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A “Living” Built Environment

Tyson Living Learning Center

Tyson Living Learning Center in Eureka, Missouri.

For three years, "Living Buildings"—buildings that generate their own energy from renewable resources, capture and treat all the water they use, reclaim pre-developed sites, and fulfill a host of other requirements—have set the standard for green building.

But like other green building certification programs, the first iteration of the Living Building Challenge focused on individual buildings. The Cascadia Region Green Building Council—in conjunction with the International Living Building Institute—just announced the newest version of the Living Building Challenge with an even bigger goal: to fundamentally change the built environment.

Living Building Challenge 2.0 is both more comprehensive and more expansive, applying 20 "imperatives"—such as urban agriculture, limits to growth, ecological water flow, and net zero energy—to everything from small in-home remodels to community- and campus-wide initiatives, as well as infrastructure projects like bridges, roads, and parks.

The new Living Building Challenge standard is designed to address critical social and 
economic issues, including the collapse of domestic manufacturing, global trade imbalances, urban sprawl, the marginalization of those that can’t purchase the ‘American dream,’ and the lack of community distinctiveness and culture. Version 2.0 is the first green building certification program to integrate urban agriculture, social justice, and universal access issues as mandatory requirements. A new section addresses equity, examining ways to create equal access for all citizens, incorporate Universal Design considerations, promote culture and interaction, and end economic segregation of public and semi-public places. The new standards even require unrestricted access to rivers, lakes, and shorelines, as well as other important natural elements—even when built on private property.

Omega Center for Sustainable Living

Omega Center for Sustainable Living in Rhinebeck, New York, is a 6,200 square foot building housing a classroom and laboratory, and a 4,500 square foot greenhouse. The Greenhouse contains Omega's Eco Machine which will treat over 5 million gallons of wastewater every year.

Find out more about the Omega Center for Sustainable Living.

The expanded breadth of version 2.0 brings more people to the table. The standard is a unifying tool, bringing together many disciplines and players for the first time under one green building standard—architects and developers with urban planners and landscape architects, environmentalists and social activists, as well as affordable housing advocates and preservationists—to form a visionary pathway to a restorative future.

The program also introduces a new focus on urban agriculture, requiring a minimum amount of site square footage be dedicated to food production except in the densest urban 
environments—the more suburban a site is, the more food production is required. A new ‘car-free living’ imperative does not mandate the elimination of cars from development; 
rather, it is defined by the potential for a majority of people living in a neighborhood to have a productive and rich lifestyle without needing a car.

Version 2.0 represents the collective wisdom and feedback of the community of design professionals who have been working on Living Buildings over the last three years. Many of the changes incorporated into the new version were spurred by commentary from project teams within the Living Building Community on the International Living Building Institute website. The "imperatives" for new projects now include: 

  1. 
Limits to Growth: Projects may only be built on greyfields or brownfields—previously developed sites that are not classified as wetlands, primary dunes, old-growth forest, virgin prairie, prime farmland, or within the 100-year floodplain.
  2. Urban Agriculture: All projects must integrate opportunities for agriculture appropriate to the scale and density of the project.
  3. Habitat Exchange: For each hectare of development, an equal amount of land must be set-aside in perpetuity as part of a habitat exchange.
  4. Car-Free Living: Each new project should contribute towards the creation of walkable, pedestrian-oriented communities.
  5. Net Zero Water: One hundred percent of occupants’ water use must come from captured precipitation or closed loop water systems that account for downstream ecosystem impacts and that are appropriately purified without the use of chemicals.
  6. Ecological Water Flow: One hundred percent of storm water and building water discharge must be managed onsite to feed the project’s internal water demands or released onto adjacent sites for management through acceptable natural time-scale surface flow, groundwater recharge, agricultural use, or adjacent building needs.
  7. Net Zero Energy: One hundred percent of the project’s energy needs must be supplied by on-site renewable energy on a net annual basis.
  8. Civilized Environment: Every occupied space must have operable windows that provide access to fresh air and daylight.
  9. Healthy Air: Renovations, buildings, and neighborhood projects must promote good indoor air quality.
  10. Biophilia: The project must be designed to include elements that nurture the innate human attraction to natural systems and processes.
  11. Materials Red List: The project cannot contain any chemicals from a prohibited list, which includes lead, mercury, phthalates, Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), and more.
  12. Embodied Carbon Footprint: The project must account for the total footprint of embodied carbon from its construction and projected replacement parts through a one-time carbon offset tied to the project boundary.
  13. Responsible Industry: The project must advocate for the creation and adoption of third-party certified standards for sustainable resource extraction and fair labor practices. Applicable raw materials include stone and rock, metal, and timber. For timber, all wood must be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), or come from salvaged sources or from the intentional harvest of timber onsite for the purpose of clearing the area for construction.
  14. Appropriate Sourcing: The project must incorporate place-based solutions and contribute to the expansion of a regional economy rooted in sustainable practices, products, and services.
  15. Conservation and Reuse: All project teams must strive to reduce or eliminate the production of waste during design, construction and operation, and the end of life phase in order to conserve natural resources.
  16. Human Scale and Humane Places: The project must be designed to create human-scaled, rather than automobile-scaled, places so that the experience brings out the best in humanity and promotes culture and interaction.
  17. Democracy and Social Justice: All primary transportation, roads, and non-building infrastructure that are considered externally-focused must be equally accessible to all members of the public regardless of background, age, and socioeconomic class, including the homeless, with reasonable steps taken to ensure that all people can benefit from the project’s creation. Access for those with physical disabilities must be safeguarded through designs meeting the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
  18. Rights to Nature: The project may not block access to, nor diminish the quality of, fresh air, sunlight, and natural waterways for any member of society or adjacent developments.
  19. Beauty and Spirit: The project must contain design features intended solely for human delight and the celebration of culture, spirit, and place appropriate to its function.
  20. eco_sense_house.jpg

    The Eco Sense House in BC, Canada. The builders say about their house: "The solar and wind power, solar thermal heating of the floor and domestic hot water, living roof, rain water harvesting, grey water re-use, composting toilets, organic gardens, and passive solar design are the core to helping us attain status of a 'Living Building'."

    Find out more about the house at eco-sense.ca.

    Inspiration and Education
    : Educational materials about the performance and operation of the project must be provided to the public to share successful solutions and to motivate others to make change. Landscapes, infrastructure, and neighborhood projects, and non-sensitive areas of buildings must be open to the public at least one day per year to facilitate direct contact with the Living Building Challenge.

There are approximately 70 projects pursuing certification under previous versions of the Living Building Challenge throughout North America, as well as one registered project in France. The Challenge is gaining international interest, with program ambassadors emerging in additional countries, including Australia, New Zealand, England, Ireland, India, Colombia, and Mexico. Three projects have completed construction and have entered their verification phase: Tyson Living Learning Center in Eureka, Missouri; Omega Center for Sustainable Living in Rhinebeck, New York; and Eco-Sense, a private residence in Victoria, British Columbia. To be certified, buildings must operate as planned for at least twelve months.


Jason McLennanJason McLennan wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit magazine that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Jason serves as the CEO of the Cascadia Green Building Council, a chapter of both the US Green Building Council and the Canadian Green Building Council. He is the author of the Living Building Challenge and co-creator of Pharos, the most advanced building material rating system in North America. He is a former Principal at BNIM Architects, one of the founders of the green design movement in the United States, where he worked on LEED Platinum, Gold, and zero energy projects.

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