Living Building Challenge sets 7 trends for the future

Bullitt Center
Garrett Hering
The Bullitt Center is expected to become the first large commercial building certified by the Living Building Challenge certification program in 2015.

Denis Hayes described the six-story Bullitt Center in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood as “a tree, nestled into the city, like a living organism.

The Earth Day founder and president of the Bullitt Foundation expects the Bullitt Center, completed in 2013, to become the first large commercial building certified by the Living Building Challenge in 2015.

To date, only five buildings in the world have achieved Living Building Certification: Smith College's Bechtel Environmental Classroom in Massachusetts; Tyson Living Learning Center in Missouri; Omega Center for Sustainable Living in New York; Bertschi Living Building Science Wing in Seattle; and the Hawaii Preparatory Academy Energy Laboratory. More than a dozen additional projects have penultimate Petal and Net Zero Energy certifications.

But the list of certified buildings should grow in coming years, as around 200 aspiring projects have been registered for the certification process.

Like its certified buildings, the Living Building Challenge — whose administrator, the International Living Future Institute, has an office on the first floor of the Bullitt Center — embodies the world’s most advanced measure of green buildings.

The latest version of the Living Building Challenge, version 3.0, includes seven performance categories that reflect how green buildings can help restore the natural environment. In other words, buildings can go beyond the already impressive net-zero impact to which many architects and builders aspire, and actually can have a net-positive benefit. Here’s how:

1. Building in proper places

According to Hayes, one key element that defines the greenest buildings in the world is their harmony with the environment in which they are built.

“One hundred years ago, if I showed you a photo of an office in Phoenix and one in Anchorage, you would immediately know which was which. Today, we are building the same building everywhere and use cheap energy to fight against nature,” Hayes told GreenBiz.

“Buildings designed for their particular site are greener, as well as more diverse and generally more architecturally interesting.”

Place is one of the Living Building Challenge’s seven performance categories. According to the program administrator, this defines “where it is acceptable for people to build, how to protect and restore a place once it has been developed, and how to encourage the creation of communities that are once again based on the pedestrian rather than the automobile.”

The certification program “envisions a moratorium on the seemingly never-ending growth outward, and a focus instead on compact, connected communities with healthy rather than inhumane levels of density — inherently conserving the natural resources that support human health and the farmlands that feed us, while also inviting natural systems back into the daily fabric of our lives.”

2. Net positive water buildings

According to Hayes, the Bullitt Center is the “only office building in the United States to use rain water for potable drinking water, showers, dishwashing, etc.” It is also the “only office building inside an American city to infiltrate all its treated gray water into the soil on site.”

That seems to align with the Living Building Challenge’s goal of net positive water, under which “100 percent of the project’s water needs must be supplied by captured precipitation or other natural closed loop water systems, and/or by recycling used project water, and must be purified as needed without the use of chemicals.”

Bullitt Center interior

The Bullitt Center overwhelms with its pleasant working atmosphere created by its high ceilings, huge windows and comforting interior.

In addition, “All stormwater and water discharge, including grey and black water, must be treated onsite and managed either through re-use, a closed loop system, or infiltration. Excess stormwater can be released onto adjacent sites under certain conditions.”

Unfortunately, such practices often are illegal, notes the International Living Building Institute, because of regulations. “Therefore, reaching the ideal for water use means challenging outdated attitudes and technology with decentralized site- or district-level solutions that are appropriately scaled, elegant and efficient.”

3. Net positive energy buildings

With its large rooftop solar array that produces about 70 percent more energy than is consumed on site, the Bullitt Center fulfills the Living Building Challenge’s imperative of net-positive energy.

“When all our tenants are fully staffed and we have settle into normalcy, I think the stable surplus in a normal year (for sunlight) will be 20 to 30 percent,” said Hayes.

According to the Living Building Challenge, “105 percent of the project’s energy needs must be supplied by on-site renewable energy on a net annual basis, without the use of on-site combustion. Projects must provide on-site energy storage for resiliency.”

4. Healthy, happy buildings

Touring the Bullitt Center, I felt overwhelmed by the pleasant working atmosphere created by its high ceilings, huge windows and comforting interior.

Creating environments for physical and psychological well-being is another critical element of the Living Building Challenge. A part of this is creating designs based on nature, so-called biophilic designs.

“The project must be designed to include elements that nurture the innate human/nature connection,” according to the Living Building Challenge.

5. Non-toxic buildings

The Bullitt Center’s first floor features a huge banner listing toxic materials — none of which are to be found anywhere in the building.

The building, according to Hayes, is the “only full-scale commercial building in the world to eliminate all building materials that are toxic, carcinogenic, mutagenic or endocrine-disrupting.”

The Living Building Challenge “envisions a future where all materials in the built environment are regenerative and have no negative impact on human and ecosystem health.”

In that spirit, the certification process requires projects avoid certain materials or chemicals on a “red list”, such as volatile organic compounds, lead, mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls, phthalates and other known toxins. It also requires projects to strive to cut or eliminate waste during construction and account for the embedded carbon footprint of a building’s construction with carbon offsets.

6. Equitable buildings

The Living Building Challenge also has a broader goal of “supporting a just, equitable world.” Participants in the green building community “need to aggressively challenge the notion that property ownership somehow implies that we can do whatever we like, even externalize the negative environmental impacts of our actions onto others.”

One imperative for making this happen is for projects to be “human-scaled rather than automobiles-scaled places so that the experience brings out the best in humanity and promotes culture and interaction.” Other imperatives include not blocking access to or diminishing the quality of fresh air, sunlight or natural waterways “for any member of society or adjacent developments.”

7. Beautiful buildings

Finally, the Living Building Challenge seeks to celebrate “design that uplifts the human spirit” — in other words, beautiful buildings.

“As a society, we are often surrounded by ugly and inhumane physical environments. If we do not care for our homes, streets, offices and neighborhoods, then why should we extend care outward to our farms, forests and fields? When we accept billboards, parking lots, freeways and strip malls as being aesthetically acceptable, in the same breath we accept clear-cuts, factory farms and strip mines.”

The few buildings so far certified by the International Living Future Institute’s program meet these seven bold green building challenges. Judging by the large number of projects knocking on the door, such as the Bullitt Center, these trends appear likely to gain further ground next year and beyond.

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