Design Manifestation of Environmental Philosophy: The Modern Nature Ethic and the Living Building Challenge

Riley —  April 11, 2010 — Leave a comment

The proper relationship between humans and nature has been a topic of contentious debate ever since our ancestors began constructing rudimentary shelters.  For most of history, it took a back seat to more primal concerns like finding enough food or collecting enough fuel, but over the last century, technological advance and social and environmental exploitation have ushered an era of unprecedented prosperity and plenty into the developed world.  This freedom from the brute pressures of life has had deep impacts on the philosophy of nature, wilderness, and the role of man.  Historical giants like Thoreau, Muir, and Leopold shaped the evolution of our relationship to nature, which subsequently informed that most significant of our interactions: the built environment.

The way we build our homes and our cities has always been a reflection of our attitude toward the natural landscape we inhabit.  The 19th and early 20th century idea was of a dualism between nature and humanity, two forces fundamentally opposed, pitted against each other in a zero sum game.  The romantic poets venerated the “wild” and set it apart from the “civilized,” a distinction that marginalized and desanctified the land that we actually occupy.  That Los Angeles is 80% parking lots by land area is a testament to this attitude; once nature has been invaded by culture, it loses all value and becomes merely a place for pavement.

But though it has had by far the greatest impact on the world we know, this environmental ethic is not the most recent evolution of the dialogue between nature and humanity.  By the end of the 20th century, philosophers like William Cronon and Michael Pollan had begun to put forth a new ethic that called for the reconciliation of the conventional dualism.  They argue that instead of focusing on culture and wilderness as separate entities, we need to turn our attention to the cohabitation of the two in the spaces that we actually live in.  This attitude, indicative, I think, of an evolutionary process that incorporates the work of past environmental philosophers, is beautifully summarized in Pollan’s book Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, in which the garden acts both as a practical example of these ideas as well as a metaphorical proving ground.

Just as past philosophies have taken physical form in the human built environment, this most recent evolution has also influenced architecture and design.  “Green” has become a buzzword in the industry, and many new projects have attempted to fit more seamlessly into the surrounding environment through a variety of ways.  The US Green Building Council has been successfully pushing LEED certification for a number of years now, a strict program that measures numerous aspects of sustainability.

But while LEED is undeniably an environmentally beneficial program, it is too pragmatic and customizable to serve as the design manifestation of the modern ethic.  Instead, it is the fledgling International Living Building Institute, with its “Living Building Challenge,” that most embodies this evolved, contemporary, environmental ethic.  In order to understand why this is, it is essential to first cultivate a deeper sense of the ideology espoused by Pollan and others.

Second Nature takes us on a narrative arc through Pollan’s childhood experiences of gardens and natural spaces, and later, his ideological struggle in creating and maintaining his own garden.  What he found upon embarking on this path was that the romantic approach to nature was no help: “everybody wrote about how to be in nature…but nobody about how to act there” (pg. 3).  The fundamental problem with the conventional ethic was that it did not allow for human cooperation with nature, and instead reduced our approach to natural landscapes to one of “domination or acquiescence” (pg. 48). When Thoreau lets his bean field return to nature, it is because he is not comfortable occupying the middle ground between human artifice and wilderness.

It was precisely this middle ground, absent from 19th century environmentalism, that Pollan was so anxious to reclaim.  Man is “a creature whose nature it is to remake his surroundings” (pg. 53), indeed a creature who must remake his surroundings in order to survive, so the challenge is really “to learn how to use nature without damaging it” (pg. 4).  We are an inextricable part of the natural landscape at this point, but because of the deleterious global impacts of our actions, “it’s too late to do nothing” (pg. 114).  Pollan urges us to “come to terms with this crucial ambiguity about our role – that we are at once the problem and the only possible solution to the problem” (pg. 115).

Where do we go from there, though?  Once we realize that we must reconcile ourselves with nature we are left in a much more nuanced position that “requires a subtle give and take with the landscape, a search for some middle ground between culture and nature” (pg. 62).  From his experience in the garden, Pollan learns “to be less afraid to exercise human power in nature, to do what is necessary to make the land conform to our designs and supply our needs” (pg. 123).  He finds his actions justified too, by the contingency that governs natural processes: “human choice is unnatural only if nature is deterministic; human change is unnatural only if she is changeless in our absence” (pg. 167).

The key is to act and have consequences while still preserving nature within the landscapes that we inhabit.  Nature doesn’t exist just as a romantic, “metaphysical absolute” outside of civilization, it permeates all aspects of our environment (to the extent that we let it) in the form of plantings, parks, and backyards; “wildness resides not only out there…but right here” (pg. 192).

The Living Building Challenge is a direct result of this environmentally monistic philosophy.  Structurally, the program is similar to other certification programs, like LEED.  It presents a range of requirements that a building must meet before receiving it’s prestigious certification.  But there are three aspects of the LBC that set it apart from other programs, largely through the extent of their invocation of the modern nature ethic.  These are its philosophical emphasis on biomimicry, its comprehensive approach to sustainability, and its sweeping, revolutionary ambition.

The LBC Standard, 2.0, begins with the prompt: “Imagine a building designed and constructed to function as elegantly and efficiently as a flower.”  Biomimicry is the driving idea behind the program, which uses a petal analogy for each of its seven “performance areas:” site, water, energy, health, materials, equity, and beauty. The LBC tries to incorporate biomimicry in a technological and resource sense – encouraging buildings to be regenerative on their site, have net zero energy and water, and maintain clean air and health standards – but also in an aesthetic, visual sense, through “natural shapes and forms,” and standards on light and space.

This is a clear parallel here to Pollan’s revelation the most effective ways of maintaining order in the garden are biological controls like ladybugs and praying mantises.  He goes further though, to suggest that biomimicry should guide our approach to the natural environment in general: “It seems that we do best in nature when we imitate her…that’s probably because nature, after almost four billion years of trial-and-error experience, has wide knowledge of what works in life” (pg. 195).  This philosophical abstraction of biomimicry from its original garden context has effectively been carried over into the realm of the built environment, through the guiding principles of the Living Building Challenge.

The next important aspect of the LBC is its comprehensive approach to sustainability, the idea of treading lightly on the land.  This idea is clearly central to Pollan’s ethic, and to nearly every green building project, but the LBC sets its sights at where it thinks we should be, not where we are.  As a result, it goes far beyond LEED with its sustainability standards.

A “living building” uses zero net energy and water on an annual basis, meaning what it produces is equivalent to what it uses (though it can feed and draw from the grid equivalently).  There are also strict standards for the materials that can be used: certain materials are simply banned, like PVC and lead, but the rest must be taken from sustainable, certified sources, and have strict limits on the distance they can be imported.  Furthermore, “the project must come up with a comprehensive recycle program that diverts well over 80% of its waste from landfills.  Finally, the project must account for the total footprint of embodied carbon from its construction and projected replacement parts through a one-time carbon offset tied to the project boundary.”  The combination of these sustainability facets makes the LBC the most ambitious and demanding environmental building standard out there.

Which leads to the final differentiating aspect of the LBC: its sweeping, revolutionary ambition.  While this sounds like lofty language, the rigorous sustainability standards already discussed give credence to its reality.  Beyond just setting higher standards though, the LBC takes steps to try to reform building industries by requiring project teams to write letters of complaint to unsustainable manufacturers when there is no alternative product available.  They also have standards for “democracy and social justice,” “beauty and spirit,” and “inspiration and education,” something that other projects only encourage.  The most prominent example of the LBC’s ambition though, is that all 20 of its standards are labeled “imperatives,” because they are fully mandatory.  There is no sliding scale, and nowhere where a building can slack off; it’s all or nothing.  Finally, the Living Building Challenge is not judged and certified based on an evaluation of projected performance, it’s judged after a full year of observation and evaluation, and receives certification only if it has maintained standards for the entire year.

Ambition of this scope sets the Living Building Challenge apart from its peers only because other programs, like LEED, are focused more on trying to encourage architecture and design to move in a certain direction than setting standards where they need to be.  Pollan talks about the “idea of a garden as a place, both real and metaphorical, where nature and culture can be wedded in a way that can benefit both” (pg. 5).  This is the idea that the Living Building Institute has incorporated into their standards for a building.  The landscapes we create should not be destructive antitheses to nature, but integrated compositions of nature and culture.  This is the goal of the Living Building Challenge, “to reconcile the built environment with the natural environment, into a civilization that creates greater biodiversity, resilience and opportunities for life with each adaptation and development.”

* * *

We clearly haven’t yet reached a point where all of the buildings we are creating are up to Living Building standards.  We have a long way still to go.  But it isn’t unusual for public opinion to lag behind philosophy, and building practice to lag further still.  By instituting an ambitious project that corresponds to the modern nature ethic, the Living Building Institute has attempted to leapfrog this conventional delay.  With all of the environmental problems facing the world today, this is a necessary and laudable undertaking.  We can no longer labor under the false pretense that there can be no symbiosis between nature and culture.  Our homes, neighborhoods, and cities need to evolve to become “a middle ground between nature and culture, a place that is at once of nature and unapologetically set against it” (pg. 53).



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.

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