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The World’s First Living Buildings

A new generation of buildings is upending what you thought you knew about construction.
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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.

Four years ago, the International Living Building Institute issued a challenge to the building industry: “What if every single act of design and construction made the world a better place?” Offering the Living Building Challenge as a guide for developments that function as part of a site’s ecosystem rather than being merely superimposed on top of it, the Institute activated the concept of “Living” Buildings, Sites and Communities worldwide.

These projects are likened to a flower in their function: They must generate all of their own energy using clean, renewable resources; capture and treat all of their own water through ecologically sound techniques; contain only nontoxic, appropriately sourced materials; and operate efficiently and for maximum beauty. In addition, performance must be proven over the course of at least twelve consecutive months before being eligible for certification.

True, the requirements of the Living Building Challenge are incredibly stringent and go against the grain of conventional practices. When first announced, many considered them too ambitious to be achievable.

But last month, the first projects were recognized for completing a full year as functioning Living Buildings.

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 Omega Center for Sustainable Living in Rhinebeck, NY, and the Tyson Living Learning Center in Eureka, MO, each earned full program certification. Eco-Sense, a private residence in Victoria, BC, earned partial program certification for achieving four of the six stringent “Petals” included in version 1.3 of the Living Building Challenge. (A 7th Petal, Equity, was added to version 2.0, released in November 2009.)

Together, the accomplishments of these three project teams mark a pivotal turning point in the way that we relate to our surroundings and take ownership of our ecological impacts.

Meet the Buildings

The Omega Center for Sustainable Living serves as a wastewater filtration facility for the Omega Institute’s 195-acre campus in the Hudson Valley. Though primarily focused on providing a healthy and localized method for water treatment, the Center also plays a part in the Institute’s ongoing curriculum. It is a teaching tool for students of all ages to experience firsthand how blackwater can be purified without the use of chemicals. The building includes a classroom where visitors can be found practicing yoga. Imagine being encouraged to “take a deep breath” in such a facility—and comforted to know that following this directive is safe.

Tyson Living Learning Center

Tyson Living Learning Center in Eureka, Missouri.

For the Tyson Research Center at Washington University in St. Louis, the Living Building Challenge complemented their stated mission to “provide a living landscape for environmental research and education.” The Center is a wood structure that sits on a former parking lot surrounded by 2,000 forested acres, and is built predominantly of timber from the greater site. Many of the trees used were identified as being invasive and were already slated for removal as part of a campus restoration project. Others were storm-downed or dead trees.

As the first legal load-bearing cob residence in North America, Eco-Sense is a model home for living with nature. Ann and Gord Baird let the existing landscape dictate the arrangement of this multi-generational residence, office, chicken coop, and food garden. For example, the footprint of the homestead was restricted to the portion of the lot that had been substantially damaged from previous use. The shape of the building mirrors the contours of the land, following the areas of the bedrock site that were most receptive to construction. In addition, the Bairds filed a new covenant that protects approximately five acres of undisturbed area on the property from future development.

These are only a few of the teams’ innovative solutions for meeting the Challenge.

New Regulations for a New Generation of Building

Because Living Buildings are still so far beyond the norm, each of the projects encountered regulatory obstacles—conventional building codes just weren’t able to accommodate them. But by working closely with the building authorities in their locales, the teams have established precedents that others can now follow.

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China's Living Water Garden

Photo Essay: This floating ecological living machine—a gorgeous botanical garden—is restoring open sewage canals.

The International Living Building Institute also works to help the building industry reform and reevaluate building codes so that they can truly protect health, safety and welfare. In July, Clark County, Wash., passed a Sustainable Communities ordinance, which allows buildings to depart from code requirements that impede the goals of the Living Building Challenge. At least five other municipalities have also approved alternative methods and/or incentives to encourage the uptake of Living Building Challenge.

This is just the beginning. Seventy other projects are underway throughout North America and beyond—some buildings, others communities, campuses, or infrastructure—each one an instructive step toward a future in which design and construction yield greater biodiversity and resiliency.


Eden BrukmanEden Brukman wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Eden is vice president of the International Living Building Institute.

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