Great efforts have been made to infuse the building market with sustainable design best practices—through the introduction of the LEED rating system more than a decade ago and the adoption of green building regulations and codes at the level of local governments. These efforts are steering the industry in the right direction, but we need greater leaps to change the direction of environmental degradation. We must begin to think more holistically about our design approach, to question how our designs will not only result in healthy buildings for occupants and users, but also how we might begin to restore and regenerate the surrounding environment. This is no easy task, but we must challenge current practices and move forward with innovative and alternative solutions.
The Living Building Challenge, administered by the International Living Building Institute (ilbi.org), is one tool that is igniting this conversation within design teams worldwide. Through 20 imperatives, the Living Building Challenge inspires project teams to examine ways to generate energy on-site through the use of renewable resources, to capture and treat water, use non-toxic materials, operate efficiently, and to encourage learning through design.
Within our practice at Busby Perkins+Will, the Living Building Challenge is elevating the discussion among design teams, consultants, and clients, and presents new obstacles and discoveries on a daily basis for two projects currently under construction: the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) at the University of British Columbia and VanDusen Botanical Garden's new visitor center, both located in Vancouver, British Columbia. Each project has overcome significant issues related to meeting the Challenge and, in turn, has restructured the parameters of sustainable building for our firm. One way teams are forging forward is by seeking code variances for potable water standards. Working in conjunction with Vancouvery Coastal Health to provide documentation for alternative materials, the CIRS design team was successful in obtaining a code variance that enabled the design of a rainwater collection system that will treat all water to potable water standards. This enables the project to satisfy all of its water needs on-site.
The most notable difficulty facing both projects teams is the materials imperative, which mandates the elimination of "RedList" materials such as PVC, cadmium, mercury, and halogenated fire retardants, which are found in many commonly specified products and material finishes. Products that have been standard for decades now are being highly scrutinized for the substances that are embedded within them. In a complete overhaul of our specifications, the teams have examined each division of a project's master specification and questioned what each product is made of. Through this process, tough issues of durability, toxicity, maintenance, replacement rate, and cost are being weighed against one other. For example, the use of a cadmium-electroplating process for exterior metal components presents a hurdle since cadmium poses a health concern during the manufacturing process and, when exposed to the elements, can leach into the environment. The development of durable, cost-effective alternatives to cadmium electroplating currently is lagging behing the new imperatives of the Living Building Challenge.**
We are at a more progressive juncture in the green building market than we were 12 years ago when LEED came into the marketplace. At that point, there was only one manufacturer that produced MDF without added urea-formaldehyde. Now multiple products without added urea-formaldehyde are available. Today, with more design firms aspiring to meet new rating systems such as the Living Building Challenge, the need has arisen once again for product manufacturers to examine how they can create building materials with less-harmful substances. Similarly, regulatory bodies are amending codes to reflect increasingly deeper and more innovative performance criteria. Industry will shift, but it may take time.
While the Living Building Challenge presents questions not easily answered in all of our projects today, it is inspiring design teams to challenge regulatory authorities. It is also pushing them to explore new products, materials, and systems. The Living Building Challenge is moving the design discussion beyond a philosophy of simply doing less harm and toward a debate that is deeper and richer, one that explores how our buildings can positively impact both surrounding ecosystems and the human experience. Moving forward, design teams must look through a new lens that considers criteria of design excellence and durability with human and ecological systems’ health.
** The original version of this online essay, published on May 27, 2010, misstated that the hot-dipped galvanizing process for exterior metal components employs cadmium in the finishing process. While cadmium does pose a health concern, it is not used during the hot-dipped galvanizing process. Eco-Structure regrets the error.