Milestones in Sustainability

Something truly monumental happened this week. The Living Building Challenge℠, the world’s most rigorous green building performance standard, crossed the divide that separates compelling ideas from proven strategies.

Omega Center for Sustainable Living: Farshid Assassi, courtesy of BNIM Architects.

Two projects, the Omega Center for Sustainable Living (designed by BNIM Architects) and the Tyson Living Learning Center (designed by Hellmuth + Bicknese Architects) have achieved full Living Building Certification, earning the right to be called the world’s greenest modern buildings. A third project, Victoria, BC’s Eco-Sense residence, earned partial program certification (“Petal Recognition”) for meeting all of the requirements in the Site, Water, Health and Beauty categories. The remaining two Living Building Challenge Petals in Version 1.3 are Energy and Materials. (A seventh Petal, Equity, was added to version 2.0, released in November 2009.)

The accomplishments of these pioneering teams are a victory for all of us. They have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the built environment can thrive in tandem with the ecosystems it inhabits. They’ve demonstrated that building occupants can be wise stewards of the resources that support their homes, offices, and classrooms. They’ve created a new model of what’s possible when talented and dedicated people devote themselves to creating a world that is culturally rich, socially just, and ecologically restorative. 

In the four years since we first issued the Challenge, over seventy project teams throughout North America (and increasingly worldwide) have formally registered as prospective Living Buildings, Sites, or Communities. These teams have pioneered a new model of sustainability in the built environment, but until now, none has been crossed the finish line.

The Living Building Challenge requires project teams to prove that they have met all requirements through a full year of operation. And there’s a lot to prove: to be ‘Living’ a development must generate all of its own energy through clean, renewable resources; capture and treat its own water through ecologically sound techniques; incorporate only nontoxic, appropriately sourced materials; and operate efficiently and for maximum beauty.  

For the projects involved, this process has been anything but business as usual.

The Omega Center for Sustainable Living, featured in Metropolis’s November 2009 issue, serves as a wastewater processing plant for Omega’s 195-acre campus in the Hudson Valley. It is also a functioning classroom and yoga studio, cutting to the heart of popular conceptions about how we should treat our most precious resources. The project pushed all involved to rethink every aspect of how buildings are created and to think holistically about both the downstream and upstream implications of seemingly mundane decisions ­– down to selecting the appropriate construction adhesive. Ultimately, though, the effort was more than worth it. As Omega’s CEO, Skip Backus puts it, “We’re hopeful that projects like ours will mark a new era in sustainable design, one that reflects a truly integrated approach to creating built environments that are in harmony with the natural world.”

Tyson2-imageTyson Research Center, Photographer: Joe Angeles-Wustl.

For the Tyson Research Center, Washington University’s satellite campus for environmental research and education, the Living Building Challenge offered a chance to create a classroom facility that doubled as an educational tool. The experience changed everyone involved. “One of the most rewarding aspects of receiving Living Building Certification is that it formally recognizes the exceptional commitment it took to complete this project,” said Tyson’s Kevin G. Smith. Being at the leading edge of green building wasn’t easy. For instance, in their efforts to purchase appropriately sourced materials from within the Challenge’s materials radius, the team discovered that ceiling fans are not made anywhere within North America, a fact  that underscores the potential for green buildings to revive domestic manufacturing.

EcoSense-imageCopyright Eco-Sense.

Ann and Gord Baird took a different path, designing and building a home for themselves and their family.  The Bairds began work on Eco-Sense with a clear mission: to create a truly sustainable and affordable multi-generational house. What began as a building project quickly became something much more, including regular tours and extensive media attention. Reflecting on their accomplishment, Ann Baird commented, “The telling of a new story and the real life example set by Eco-Sense has inspired many others to build in similar ways or to incorporate aspects of Eco-Sense into their existing homes.”

We when we first issued the Living Building Challenge in 2006, we took a leap of faith. We believed the green building movement had everything needed to bring the built environment in alignment with the planet’s carrying capacity, provided a clearly articulated end goal gave this broad and dynamic movement something to aim for. The certification of these first buildings translates our belief into a proven strategy transforming the built environment.

So what’s next?

First, we will pause and celebrate this momentous accomplishment.

Then we will get back to work, encouraging other teams to set their sites on ‘Living’, and pushing for the creation of Living-level projects at every scale.  As part of that effort, we are in the midst of a Living City Design Competition, which calls on the design community to imagine how the Challenge might be used to retrofit existing cities. (Read our past posts about the competition here.) Just as the Living Building Challenge will continue to inspire the creation of truly remarkable buildings, sites and communities, it is our hope that the energy and creativity unleashed by this competition will sow the seeds of transformation in the cities we call home.

Categories: Cities