walls that you run into and you've got to find a solution for them. It reminds me of those- what are those races that Alyssa does?
KIM: The Spartan race.
JESSICA: The Spartan races where you have all these obstacles and you got to figure them out. That’s what the Living Building Challenge feels like. It feels like a challenge. The other imperative in the materials section is the living economy sourcing, which we usually refer to as local materials and basically what they're saying is try to buy as many materials as close as you can. So, within 500 kilometers you have to source 20% of your materials. The next 30% can be within a thousand kilometers and the next 25% can be within 5,000 kilometers. You’re allowed to get 25% from anywhere. But again, this will present the challenge for people that maybe don't have a steel plant to near them or a gypsum plant near them. Unfortunately, those are pretty ubiquitous industries where there's a lot of locations.
KIM: This requires a lot of planning.
JESSICA: It does, yeah.
KIM: So, the next imperative is net-positive waste. This is keeping your waste down during construction. So again, like a lot of the imperatives, something that you need to think about from the outset, not something that you need to do as the project is going along. So, reducing your overall waste. And now we're at petal 6, which is equity. So, this one is kind of an interesting one. We actually talked about a little bit before we started the podcast today. Basically, what they're trying to get across here is doing less harm, giving back to the community, giving back to the ecology that you live around or that your project is around and change how all the players think. We’ve mentioned this a few times, but you have to really have everybody involved and the way I look at this one as well is it's not just about the players that are involved in creating and building the building, but it's about the occupants after the fact as well and how they interact with the space and maybe how their lifestyle changes as a result of that. So, that leads us right into our first imperative under this petal for equity, which is human scale and humane places. So, this is designing for the human scale. Designing towards individuals, not for cars and promoting gathering places. The next imperative is universal access to nature in space. So universal meaning accessibility, ADA access to those paths and nature spaces, fresh air, sunlight. The next imperative is equitable investment. So, for every dollar that you spend on your project half a cent must be donated to a charitable organization and then the last imperative in this petal is JUST. Which, Jessica I think you want to explain this one and how it’s kind of something that developed out of this standard as well.
JESSICA: Right, so we talked about how Red List became a document out of the Living Building Challenge and also the Declare label did. They also came out with a JUST label, which is a requirement for the project, it's the imperative that says that one of the participants, whether it's the architect firm, the contractor, the engineer, one of the firms should have a JUST label for their organization and the JUST label means that they're very transparent in how they treat their employees and they you know share documentation. They talk about business operations and things like that with the employees. So, it’s a just and fair organization which is what the just label covers.
KIM: I like to see that for companies, as well as materials, like we talked about. Alright so that leads us into our last petal, which is beauty, which we've talked about a couple of times in reference to flowers. So, this is the need to recognize beauty as an important thing as well, not just all of the systems in your buildings. Serving a greater good and building responsibility as well. So, as I was reading this standard and thinking about this one, it made me think of my own house and I have a three-year-old daughter and she walks in and takes her shoes off and just throws them on the floor or takes her jacket off and just throws it on the floor and it creates a mess. But I also want to her can pick it up so that she is respecting her things. So, I think that this is kind of doing that as well. You’re creating a beautiful space so that people learn and respect about it.
JESSICA: I agree, and I think we've actually done that as well in her own offices, where, you know, we've incorporated a lot of biophilic design so that we can use it to teach, and that's the intent of this petal, is taking all of that good work that you've done in building this building and turning it into a teaching experience for people that come and visit. So, you know, I think in our own office you know we've incorporated a lot of water colors, we've incorporated a lot of greenery for grass, we've incorporated acoustic clouds out of EchoPanel that really create a sense of depth while offering human comfort by incorporating acoustic control. Beautiful tables, you know, our Lapitec tables, our PaperStone tables are warm, people are always touching them, engaging with them. So, I think we've done a lot of really good work. The Koskisen cabinetry with the natural wood veining, or grain.
KIM: I’m really excited about those.
JESSICA: But I think if you're going to do that work, you should be able to create a learning experience for the people that are coming through that space and that is really what the Living Building Challenge wants you to do, is kind of to pass it on.
KIM: Yeah and they want to make it easy, too. So, the first imperative is beauty and spirit. So, this is things like integrating public art. So, really making people a part of their place and kind of understanding some of the pieces that are there.
JESSICA: Yeah, in most of the case studies, you'll see they have open times where there's viewings and tours are given on a regular basis or they host events there, so that there are opportunities there for collaboration. But that really is a requirement, is they want the buildings open, so people can learn from them.
KIM: So, what you're explaining here is actually our last imperative number 20, inspiration and education. So, this is making your space easily accessible, doing those tours and things like that, so that you're educating the occupants of the space, but also the community.
JESSICA: Okay so we've gone through all seven petals; place, water, energy, health and happiness, materials, equity and beauty. So now you've got this flower with seven petals on it. You can kind of picture those. Inside of each of those petals are a set number of imperatives, there's 20 altogether and to achieve a Living Building, you must meet all 20. But we said this was a utopian standard. This is not all or nothing. So, the way the Living Building Challenge has been set up is there are different levels of certification that you can achieve. So, to achieve Living Certification, you have to meet all twenty imperatives across the seven petals. To get Petal Certification you need to meet the imperatives across just three petals and one of them must be water, energy or materials. There is something called Imperative Certification. It’s achievable, but no one's done it. It’s sort of, it's not enough, kind of. So, there's not a lot of that. but there's also Net Zero Energy Buildings and that's also a kind of badge that you can put on your building if you meet net zero according to the Living Building Challenge, you can label yourself a Net Zero Energy Building.
KIM: Perfect. So, we're really excited about this because it's that utopian idea, but like Jessica said, you can kind of take some of these things that you're learning from hearing the imperatives and apply them to your everyday life unto the next building project that you're going to do as well. So, there's actually 380 total registered projects and then within that it's broken down into the different certifications that Jessica mentioned.
JESSICA: Right. There’s 380 that are registered, but only 73 of those are certified, the rest are in process. 15 of them have full Living certification, 25 have Petal and then 33 are Net Zero. It’s really interesting to go on to the living future Institute website and we'll include a link on our website at www.caragreen.com as well. But the case studies are really inspiring. So, my favorite one that I read about was Etsy’s headquarters in Brooklyn, New York. They renovated a building in the Dumbo district, which is down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass. They renovated this warehouse. I think the building was from the 1920's and they did some really neat stuff with daylighting. They actually have what they call an “Eatsy Cafe.” So, it's all- there's a CSA, like a crop share agreement, with some local farmers and stuff. They have a farmer’s market that starts in May. You know it's a regular scheduled time every day where some of the produce they make is available at this market. They also have, what they call, “CafterNoons.”
KIM: I want to go to that.
JESSICA: I know! Next time we are at IceStone in Brooklyn we’ll have to go to an Etsy CrafterNoon. The thing I really liked about Etsy's adoption of this was they really included their employees as part of it and they're such a unique, handmade-part business that they really incorporated that. They took the Living Building Challenge and they brought that sense of community and individual and a lot of their furniture is handmade or locally made and things like that. So, they really took what Etsy is as a platform, married it with Living Building Challenge and created a really outstanding building in Brooklyn.
KIM: I think they did a good job with the beauty imperative as well. Because they were able to use so many local artists to create that public art kind of aspect and that culture to their project as well. So, they did a really good job incorporating that.
JESSICA: So, I think to summarize the Living Building Challenge, it is a very utopian, we've said it several times. But it's meant to be you know the highest standard in building for the future. Go get inspired by looking at their case studies, and as I mentioned it'll be on our website at www.caragreen.com, put it on our podcast page along with the link to this podcast. The nice thing for me in looking at the Living Building Challenge is their schools. I have kids, I want my schools to be living buildings. That is important to me. I want offices to get closer to giving back to their employees, that's really important to me as an individual. I want people to choose our materials and build with them. That’s important to me as a business person. But my point is this is not just offices. This is not just the environmental institute. There’s buildings in Beijing, there's buildings in Canada, there's buildings in New Zealand, there's Living Buildings in every continent in the world. So, this is not a one-trick pony, one-off thing.
KIM: Yeah, it's a very high standard.
JESSICA: But people are doing it and as they do more and more, they're paving the way, they're making it easier, they are the pipe cleaners and, you know, it really challenges people to come up with solutions and, you know, we love a good challenge.
KIM: We sure do. Thanks for listening. This is Build Green Live Green.
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