The Living Building Challenge: How Limits Can Liberate

The Living Building Challenge: How Limits Can Liberate

While reviewing last month's press about President Bush's climate summit, I thought, "Here we go again." The administration was still rejecting caps on greenhouse gas emissions even as it celebrated the role of new technologies and the need to protect our economy -- as though these concepts were contradictory.

Having spent most of my career working to advance green technologies, I'm hardly a Luddite. But it's the human side of technology -- from design to market conditions -- that largely determines its impact.

In the case of climate change, a cap is simply fundamental to creating an emissions trading market, which, in turn, provides the best climate for innovative technologies. No wonder so many corporate executives are calling for a national cap sooner rather than later; they see it as vital to lowering costs, increasing flexibility and giving us more room to maneuver under rapidly changing conditions.

The conundrum over caps brought back a conversation I had years ago with Ambassador Richard Benedick, lead U.S. negotiator and architect of the Montreal Protocol to protect ozone, when we worked at the World Wildlife Fund/Conservation Foundation. Given his vast experience and European roots, I had asked him why the U.S. lagged behind Europe on sustainability and he responded: "We ran up against physical constraints in Europe long ago. Until Americans come to accept the concept of limits, we'll never embrace sustainability."

It's true that Americans have a tortured history of chafing at anything that constrains our private freedoms for the benefit of -- gasp -- the public good. In the transportation sector, just look at the contentious history of highway speed limits, seat belts, CAFÉ standards and cameras to catch speeders. In the buildings sector, 10 states don't even have energy codes while many others lag far behind accepted standards that would clearly save money and pollution.

Not that I'm immune from reacting against constraints. At the 2006 Greenbuild in Denver, for example, I was delighted with the release of the "Living Building Challenge" from the Cascadia Region Green Building Council, the Pacific Northwest chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council. Here was a construct for thinking "beyond Platinum" -- a concept I was cool toward years ago when we were still building the LEED brand. But with so much experience in the market now, and the USGBC embarking on a next-generation LEED, surely the Living Building Challenge could inspire and stimulate.

Yet something nagged me about the Living Building byline: "No credits, just prerequisites," along with its one-tier, pass-fail structure. After all, it was LEED's flexibility that appealed to the building market through its light hand on prescriptions in favor of optional credits. And it was LEED's approachable four-tier system of certification that coaxed efforts from the mainstream market while engaging those on the leading edge. Savvy features like this go a long way to explain LEED's unprecedented impact in moving the market toward sustainability.

In short, LEED was not designed as an absolute definition of sustainability. That's why we sometimes hear complaints about LEED being "just a checklist" -— even though it's hardly LEED's fault if a building team chooses to use it like one. Many hundreds of high-performance, well-integrated buildings testify to its intended use.

On the other hand, it would be valuable to understand what the end game would look like for sustainability in any sector. That's the whole point of architect Bill McDonough's Cradle to Cradle framework. And oncologist Dr. Karl-Henrik Robèrt's The Natural Step (TNS) -- a set of "four system conditions" borne of a consensus process among Swedish scientist to identify requirements for a sustainable society. In the buildings arena, a group of industry professionals have actually created an overlay of TNS with LEED to use with projects and training programs.

The value of such absolute principles was abundant at last week's 10-year anniversary of the Oregon Natural Step Network (OTNS), a network credited with inspiring much of the sustainability leadership in the Portland region as well as multinational companies like IKEA, Skanska and Interface. From companies like NIKE to the Tualatin Water District, leaders cited benefits from having an absolute compass from which to gauge progress.

Some speakers also focused on the creativity unleashed by their self-imposed constraints. In particular, Ray Anderson offered tales of unexpected discoveries from climbing the Interface "Mountain of Sustainability" inspired by Paul Hawken and Dr. Robert. Challenged by exploring "how a forest would make a carpet," the resulting i2 carpet eliminates literally mountains of remnants and production waste by virtue of its non-directional design.

This kind of innovation is precisely what Janine Benyus, champion of biomimicry, meant by nature "tapping the power of limits" by using the limits of temperature, carrying capacity and energy balance as "source(s) of power."

And that's what the Living Building Challenge is doing by inviting a conversation on how absolute performance goals can yield "...buildings that are built to operate as elegantly and efficiently as a flower." Already, some designers like Clark Brockman, SERA Architects, are finding that they gain more intuitive design direction from striving to work within the Challenge's requirements.

What will sustainable buildings look like? We'll see early examples of projects and building elements at Greenbuild 2007's Member Day. And we'll start exploring how such constructs can complement LEED.

Americans may well chafe at limits, but the ecosystems we depend on for air, water, food, shelter, and beauty are governed by them. Such limits don't mean we need sacrifice that innate American can-do culture that comes from frontiers to be conquered -- on the contrary.

Just as we've admonished that true energy conservation is not about "shivering in the dark," it's time to embrace the abundance that can flow from nature's limits -- starting with caps on greenhouse gas emissions and moving toward a carbon-neutral built environment.

Christine Ervin, a frequent speaker, Board advisor and consultant from her own firm in Portland, Oregon , is an Editor-at-Large with Greener World Media. As first President and CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council, she led its growth to serve nearly 5,000 members, the LEED portfolio and Greenbuild. She also served as Assistant Secretary of Energy in the Clinton Administration overseeing efficiency, renewable energy and climate programs. Her website is