Living Building Challenge Aims to Revolutionize Green Architecture

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In June, the U.S. Green Building Council announced that a proposed tightening of its LEED building standard would be delayed until the market was ready to “absorb” the change. In contrast, two days after this announcement an alternative to LEED won the 2012 Buckminster Fuller Challenge for pushing the building industry “to reimagine business as usual.”

The Living Building Challenge, as it’s known, is gaining stature as the most stringent green building standard in the world. But since its inception in 2006 the challenge has only fully certified three buildings and partially certified two others, raising the question of whether it will be a trendsetting project in the world of green design, or little more than an elite initiative with faint real-world impact.

One of the core distinguishing features of the Living Building Challenge is its performance-based accreditation: While other environmental standards pre-certify buildings based on conformance of design specifications with best practices, the Living Building Challenge approves buildings only after a rigorously documented 12-month occupancy phase.

The Living Building Challenge monitors 20 so-called design “imperatives” across seven categories: site, water, energy, health, materials, social equity, and beauty. These imperatives, which include mandates like net-zero energy and water use, must be maintained over the full trial year of occupancy. Amanda Sturgeon, program director of the Living Building Challenge, said that perhaps the most challenging of the 20 is the Red List of materials, which bans 14 material types, including halogenated flame retardants, PVC plastics, and chlorofluorcarbons. Projects must prove their exclusion of these materials through supplier audits for every product used in construction.

Sturgeon says that such intensive documentation requirements demonstrate that the Living Building Challenge goes well beyond a one-time certification, pushing architecture and design to be more progressive, sustainable, and accountable.

“When teams start to ask their suppliers for every ingredient of every product, the message moves up the chain,” said Sturgeon. “We’re starting to see manufacturers that are more transparent about what’s in their products.” Other imperatives have inspired similar reform: In Oregon, gray water and rainwater were recently made legal for use in residential and commercial buildings to help them meet one of the water imperatives.

The largest of the three buildings currently certified under the Living Building Challenge is a 6,000-square-foot environmental education center and water reclamation facility in Rhinebeck, N.Y. The other two certified buildings include a slightly smaller science classroom and energy lab at the Hawaii Preparatory Academy and a 3,000-square-foot educational center on a satellite campus of Washington University of St. Louis. Twelve other buildings that are now being evaluated are considerably larger, ranging from 50,000 to 100,000 square feet.

In total, approximately 140 projects in eight countries are working to meet the Living Building Challenge, which Sturgeon cites as evidence of a growing push for sustainability among architects and engineers. “We have a lot of big things in the works,” said Sturgeon. “It’s kind of endless.”

Another important aspect of the Living Building Challenge is that it seeks to move beyond individual buildings and bring principles of sustainable design to entire neighborhoods. A handful of neighborhoods and one infrastructure project, the tiny 2,600-square-foot McGilvra Place Park in Seattle, are currently striving to comply with the 20 imperatives.

Article by Dylan Walsh, appearing courtesy Yale Environment 360.

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Yale Environment 360 is an online magazine offering opinion, analysis, reporting and debate on global environmental issues. We feature original articles by scientists, journalists, environmentalists, academics, policy makers, and business people, as well as multimedia content and a daily digest of major environmental news. Yale Environment 360 is published by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Yale University. We are funded in part by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The opinions and views expressed in Yale Environment 360 are those of the authors and not of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies or of Yale University.

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