Bioneers has just celebrated its 20th anniversary conference at the Marin Civic Center in San Rafael, Calif., where I live, and I stopped in to listen to many of its speakers. The conference is known for its eclectic mix of topics and personalities, and for bubbling up disruptive green ideas that find their way into our mainstream culture a few years later.

This year, Annie Leonard (from The Story of Stuff), Dr. Andrew Weil, Michael Pollan (author of The Omnivore's Dilemma) and Jerome Ringo (president of the Apollo Alliance) were among the speakers. Also addressing the assembly was architect Jason McClennan, CEO of the Cascadia Green Building Council and creator of the Living Building Challenge.

The Cascadia Green Building Council (CGBC) was one of the first groups to embrace the LEED rating system for buildings and represents green practitioners in Canada and the Pacific Northwest. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system is a third-party certification program and the nationally accepted benchmark for sustainable design, construction and operation of high performance buildings.

The Living Building Challenge is also a voluntary third-party program of sustainable building certification that was launched by Cascadia in 2006. Its creators see it as the next step beyond LEED and a precursor to the kind of regenerative design ultimately needed. Since its metaphor is a flower, and its slogan is to design buildings as efficient and elegant, I thought I would look at it in light of my interest, biomimicry. 

Rather than scoring credits, the program requires that simple prerequisites be met. Simple, in this case, does not mean easy. For a building to qualify it would have to be a zero-net energy and water user, and introduce no new toxins from an established “red list” into the environment. Additionally, it could not be built on undeveloped land. In all there are 16 requirements for such a building and the list includes a category for “beauty and spirit” that includes “education and sharing." All the prerequisites are mandatory, criteria are performance based, and that performance must be actual and documented rather than projected.  

The program's developers freely admit that the bar has been set higher than current practices achieve, and have identified the biggest roadblocks to its wider adoption: Building codes and upfront costs. In some places, for instance, it is illegal to recycle water on site for drinking, and controlling the cost of sustainable materials is subject to market pathways that are still maturing. 

On the other hand, there is wide latitude for innovation because the rating is performance driven. There are many different ways to achieve the general goals, and the CGBC does not concern itself with dictating best practices, reasoning that rigorous results will ensure good methods. Unlike LEED, however, the challenge provides no partial participation; you are either certified as one of the most rigorously green buildings in the world, or you are not. has previously covered LEED's phenomenal market success and the Living Building Challenge in its infancy.

Three years on, McClennan says the challenge has four built structures that are completing the required 12-month performance review period and about 60 projects that have declared their intention to apply. Cascadia is also about to launch a 2.0 version of the Challenge that will include landscape and infrastructure, renovation and neighborhood-scale criteria. 

One of the marquee candidates for certification is the Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburg, Penn. They have an ambitious plan to create a 20,000 square foot Center for Sustainable Landscapes in a $20 million third phase of development.