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Aiming for the Stars

A manifesto in the guise of a standard raises the bar.


By Nadav Malin

LEED has gained enormous influence because the U.S. green building council (USGBC) intentionally set targets that are accessible to the mainstream building industry. That penchant for realism has created frustration with LEED, however, especially among a more activist crowd. These green champions are concerned that, even when LEED buildings perform as advertised—something that we’re learning we can’t take for granted—that performance represents incremental improvements to the status quo, far short of the revolutionary reinvention of buildings that environmental and social imperatives demand.

Aiming for the Stars
Image © Keith Negley
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That frustration inspired Cascadia Chapter CEO Jason McLennan to draft the Living Building Challenge (LBC), an uncompromising checklist for creating buildings for an Ecotopian world. The Living Building Challenge eschews the whole system of optional points and goals based on percent improvement over conventional practice. Instead, it takes an all-or-nothing approach. To make the grade, a project can only be built on previously developed land, use zero-net energy, zero imported potable water, avoid any hazardous materials, and meet a dozen other requirements.

LEED has been accused—or credited, depending on your perspective—of being a Trojan horse—drawing people in with a checklist that looks at first to be straightforward, only to unleash a litany of detailed requirements that are not as simple as they first appeared. LBC takes an opposite approach, coming on with an idealistic vision of buildings that do right by nature in every way, but then introducing compromises in the form of “temporary exceptions” to account for marketplace limitations. Somewhere on a spectrum between LEED Platinum and Living Building status (which has yet to be achieved), the two systems meet.

For the right client, LBC provides a much more compelling vision of sustainability, untainted by the market-savvy compromises of LEED. Designers who have worked with it find that, even if LBC proves too demanding for a project, using it as a framework for discussion raises everyone’s expectations—taking projects that might have targeted LEED Silver up a few notches. “It's amazing when [LEED] Platinum becomes the fallback position,” notes McLennan.

McLennan and his team are already at work on a next generation of the Challenge, extending it more explicitly into the community scale.

Version one, however, is still in transition from its original release as a manifesto into a guideline with enough specifics for designers to engage with it. There is a requirement that projects purchase carbon offsets against the emissions associated with their construction, for example—but the organization has yet to agree on what tools can be used to calculate that carbon footprint. And early projects through the system are finding that the pure, healthy products needed to meet the hazardous compounds requirements are not always available within the radius dictated by the regional materials rule, according to Cascadia Chair Clark Brockman of SERA Architects in Portland, Oregon.

While each individual requirement in the system has been achieved by various projects, no project has yet put them all together to achieve “Living Building” status, and it’s likely to stay that way for a while. In part, that’s because of the inherent delay in a system that requires at least twelve months’ utility bills to prove that the building actually achieves its goals. But it’s also because the vision is, inherently, idealistic. “One thing you can be sure of: if you’re one of the first to try a Living Building, you’ll be one of the first to fail,” taunts Brockman, who is, of course, working on several such projects himself.

For now, the list of exceptions is growing, especially in the materials area. The goal, however, is to phase out these exceptions as the market matures. Once LED lighting becomes a feasible substitute for fluorescent, for example, the exception allowing hazardous mercury in lamps will disappear, according to McLennan.

Cascadia is aware of over 60 projects that claim to be pursuing Living Building status. Not surprisingly, many early LBC candidates are small buildings for clients with a strong environmental mission. Leading the race to achieve this goal is the Omega Institute’s Center for Sustainable Living in Rhinebeck, New York, and Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As these pioneers blaze the trail, they inevitably encounter serious obstacles, especially in the materials arena. McLennan and his team will be forced to decide whether to let them fail, or to keep adding exceptions so they can claim success.

To show that the principles are not pie-in-the-sky, Cascadia commissioned a detailed study estimating the cost premium for achieving Living Building status for nine different building types in four different climates. With typical aplomb, they are using LEED Gold as the baseline for this study—implicitly establishing the expectation that nothing less is acceptable for any building.

A draft of the study shows that for some building types, in markets with strong financial incentives, the premium can be as low as 5 percent, while in others it exceeds 30 percent. At the low end of that spectrum, McLennan claims, the study proves that some institutional owners would be foolhardy not to demand living buildings, given the long-term savings. In creating conceptual designs for all the buildings, the research team found that the requirement that every occupant be within 30 feet of a window was the biggest driver of building form for the nine building types.

Brockman finds that the least measurable requirements—those for beauty and inspiration—are the ones that excite clients the most. That experience speaks for the system’s power. Cascadia’s challenge now is to retain that force as it codifies the manifesto, and extends it out to the community in version two.

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This article appeared in the January 2009 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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