Feature Article

The Living Building Challenge: Can It Really Change the World?

It’s the year 2060. A developer has gathered a group of designers to answer a request for proposals for a 250,000 ft2 building in Portland, Oregon, built entirely with natural materials and without mechanical systems, plumbing, or electric lighting. The developer represents a company that will profit from the ecosystem services the building provides. With him are a public interest attorney, an infant named Wee One, and a salmon; these others are there to ensure that the building does not harm the socially disadvantaged, future generations, or the site’s ecology.

Sound far-fetched? That’s the point. Ralph DiNola, Assoc. AIA, a consultant with Green Building Services in Portland, used this exercise recently to kick off a charrette for the Oregon Sustainability Center, a mixed-use building that will house three clients whose purpose is to “create an intentional business community in a building that embodies their missions, values, and intentions.” The owners have asked the project team to certify the building through the Living Building Challenge (LBC), a relatively new rating system developed and administered by the Cascadia Green Building Council.

Constructed wetlands outside the Omega Center for Sustainable Living were planted in April 2009. The building, seeking Living Building Challenge certification, opens on July 16.

Photo: Andy Milford

It’s the year 2060. A developer has gathered a group of designers to answer a request for proposals for a 250,000 ft2 building in Portland, Oregon, built entirely with natural materials and without mechanical systems, plumbing, or electric lighting. The developer represents a company that will profit from the ecosystem services the building provides. With him are a public interest attorney, an infant named Wee One, and a salmon; these others are there to ensure that the building does not harm the socially disadvantaged, future generations, or the site’s ecology.

Sound far-fetched? That’s the point. Ralph DiNola, Assoc. AIA, a consultant with Green Building Services in Portland, used this exercise recently to kick off a charrette for the Oregon Sustainability Center, a mixed-use building that will house three clients whose purpose is to “create an intentional business community in a building that embodies their missions, values, and intentions.” The owners have asked the project team to certify the building through the Living Building Challenge (LBC), a relatively new rating system developed and administered by the Cascadia Green Building Council.

DiNola’s exercise is only one of the many innovative approaches being used by project teams working to achieve the stringent requirements of LBC—that buildings achieve net-zero energy and water use, use only materials that meet stringent sourcing and ingredient requirements, and, above all, be beautiful. With 16 requirements, the rating system looks relatively simple—there are no complicated credits and points. But behind the apparent simplicity are nuances that deal with the reality of current market conditions, in the form of a variety of exceptions.

Project team members discuss the Living Learning Center. Close collaboration between the owner, design team, and contractor was essential to building to LBC standards.

Photo: Hellmuth + Bicknese

These exceptions are granted when a team is unable to meet one of LBC’s requirements despite significant effort. Cascadia even requires that project teams document attempts to shift the market before granting an exception: discussions with code officials and letters to manufacturers are both required. “LBC is becoming an activist campaign,” says the systems creator and Cascadia CEO Jason McLennan, AIA. The system is not designed to measure or even rate buildings in the traditional sense—the requirements are all-or-nothing propositions—but it is intended to change the way project teams design and to transform the way code officials and manufacturers think about buildings and products.

Interest in LBC has grown dramatically in the three years since it was released. At this year’s sold-out Living Future “Unconference” in Portland, about 600 people gathered to discuss the system and the tools they were using to meet it. With at least a year before any projects are eligible for certification, however, it remains to be seen whether it’s a practical rating system. McLennan and LBC’s champions have set high goals for the system, hoping it can change the building industry—and maybe even the world—through the way we build. But can it?

Published May 29, 2009