It was a Living Building Challenge project team’s worst nightmare.
After months of vetting—most LBC teams report eight or more hours of research per product—to achieve the stringent rating system’s requirements, the team for the Bechtel Environmental Classroom at Smith College discovered a forbidden substance in the completed project. The forbidden substance.
“There is one 2-foot-long piece of PVC in our Living Building,” confesses Reid Bertone-Johnson, a lecturer in landscape studies at Smith and manager of the college’s MacLeish Field Station, where the Bechtel Classroom is located. “It turns out the supplier of our composting toilet sent us a version that was not compliant.”
After conversations with the supplier, the installer, and the International Living Future Institute (ILFI, developer of LBC) about the feasibility as well as the environmental and economic impact of replacing the pipe with high-density polyethylene, the stakeholders reached an agreement. “The supplier, Phoenix Composting Toilet, was so intrigued by the conversation that they wrote a letter saying they would never build a non-compliant toilet again,” continues Bertone-Johnson. “They took [PVC] out of their stream of materials. ILFI agreed that that was better than changing out this one piece of PVC.”
Bechtel kept its pipe, and ultimately, Bertone-Johnson points out, the choice to remove PVC from its supply chain paid off for Phoenix when its products were used in Seattle’s six-story Bullitt Center—possibly the largest building in the world to be served exclusively by composting toilets.
Kicking up such a fuss about 24 inches of pipe may sound absurd to anyone who hasn’t worked with LBC. Yet the results speak for themselves: LBC is making rapid headway in the marketplace, convincing major manufacturers to eliminate common but problematic substances like PVC (Phoenix), phthalates (Prosoco), formaldehyde (Smith & Fong), and halogenated flame retardants (Knauf). And it doesn’t need to stop there. Embedded in this tale are at least four clear lessons that project teams can apply to any project—not just Living Buildings.
“The end game is to create products that have closed-loop life cycles with no carbon footprint and are free of known [toxic substances],” argues Chris Lee of Philadelphia-based Re:Vision Architecture. Although the industry is a long way from this goal, he believes current trends are moving the marketplace in the direction of net-zero impact. “If manufacturers use and learn from environmental product declarations and Declare, designers create conceptual life-cycle and energy models while paying attention to material toxicity, and contractors consider materials transportation decisions, I think we can get to net-zero-impact products.” Lee adds, “If we can share lessons along the way, having a net-positive impact … this will not seem so far out of our reach.”