From LEED to Living

By Hennebery Eddy

Can certifications make Better Buildings?

Over the last decade LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) has become perhaps the most widely known environmental third-party certification for buildings, helping to bridge the technical barrier of sustainable design between owners and architects. While LEED promotes many positive things within the built environment, it is limited to a prescriptive manner of certification, which can result in theoretically “better” buildings that may not actually perform better than a typical baseline building.

A little less than a decade ago, the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) unveiled a new building certification – The Living Building Challenge (LBC) which focuses on a standard of performance.  Branded as “a philosophy, advocacy platform and certification tool” it has established itself as perhaps the most advanced and inspirational environmental third-party certification for buildings. Organized around seven petals – Place, Water, Energy, Health & Happiness, Materials, Equity, and Beauty – the LBC pushes projects towards regenerative solutions. These efforts are then proven through a 12-month post occupancy verification period required for certification. Less than 10 projects worldwide have achieved full Living Building certification while dozens of others are in various stages, perhaps most notably the Bullitt Center in Seattle, Washington (which hasn’t yet completed its 12-month verification). As a firm we have not yet completed a Living Building, however, we recently proposed LBC certification for the early concept of a project. Time will tell if the project ends up pursuing and achieving the LBC, but we thought we’d share a bit of what we learned in the initial process.

The first and perhaps most important lesson is that the Living Building Challenge is achievable. Our first inclination was that “we can’t” mostly due to the net positive water imperative – but by pushing through these doubts and being aggressive in both water and energy use reduction strategies – we were much closer than we had originally assumed. Using detailed calculations, our assumptions were disproved and the preliminary design is on track for certification. Some other factors that we found challenging to our project, but not impossible to overcome:

  • Combustion: Living Buildings cannot use combustion sources for heating (or anything). However, at the moment ILFI will allow the use of gas for commercial cooking applications (restaurants). Gas is also allowed as a backup source, assuming that it is truly a backup.
  • Setbacks:  Wetlands should not be built in, no matter the pursuit. However, site constraints can put you in a situation where avoiding wetlands is extremely difficult. The LBC follows King County, WA standards which establish setbacks based on specific types of wetlands but also allow the use of setback averaging – meaning that in certain circumstances a setback of almost zero can be accommodated.
  • Materials: If you’ve even peeked at the LBC standards you’ve probably heard of the “Red List” which identifies hundreds of the not-so-good-for-human-contact chemicals and solvents that permeate the building industry. This can be a daunting task, but we found a few simple rules can really help here.
    • Simplify. This should be a standard on any project, but the more that the exterior and interior material palette and construction system can be simplified, the easier to manage.
    • Research Suppliers. Verify that the products and materials you are researching are readily available from suppliers local to the project. Getting ahead of this early seems the best way to avoid shortages or procurement challenges.
    • Reuse! Any and all salvaged materials are exempt from Red List so the more you are reusing the easier the task becomes – not to mention the inherent benefits of reuse.
  • Scale Jumping: Offered as an option to utilize adjacent buildings to meet challenging imperatives, on the surface it can seem like an easy out for some petals – especially water. We found that by pushing reduction we could reduce our “footprint of resources” and ultimately make a stronger statement. However, scale jumping could be salvation for a project that just can’t make the numbers work.

In summary, as architects we should push our buildings towards truly sustainable design, and the Living Building Challenge is a great resource for establishing goals and methods. Furthermore, certifications document and provide empirical evidence that can be used to demonstrate the benefits of environmental design to clients, helping them understand both short and long term impacts on bottom lines and eco-systems.  While not every project can reach full Living Building certification, no project can if we don’t try.

Want to read more about the Living Building Challenge? Go here.