Jason F. McLennan: Bringing Buildings to Life
Designing the world’s greenest new building standards.
Against the century-old church next door, the modest, modern building that houses the science lab of Seattle’s private Bertschi School could seem out of place. Its metal roof glints in the daylight, a surrounding garden of native grasses rustles in the breeze, and in-ground windows offer a view of the water that flows beneath. Jason F. McLennan remembers when the owners cut the ribbon on this 1,400-square-foot addition.
Then, he recalls, the children started chanting. Not “Bertschi!” but “Liv-ing build-ing! Liv-ing build-ing!” Those elementary-schoolers knew what stood before them—a structure built to have minimal environmental impact, to exist in an almost symbiotic relationship with its surroundings, operating more like an ecosystem, less like a consumer.
McLennan has led the charge on this approach to building design and in 2006 kicked off the Living Building Challenge, a call to architects to take “green” a giant step forward.
And in winter 2011, children cheered an architectural feat. “It was humbling,” McLennan says, months later, gazing at the Bertschi building on an unseasonably cool summer morning.
The man who has been called a “change agent” in the world of sustainable architecture is in fact a humble one. Immersed in an expensive profession, promoting a cause that some might call trendy, McLennan is direct and decisive, a down-to-earth neighbor who can talk composting toilets or philosophy.
His gentle demeanor masks a hotshot in his field. McLennan, chief executive of the Cascadia Green Building Council and of the more recently formed International Living Future Institute (ILFI), wants to revamp the concept of “green,” which, he points out, still involves the consumption of nonrenewable resources—just fewer of them. To be certified “living,” a building (or a park, or a street, or a remodel) must meet criteria within seven categories: site, water, energy, health, materials, equity, and beauty. “Health” includesattention to air quality, for example, while “equity” considers issues such as fair trade. Three projects, in such disparate places as Hawaii, Missouri, and New York, have achieved living status, while about 100 others, including Bertschi, are in various stages of certification; ILFI aims to have living buildings in all 50 states, each Canadian province, and every country in the world. A transformation to living buildings won’t happen overnight, McLennan said, but it’s a start.
“Each building, each project creates a ripple effect around it. It changes the way people think. When there are enough of these examples, then a sudden and large-scale shift will be possible. We can’t control the timing of major shifts in civilization, but we can increase the likelihood that a shift will occur.”
A Lifelong Learner
McLennan, now 38, grew up in the factory city of Sudbury, Ontario, where he planted trees as part of a community effort to clean up industrial areas. Then McLennan saw the city redeveloped into commercial sprawl; bulldozers leveled some of the very areas he and his fellow community members had worked to restore. It spurred McLennan—who as a child sketched houses, castles, and ships before progressing to drafting classes—to chart a career in architecture.
He attended the University of Oregon, which had a reputation for its progressive program, then joined the Kansas City-based firm of BNIM Architects. As he expanded his knowledge of and experience in green building, he began pushing the concept even further. McLennan’s boss at
BNIM, Bob Berkebile, said the young Oregon graduate joined a team designing a green-building prototype at Montana State University. McLennan, Berkebile said, not only put in long hours on the project but sometimes stayed up until 2 or 3 a.m. peppering him with questions and engaging in broader discussions about life.
“Our talks were about trying to understand the world, trying to develop a strategy for changing the outcome of the human experiment,” Berkebile said. “Jason was then and is now a lifelong learner.”
McLennan went on to become the youngest principal at the firm and grew increasingly focused on expanding the concept of green building, incorporating the biomimicry ideas of Janine Benyus—who advocates replicating natural systems—along with the architectural strategies of Berkebile and other architects. Push beyond LEED certification—the existing gold-standard for environmental building—McLennan determined, to a design approach that doesn’t just take less but gives back.
“He’s clearly driven by an internal fire that is unique. If I had a chance to clone him, I would be all about doing it,” Berkebile said. “He is a nexus of a lot of important things in human history— the right person for the right time.”
Building as Teachable Moment
The Bertschi School spreads over a city block, incorporating an old church, vintage homes, and a LEED-certified academic and performance space. Around the time board members and administrators began discussing plans for the science wing, a couple of young architects attended a conference where McLennan gave a speech about living buildings. The two, Chris Hellstern and Stacy Smedley, approached McLennan afterward and pledged to complete a living building within a year. They eventually connected with Bertschi’s administration and began designing the science wing. Hellstern and Smedley donated their fees; Bertschi students provided input on some of the features. The stream that carries gray water from a cistern to the garden, visible via those underground windows? By request.
LEED and other green-building strategies had long appealed to Hellstern, but, he said, until he heard McLennan speak, he wasn’t sure how to do more. “Jason … really helped to illuminate a path to being a part of something greater than LEED work,” said Hellstern, whose firm, KMD Architects, helped form the Restorative Design Collective. That organization of architects has convinced some manufacturers to offer or switch to healthier, more environmentally friendly products. KMD is rewriting specifications to eliminate toxic materials from its projects.
The permeable concrete on the walkway, the solar panels on the roof, the indoor wall of plants for treating gray water, the structural insulated panels in the lab—every item in Bertschi’s new addition was chosen to meet living building standards and to help the students learn about natural resources. Three times a month, Bertschi administrators lead tours of the buildings—not just for prospective students, but for teachers and students from other schools, and, of course, architects.
The most popular feature on opening day—this is, remember, a school—was the composting toilet. “We had a line out the door,” said Stan Richardson, Bertschi’s director of technology and campus planning. The longest segment of any tour, Richardson added, is the discussion in the bathroom.
McLennan sees it as simply one element of the larger picture. Living buildings must consume as few resources as possible, and what they produce should be reused, be it water that would
otherwise go down the drain or human waste that would be flushed into the sewer. Natural systems reuse and regenerate. “This project exemplifies integration,” McLennan explains. “In most buildings, the systems are the backdrop. There is no system in this building that is not a teachable moment. They all matter, and they all have something to offer.”
Less Bad is Not Good Enough
The living-building philosophy stretches the green-building concept, which, McLennan points out, still relies on using fossil fuels, unhealthy building materials, and the labor of people who are treated unfairly. Moving toward a living building process, then, is about more than just construction; it’s about a fundamental shift in attitudes, culture, and economics. But while it is easy to push living building among architects and environmentally conscious communities, McLennan acknowledges the obstacles, particularly the political ones, in society at large. Not to mention the additional, upfront costs of living-building materials, or the difficulties in finding the appropriate local sources—though he hastens to point out that the long-term savings, such as in utility costs and the broader conservation of resources, make up for that. Fighting climate change, habitat loss, pervasive toxins, and social injustice, he believes, are worth the undertaking.
“You can’t help but feel a great deal of despair and a great deal of concern for humanity and other species. But if you’re really paying attention, you can’t help but be made optimistic by some of the intelligent work all around the world,” he said. “Complex human beings can be optimistic and hit with despair at the same time. You have to sit with your pain and be smiling.”
McLennan and his wife, Tracy, try to adapt the principles of living buildings into raising a family of four children—“living” as lifestyle, if you will. They shop consignment, choose minimal packaging, participate in a CSA. His briefcase is worn and scuffed—a look that, in a child’s stuffed animal, would be called “loved.” He drives a Prius, but because he lives on Bainbridge Island, Wash., he can walk to the ferry and ride the bus around Seattle. He lives in a 1970s house, which he improves, as finances allow, to living building standards. But McLennan is no environmental saint. Although he does as much as he can via email and by phone, he flies to presentations of his work—sometimes that’s the only effective way to get the word out, he says. “I’m not perfect,” he explains, nor is the living-building movement asking people to be. What it does instead, he says, is urge people to change.
“The world of green building is a world that is a little less bad, but that’s no longer adequate,” McLennan explains. “All planetary systems are in decline. It’s time to examine the whole paradigm. It’s no longer good enough to be a little less bad. We have to be a lot more restorative.
“That’s why we have to get to work. You have to persevere.”