Greener Lives loves to share ideas about healthy and sustainable interior design, creating greener homes, discovering amazing eco-friendly products and exploring a bit of all things green.

Monday, June 6, 2016

How green can and should buildings be?

People are always asking me: What makes buildings green? Jason McLennan has an answer, an 81-page answer called the Living Building Challenge (LBC). Even though most of the 81 pages in the LBC guidelines are in full color and have background scenes like green buildings, a girl and a cat looking out a window (truly) and someone meditating, the Living Building Challenge is the most rigorous certification standard for green buildings in the United States. McLennan created the LBC in 2006 and began certifying buildings in 2010, but only 11 buildings have been certified for meeting the full standard since then.

Not everyone is put off by the challenge. In April, famed actor Leonardo DiCaprio commissioned McLennan to design "Blackadore Caye, a Restorative Island," a 68-villa eco-resort on a private island in Belize. All construction on the 104-acre site will meet the LBC standard. McLennan is a practicing architect and the former CEO of the International Living Future Institute, which runs the Living Building Challenge.

The 81-page, full-color guidelines to the Living Building Challenge are not fine-print checklists.

The Living Building Challenge is a vision of what green can be, and it's different from other building certification systems in integral ways. As McLennan explains in Green Biz magazine: "All of the green building programs that exist in the world are built around a notion of doing less harm, so we turned that on its head and we're trying to define what 'good' looks like, which is a very different thing." He adds, "Instead of buildings that are less likely to give you cancer, how about buildings that can't give you cancer? Instead of buildings that produce less pollution than the average building, how about a building that produces no pollution?"

Other green building certification programs like LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and Green Globes are points-based systems. They require that projects meet certain criteria in a number of categories. Then, projects are awarded points for meeting other optional criteria. Depending on how many points they achieve, projects can be certified at different levels like Silver, Gold and Platinum. (Let me note here that I am a LEED Accredited Professional, and a member of the U.S. Green Building Council, which developed the LEED system.)

One complaint about LEED, the most widely used green building certification system in the United States, is that project managers can pick and choose easy points to gain higher certification levels. With the Living Building Challenge, it's an all or nothing proposition. The guidelines provide the criteria, and projects must meet them all to be certified. There are no points. On the other hand, the Living Building Challenge does offer two types of certification that do not require projects to meet all of the guidelines: Petal Certification and Net Zero Energy Building Certification. The LBC guidelines have seven performance categories, which it calls "Petals": Place, Water, Energy, Health & Happiness, Materials, Equity and Beauty. I love that the LBC recognizes that aesthetics and psychological well being are an important part of building design and construction.

In a sense, a fully certified LBC building is a mini-city. It has to have "Net Positive Energy" so that the building generates 5% more energy on site without combustion than it needs. It also has to have "Net Positive Water," which means that 100% of the water for the building has to be captured, recycled, reclaimed and purified on site. All storm water and water discharge has to be treated on site, so it does not use the municipal sewage system.

The VanDusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver is a Living Building Challenge fully certified building

One important difference between the LBC and other certification systems is that the LBC does not award its certification until after the building has been operating for a year and has the statistics to prove that it is actually performing to the standards for which it was designed. This is a requirement that LEED and other certification systems need to adopt.

In addition to the 11 LBC projects that have received full certification, another 33 have received one of the partial certifications and 301 projects currently are registered to participate in the LBC system. With those kinds of statistics, I have to wonder: how rigorous a green building standard is too rigorous?

The LEED green building certification system addresses all of the LBC criteria except waste water, happiness and beauty although LEED has lower requirements in many areas, including energy and water. In the 16 years of its existence, LEED has certified more than 74,500 commercial buildings for a total of 14.4 billion square feet of commercial space as well as nearly 206,000 total LEED for Homes residential units around the world. LEED also has been adopted by many municipal, county and state governments as a requirement for new government building construction, which is a real accomplishment, I think. Yet LEED would be untenable if it required municipal governments to build facilities that did not use municipal sewage treatment plants. For now, we do need LEED, and it is not in competition with the LBC.

The Living Building Challenge presents a vision for our future based on changing our present. Buildings consume 47.6% of the energy and 74.9% of the electricity in the U.S. We can never have a future where we do not rely on fossil fuels and do not use up all of our ground water in desert cities if we don't know how to design and construct self-reliant buildings. The Living Building Challenge shows us just how green today's buildings can be, and we should start building more than two truly green buildings a year. Our present and our future demand it.