Can the Living Building Challenge Scale Up?

Tristan Roberts (l) and Paula Melton (r)

The stringent system has already changed the world, but to reach beyond demonstration projects it has to help everyday buildings succeed.

Half of New York City could be certified under the Living Building Challenge (LBC), which includes prerequisites for net-positive (beyond net-zero) energy, net-positive water, and 18 other tough rules.

Such a brash claim should be no surprise coming from the mouth of Jason McLennan, creator of the system in 2006 and now CEO of the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), but it seems like a giant leap for a program that currently boasts only six certified projects, among them a small park, a classroom, and several campus demonstration projects. (A handful of other projects have been certified as meeting portions of LBC requirements.)

Over 200 projects have begun the process, like the Bullitt Center, a six-story Seattle office building, but like other LBC projects, this one has had a lot of wind in its sails, including a committed nonprofit owner and as sunny a hillside as one could find in rainy Seattle. (See more detail on how Bullitt and 11 other projects are succeeding with LBC in our feature article: How to Succeed with the Living Building Challenge: 12 Teams Share Tips.)

To understand if LBC really can scale up its transformative paradigm, we dug deeply into the system, finding bright signs as well as a few rough patches LBC and ILFI will need to outgrow.

LBC: Paving the way for others

Based on real case studies we’ve studied—not just promises—here’s what LBC has shown it can do:

  • Inspire project teams to meet absurdly high goals—and then turn around and say that it wasn’t as hard as they’d expected.
  • Keep designers engaged with their projects two-plus years after occupancy to meet LBC targets.
  • Demonstrate that a project can build to net-zero energy and water and keep some of the worst materials out of our buildings. Yes, at a cost premium, but one that is manageable for some projects.
  • Inspire project teams to solve very difficult problems—like completely avoiding PVC, and legally providing drinking water from the rain—that makes it much easier (and less expensive) for other projects to follow suit.

This last point may be the most remarkable: several LBC teams we’ve talked to reported that yes, it might cost their project a premium in time and other costs to get something done, but they were proud to be blazing a trail for subsequent projects.

The ones left behind

Yet just about everyone we talked to who was doing an LBC project also told us about other projects that walked away.

We’ll talk about why, but first it’s important to understand that despite its uncompromising reputation (our colleague Nadav Malin memorably called LBC “a manifesto in the guise of a standard”), the reality of LBC is much more nuanced.

Like its older cousin LEED, LBC is filled with alternative compliance paths—“exceptions” in LBC lingo—and ways to demonstrate that you meet the intent of a requirement (or “imperative”) without following the letter of the law. This is the kind of tool that has the potential to make LBC accessible for a variety of projects—perhaps even a large portion of New York and other cities—but LBC hasn’t got it quite figured out.

When combustion is okay

Banning of onsite combustion is one of LBC’s signature issues: LBC is so strict about this that one project in Canada didn’t pass muster because to get to net-zero, it “scale-jumped”—an LBC-sanctioned practice of looking beyond the project site—to invest in recovering waste heat from an adjacent building. But for this project, the heat was originally produced by natural gas: a no-no.

So you might be surprised to learn that LBC’s combustion ban isn’t ironclad: LBC projects have gained the following exceptions, among others:

  • As long as it isn’t a primary heat source, rural projects (like a nature center) may have a fireplace or woodstove, on the principle that the warm hearth is culturally important in these settings.
  • Industrial facilities may use gas water heaters as a short-term peak load backup (example: a winery during its six-week “crush” season).
  • Tenant improvement projects within high rises can retrofit existing HVAC if the resulting energy reduction exceeds tenant energy use by at least 105%.

In fact, LBC is rife with exceptions based on floor-area ratio, building typology, the owner’s mission, market realities, and many other rationales.

Exceptions and the process they represent can bring LBC’s high bar a little closer to Earth, but they need greater consistency, especially in the following three areas.

LBC has inspired hundreds of project teams with its tough requirements, but to scale up it needs to provide more consistent guidance on key hurdles.

Photo: Rene Mensen. License: CC BY 2.0.

1) Provide clear solutions on energy

What do all the combustion exceptions listed above have in common? Someone asked for them.

The nature center and its hearth and the winery with its spiky domestic hot water load made the case to ILFI for an exception, and won. This process makes ILFI a “living system,” according to McLennan, but it also cloaks it in uncertainty, and a certain artisanal quality that is hard to bring to scale.

The challenges for an urban project to produce net-positive energy onsite are obvious, but ILFI doesn’t go out of its way to anticipate them. Offsite “community” solar farms are one solution for projects that can’t meet energy needs onsite, but ILFI has only granted an exception allowing this for rural projects—another exception seems to limit urban projects to siting solar power only on adjacent rooftops.

When we asked ILFI why these exceptions apparently give rural projects much more flexibility, we were told, “both solutions are available to all projects.” ILFI further explained that the more flexible exception was written for a rural project—hence it is titled “Rural Projects”—but that any project could use it. A more general rule allowing projects to invest in off-site generation after they've minimized their loads and done everything technically feasible to generate their own energy on site would go a long way. (As part of this, LBC could use a little flexibility on working with renewable energy credits, or RECs, which it currently prohibits. Most solar farms currently sell RECs to finance their development—see Solar Farms Offer Renewable Power for the Rest of Us.)

2) Get tied in with scaled solutions

How do you tell when an LBC project team is really committed? When they organize their own public utility to provide drinking water onsite. The distance some projects are going to meet LBC’s water requirements—even to the point of changing water laws—is among LBC’s most notable achievements, but as LBC scales up, is it really wise to place the burden of drinking-water and wastewater safety onto individual building owners?

There are good reasons water quality is typically managed at a larger scale, and requiring buildings to opt out of communal systems might not be the right thing to incentivize in the long run.

Yet LBC specifically forbids projects tapping into municipal systems—even municipal “purple pipe” reuse systems, which are practical and could benefit from the boost in respect. Why not give projects more incentive to improve municipal systems? Several other LBC requirements are highly focused on advocating for change, even if change doesn’t happen right away.

For LBC to scale up, we will need to find pro-social ways to provide water that meets stringent health standards while not burdening building owners with the associated costs and legal risks. (As this article was going to press ILFI told us that a project team is currently making a strong case for a new exception allowing purple pipe from smaller community facilities.)

3) Avoid difficult for the sake of difficult

LBC’s requirement that projects grow food onsite sounds great, but it has been a sticking point for enough buildings that it might be time to rethink it, perhaps by transplanting this imperative to the Living Communities rating system.

We spoke with a social services organization that considered LBC but was ultimately turned off by the requirement that it would have to devote precious staff time and financial resources to supporting a farm on its roof. While McLennan insisted that such an organization could propose an exception, we were at least as likely to hear that a project facing a poorly fitting imperative moved to another system like LEED instead. Yes, we could do this, organizations told us, but the exercise wouldn’t make us smarter.

Let groups like these focus on their core missions, and allow scale-jumping to support small-scale organic farmers who badly need reliable linkages to customers. (LBC allows scale-jumping with agriculture, but requires that the farmland be new, and specifically encourages cultivation around local schools and parks.)

An imperative for ILFI: Reach more projects

In several conversations with us, ILFI staff demonstrated a willingness to work with projects on their unique constraints and consider exceptions that meet the intent of its imperatives.

But that only works for committed projects that are already in the LBC pipeline.

For the much larger pool of projects that consider LBC at a distance, ILFI needs to better communicate its process and the kinds of solutions it will accommodate, especially on key roadblocks.

In fact, ILFI has made progress on this path, most notably through a new Affordable Housing Framework—effectively an alternative compliance path that creates temporary exceptions for use of municipal sewers and encourages “net-positive-ready” projects if photovoltaics are not affordable.

More guidance like this would help back up the assertion McLennan made with us that LBC works for all building types. Well—there are always exceptions. “We don’t have an answer for tall buildings,” he told us. “We don’t think they’re sustainable.”

Maybe. But we hope that LBC will eventually scale up—all the way up.

Published December 30, 2014

Roberts, T., & Melton, P. (2014, December 30). Can the Living Building Challenge Scale Up?. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/op-ed/can-living-building-challenge-scale

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December 31, 2014 - 10:54 am

Living Buildings are about much more than energy and water and while these are important for climate stability, questions of materials, rational and humane planning / urban design, rights to nature and beauty, all of which have few or no limits to scale and have an immediate and ongong benefit on user heath, satisfaction and productivity are overlooked in the article. Here in Europe we have mandated that all new buildings must be near zero energy (annually) in the next 5 years and are struggling with the issues being raised (not least of which is how does the grid become de carbonised while being the central storage and winter/night resupplier for increasing numbers of distributed renewables equiped buildings ?). No system has all the answers, especially as technology and policy evolve so rapidly, and LBC is no less rigorous and relevant for factoring in temporary (ie having an expiry date) exceptions as a way for real designers to meet the 'real' world. There's a reason the word challenge is in the title.     

January 2, 2015 - 2:45 pm

Brian, I agree with you and I am not sure about our article you are taking exception to, as it were.

Yes, LBC is about much more than energy and water. This is a short article using a couple of LBC petals as examples to make some points about its scalability. We have other articles that more thoroughly cover LBC requirements, and explore those issues broadly.

Yes, LBC is no less rigorous for factoring in exceptions. In fact, we agree with the need for exceptions and understanding the constraints of specific building types, and that is one of the main points of this article.

Thanks for posting!