Seattle to the World: Living Building Challenge

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Cascadia Region Green Building Council is redefining what's possible in our built environment

The story:
The Cascadia Region Green Building Council's Living Building Challenge (LBC) is helping to clear the way for the most innovative building solutions to start moving from concept to reality in cities around the world. By raising the bar for sustainable building higher than we've ever built before – and higher than our municipal governments are currently prepared for – the LBC is helping to show what can truly be accomplished with sustainable building design, and how to break down the barriers standing in our way.

The concept of Living Buildings, originally authored by CRGBC CEO Jason McLennan in the 1990s (when he was with Kansas City's BNIM), addresses six performance areas or petals: site, energy, materials, water, indoor quality, and beauty and inspiration, with a goal of achieving a "net zero" impact on the energy grid, water systems and natural environment. CRGBC, a regional group with offices in Seattle, Portland, Anchorage and Vancouver, BC, unveiled the Living Building Challenge at the Greenbuild International Conference in November 2006.

The Living Building Challenge (LBC) is different from other green building certifications (such as the United States Green Building Council's LEED), says Portland-based CRGBC Research Director Eden Brukman. "Other standards talk about incrementally improving baseline energy standards, and you can earn points for doing a percentage better than the standard. With the LBC, it's not that we want to be better than code, it's that we want to be net zero."

There's also another big difference: Because net-zero-impact design is still a largely untested concept, the CRGBC won't award credit for projects that only exist on paper. Each completed project must be monitored for one year of real-world use to make sure that it is, for example, running solely on its own energy or treating all of its own water. That means that there hasn't yet been enough time for any building to prove its Living Building status.

But the challenge has created enough buzz that it's already changing the building industry, says Brukman. For example, the teams currently working on Living Buildings around the country are in dialogue with one another as they research new methods of construction and the best possible sources for safe, zero-impact materials. And the CRGBC's "Red List" of hazardous, outdated products that may not be used in Living Buildings has caught the attention of product manufacturers, who have been passing the message on to their R&D departments to get a head start on creating next-generation materials.

Perhaps most importantly, the LBC is helping to make progress toward breaking down another major barrier to zero-impact construction: Many municipal building codes currently ban practices such as gray water because of concerns that the reused water will pollute drinking water supplies, or cause other health problems. The CRGBC encourages building teams to contest these restrictions whenever possible, and to work with local governments to find solutions that work for both sides, and change the concept of what is allowed to be built. And that formula is making progress: according to Brukman, the CRGBC is working with Clark County officials and the City of Vancouver, Wa. to create a simulation of what a living building would look like in their region, and identifying the potential regulatory hurdles -- so they can come up with appropriate solutions.

Why it's Worldchanging:
Green building practices are catching on around the world, and Seattle has made more progress than many cities, with one of the highest concentrations of LEED-certified buildings in the country. But the green building standards that we currently aspire to don't push the envelope nearly far enough to reduce our environmental impacts to a sustainable size. The solutions for creating completely or nearly zero-impact buildings are out there, but we need to overcome barriers like outdated zoning regulations, lack of adequate materials, and public misconceptions about cost and safety, before we will see a major shift in our skylines. The Living Building Challenge goes beyond encouraging designers to build sustainably. It endeavors to change the global understanding of what we can – and must – expect from our built environments.

Images courtesy of the Cascadia Region Green Building Council


This post is part of the series, "Seattle to the World: 100 Best Innovations from the Emerald City."

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