Living Building Challenge

Riley —  March 26, 2010 — 4 Comments

The Living Building Challenge is a green building certification program run by the International Living Building Institute, a division of the Cascadia Green Building Council.  They just kicked off their cross country “Living Building Challenge Road Show,” a day-long workshop presenting the ideas and guidelines behind the Living Building Challenge.  I attended the workshop in Santa Monica, and came away with a better understanding of what they’re trying to get at, as well as some of the strengths and weaknesses of the program.

The Living Building Challenge is often compared/contrasted to LEED certification, but it’s different in several key ways.  Whereas LEED requires a certain number of points, obtainable in different categories, to achieve each of its certification levels, the LBC has 20 different “imperatives” that a project must achieve to receive certification.  These range from strictly environmental – 100% energy must be supplied by on-site renewable energy on a net annual basis – to more philosophical – must have an intent to be beautiful.  The other primary difference is that the LBC requires a 1 year test period before certification.  It isn’t just about the projected functionality of the building, it’s about the functional, daily results, which includes occupant behavior over the course of the year.

As you can see from just that brief sample, the LBC is quite a bit more rigorous than LEED certification.  The end goal is to be producing buildings that aren’t just net zero impact, but that actually renew and revitalize the landscape around them.

As a student of environmental design, I can’t say that anything they talked about was particularly revolutionary.  It’s great that they include social justice, education, and health issues in a broader environmental program, but if the LBC is remarkable, it’s only in the integration of these ideas into one standard.

Almost more interesting than the presentation were the other people there.  They were mostly architects, with a few engineers and one city planner.  But what surprised me was their attitude toward the LBC and toward many of its environmental components.  Most of them were there to keep up with a changing market – their clients were starting to ask for green buildings, so they wanted to be able to provide.  Others were there for job security; they recognized that specializing in green building practices would make them valuable to their companies, so they jumped at the chance.

But what was lacking, at least from the people who spoke up, was a genuine passion for this stuff.  Green building isn’t just interesting because it’s what clients want, or because it’s valuable within a company, it’s cool because it’s changing how we relate to the environment, and bringing us as a species closer toward a more healthy, sustainable relationship with the land and environment we occupy.  I don’t care that it’s popular right now, in a personal sense, I was at this workshop because I want to save the world.  The LBC seems like a pretty good start, but it can only go so far if the people implementing it are only in it for themselves.

There were two things that really stood out for me regarding the program, one good and one bad.  I’ll cover the bad first, and then end on a positive note.  Within the “Materials” petal (yeah, they break it all down in a flower metaphor.  It’s a little to hippy for my tastes, but it does make it easier to follow…), imperative number 14 is “Appropriate Sourcing.”  The idea is a really great one – that sustainable buildings need to draw their material from local sources.  There’s a maximum distance for each of the seven different categories.  For example, to adhere to the LBC, a building could import “heavy or high-density materials” from no more than 500km away, while it could import “renewable technologies” from as many as 15,000km.

This is a neat standard that works well.  What I don’t like about it is the footnote that accompanies it: “There is a variance for remote locations, such as Alaska, Hawaii, and Yukon that expands the zone radius as follows: Zone 1 = 2,000km; Zones 2 and 4 = 5,000km; Zones 3 and 5 = 8,000km.”  So for Zone 1, heavy or high-density materials, Hawaii could import from as far away as 2,000km, four times the limit for mainland buildings.

There’s something wrong with that.  I get that people live in Hawaii and other remote places, and we shouldn’t deny them the ability to achieve green building certification, but we can’t be blind to geographic realities either.  The reason they had to add this footnote is because in today’s globalized, specialized world, it is profoundly less sustainable to live in a remote location, like Hawaii.  Obviously there are many other factors in play here, that all need to be considered, but from a strictly green building standpoint, importing materials from an additional 1,500km is a big deal.

Again, I’m not saying we should deny buildings in Hawaii LBC certification, because people obviously are going to build there regardless, so we might as well make the buildings as green as possible.  But what I am proposing is some sort of qualification or asterisk on the designation.  Give them a “Living Building Challenge – Remote” certificate, or a “silver” instead of a “gold,” like in the LEED system.

When I brought this up, the presenter was unable to offer a justification for glossing over the environmental impacts of geographical isolation, but one of the other participants brought up a good point: LEED actually has a very similar problem, in that LEED projects in remote locations can just ignore the points for material proximity and focus on points in other categories.  In this way, both programs have a massive blind spot – they ignore the inherent sustainability (or lack thereof) of specific locations.  One of the oldest building guidelines is the incorporation of site, and I’m surprised that both LEED and the LBC haven’t done a better job of that in a broader geographical sense.

But where the LBC really stood out for me was in how it requires project teams to send letters to companies that don’t provide sustainable products.  Imperative 13 is “Responsible Industry,” and it mandates using only green materials – like FSC certified timber – and when there just isn’t a sustainable alternative, appeal to the companies and regulatory agencies involved to develop them.  By reaching out to the building industry, the LBC goes beyond LEED in helping to reform the building process by making sustainable products more commonplace and affordable.

The 6 hour workshop covered a lot of material, so I’ll probably go in for round 2 of analysis later, but that’s all I’ve got for now.  The Living Building Challenge represents the future of building, I’ll give them that, but I think the tiered structure of LEED is more adapted to gradually transition us to that future.

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Riley MacPhee is a recent graduate of Pomona College with a B.A. in Environmental Design and a minor in Philosophy, and has been writing for the JA blog for the last 3 years. He is passionate about architecture and design, and will be applying to M.Arch programs in the fall.

4 responses to Living Building Challenge


    great perspectives, thanks for writing your thoughts up. I don’t think it necessary for the “market” to be comprised of wild eyed dreamers and idealists. We need those folks – but the market responds to incentives and monetary motivation. So harnessing that by putting in place codes, standards and requirements turns the private sector loose by stimulating demand. I’m not too concerned about the tiny percent of buildings in Alaska and Hawaii. The action is large urban areas which is where the growth in population worldwide is projected to occur. So getting the vision and possibility right for those locales is far more critical because our planet will not be able to accommodate buildings designed to currents specs – the energy needs and waste products are too detrimental. Speaking of which that leads me to my big concern about these buildings – I can’t see how these can be anything other than one-off special projects or vanity projects in a large urban high density environment – which is where we need to most thinking and work (take a look at the huge 10 million plus inhabitant cities in the world – and growing). It seems inconceivable to me that high rises can be living buildings if built in dense urban settings – the power density of renewables (you will not be able to cover a high rise in photovoltaic because most of it will be in shade) and the small roof won;t capture enough water. So I’ll bet they have to come up with living “district standards” to address how a compact environment can draw on all the available resources and function most efficiently, but also import something (water). Just like they will not be able to produce the all the food onsite, But all in all – meritorious for its focus on footprint and sustainability and insisting on high standards in each category, not a point system.


      I may be a wild-eyed dreamer and an idealist, but I’m not naive, which I think is a crucial distinction. I’m not asking that these people put aside economic concerns, I’m just surprised that the ethical side of their interest isn’t apparent. We’ve seen tons of examples of companies doing great things with great intentions while still raking in the money (I would argue that Google does this). While the marketplace shouldn’t be guided solely by idealism, there’s room within it for responsibility and a commitment to benevolent practice.

      I agree with you that remote locations aren’t going to be of serious concern in the bigger picture; my point was more a philosophical one that I still think warrants attention. Just as a building can be more or less integrated into its immediate environment, I think we need to be aware of how buildings integrate into the global environment we’ve created. Localizing resources and products will hopefully mitigate much of this, but because of the intense specialization the world has undergone, it costs more – environmentally as well as monetarily – to build in some places, rather than others. And I don’t just mean Hawaii and Alaska. As the green building movement gets more advanced, that’s the kind of thing I would expect it to take into account. In our past, if you wanted to build a house, you built it in or next to the forest, not miles away on the plain. It’s smart resource use.

      Finally, I share your concern regarding highrises and urban density. I think it will be possible, though, to build districts that adhere to Living Building standards. One possibility is that as people densify in cities, there will be more space in the country for wind and solar farms. Additionally, groundwater has been a traditionally unsustainable source because of how it’s used, but if we can concentrate on rainwater filtration and aquifer replenishment on a much broader scale, we may in the future be able to supply some of these districts will wells that draw sustainably from the groundwater.


    The technology and science are certainly there to achieve living building goals anywhere, at a price. As Nick points out, the ratio of surface area to resource consumption is the problem and LBC districts may be one solution. Hopefully there are others. LBC advances the ethic, the profile and the search for balanced habitation of the planet. To my mind, those are global and apply at all population scales. This is a great dialog and hopefully will color our future.

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