Maya Ish-Shalom

What if every single act of design and construction made the world a better place? This is the question posited by the Living Building Challenge, a green architecture standard created by the International Living Future Institute in 2006. It’s a “philosophy, certification, and advocacy tool for projects to move beyond merely less bad and to become truly regenerative,” according to the program’s mission statement.

Given that our planet houses 7 billion people and counting, and the consequences of rising global temperatures are becoming more and more dire, moving beyond “merely less bad” is crucial. The ILFI’s vision is one for an overhaul of building, infrastructure, and community design—a reestablishment of ourselves “as not separate from, but part of nature, because the living environment is what really sustains us.”

Recognizing that 40% of the carbon emissions in the United States can be attributed to the built environment, in 2019, AIA set forth a goal of net-zero emissions in the U.S. building sector by 2050—with incremental goals for net-zero carbon energy use and 50% less embodied carbon by 2050. In light of these aims, high-performance standards like the Living Building Challenge won’t be aspirational in the coming decades—they will be the new norm.

“We’re just getting clearer and clearer data that what we’ve been doing hasn’t been taking us in the right direction, and that not only do we need to do better from project to project, but we need to start reversing past behavior,” says Laura Lesniewski, AIA, principal at BNIM, who has worked on two Living Building projects. “It’s going to take really aggressive action to steer the ship in the right way.”

Lesniewski’s colleague Steve McDowell, FAIA, who collaborated with her on the LEED Platinum and Living Building Challenge–certified Omega Center for Sustainable Living in Rhinebeck, N.Y., and has independently worked on two additional LBC projects, adds: “As licensed architects, the thing that we’re licensed to do is look after the public good and design buildings, and I think that the Living Building Challenge is a great strategy for achieving better ways of doing those things.”

Dividing and conquering

The Living Building Challenge consists of seven performance categories, or Petals: place, water, energy, health + happiness, materials, equity, and beauty. Each Petal encompasses several imperatives within, for a total of 20. In order to assess which of these apply to a specific project, a team must identify which Living Building Challenge typology their project fits into: new building, existing building, interior, or landscape/infrastructure.

There are three different paths to certification—Living Building Certification (full certification, where projects have achieved all the imperatives applicable to their typology), Petal Certification (awarded for completing at least three complete Petals), and Zero Energy Certification. It’s also important to note that Living Building Challenge compliance is based on actual, rather than modeled, performance, and projects are audited after 12 months of occupancy.

Kathy Wardle, director of sustainability and associate principal at Perkins and Will, worked on the VanDusen Botanical Garden Visitor Centre in Vancouver. The structure received both LEED Platinum and Living Building Challenge Petal Certification, and Wardle notes that for this reason, architects eyeing Living Building Challenge certification for the first time should have a clear understanding of their occupancy load early on.

In the case of the visitor center—an apt fit for the Living Building Challenge, which is based on the metaphor of a flower—one of the project’s main goals was to reinvigorate the botanical garden, located in the heart of the city. Succeeding at this goal many times over—visitorship has roughly tripled since the opening of the visitor center—meant that the garden’s technology wasn’t designed for such a high capacity. A commercial-grade caterer ended up moving into the café and running a large dishwasher many more times during the day than the solar hot-water system could accommodate. This unforeseen challenge, among others (again, all positive with regards to a high number of visitors), meant that the project—despite design intentions around net-zero water and net-zero energy—did not receive the water or energy petals. Wardle advises anyone interested in the Living Building Challenge to work hard with their clients to understand who the occupants and tenants are going to be, and in turn, make sure that the project goals are realistic from the outset.

Collaboration is really at the heart of any Living Building Challenge success story. Both Wardle and Stephanie Lan, AIA, a senior associate and technical director at Gensler who worked on the Petal Certified Etsy Headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y., the winner of an AIA 2020 COTE Top Ten Award, state the importance of getting everyone on board from the onset. “A really transformational piece was the partnerships with the client and the platform we had,” Lan says of Etsy. “The ability to talk to contractors, consultants, and manufacturers and to educate them on LBC [was important], yes, but the significance of thinking about things differently and in a more aspirational way that would have greater impact across the industry—that was probably the largest takeaway for me.”

She advises architects to break down Living Building Challenge standards in terms of how they will impact the client: “Their schedule, their budget, their operations. You have to really put yourself in the client’s shoes and think, ‘If I were them, this is what I’d want to know.’ ”

Lesniewski echoes the sentiment, noting the team for the Omega Center for Sustainable Living (the first project in the world to achieve both Living Building status and LEED Platinum) was enthusiastic about Living Building Challenge but if that isn’t going to be the case, it’s crucial for the architects to understand from the get-go. “If they’re not on board, it turns into a different conversation,” she says. “We’re still constantly pushing for certain systems, strategies, or innovations to happen if [the client doesn’t] buy into LBC, but it matters so much early on in the project to know where the client lands in their thinking.”

Applying the principles at every scale

For the Etsy project, Lan and her team quickly learned that the energy Petal wasn’t in the cards because working in an existing building rendered any changes to wall insulation or structural support systems impossible. New York City’s infrastructure also took the water Petal off the table. Knowing these facts, Lan and the team doubled down on the materials Petal.

“The interesting thing about Etsy was they wanted a lot of the furniture to be local and handmade; they had a really strong conviction that they wanted to be a positive influence on the local economy,” she says, noting that the team then collaborated with the makers to help reach the goal of getting the 38 necessary Declare labels to attain the materials Petal—a standard that asks about materials, “Where does it come from? What is it made of? Where does it go at the end of its life?” Additional avenues like reclaiming and repurposing wood from the water towers formerly atop the building also helped reach this goal.

Wardle achieved the materials Petal at the VanDusen Botanical Garden Visitor Centre, and she highlights the ILFI’s Materials Red List—which identifies worst-in-class materials prevalent in the building industry—as a huge dial-mover for green design. “The introduction of the Red List, at the time—12 or 13 years ago—that was transformative,” she says. “It called upon manufacturers to actually disclose [material properties], and it just makes design professionals so much more aware of what they’re putting into interior and exterior environments. That growth in awareness around healthy materials has been a hugely positive shift resulting from the Living Building Challenge.” Collaboration, again, deserves ample credit, as Wardle says they had a list of about 278 products that had to be vetted—an achievement only made possible by a highly cooperative relationship with the contractor, who had someone on-site full-time to scrutinize all materials.

The ILFI says that the Imperatives can be applied to almost every conceivable building project, both new and existing, in any location, and at any scale. However, the 198,635-square-foot Etsy Headquarters is the largest Petal Certified building to date, and some architects cite scalability as one of the challenge’s biggest hurdles. “It’s much easier for small buildings than for larger structures, which has to do with capacity of the site to deal with energy generation. It also has to do with water,” McDowell says. “So on one level, it’s more suited to small boutique projects, and less suited to projects and specific users like, say, investment office building, or in some cases, maybe a campus building that you might be designing for a long life where the population density in the building may change, meaning the energy requirements will change.” The Living Building Challenge does include a “Scale Jumping” overlay that allows multiple buildings or projects to operate “in a cooperative state” by sharing green infrastructure, depending on technology and operating costs.

The Living Building Challenge is iterative, and currently in version 4.0. ILFI staff monitor changes in the field and market and make adjustments as needed. As their website notes, they “also strive to keep raising the bar as we learn together, moving our projects closer still to the goal of a regenerative living future.” The Institute collects feedback from a diverse group of stakeholders in order to understand how to refine the program to ensure it is having the greatest possible impact.

Wardle wondered if future updates might result from the current COVID-19 crisis—pondering changes in inspection control, particularly in hospitals and other health care facilities. Jason F. McLennan, founder of ILFI, says that with regards to the pandemic, he believes there may be a tendency to overstate architecture’s role.

“As architects, we need to accept that design alone cannot solve all problems,” he says, stating that he believes that solving a problem like a pandemic requires social, political, and economic change.

Current crisis notwithstanding, each architect we spoke to for this article is in agreement that the Living Building Challenge sets the standard for where design needs to go—beyond the bare minimum of building codes in various jurisdictions. “With the Living Building Challenge, it’s going to be a little bit outside of the box, it’s going to be a little bit uncomfortable, and you’re going to get resistance,” Lan says. “But you’re never going to achieve anything great [without] hurdles.”

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