Preserving the Past to Protect the Future


The International Living Building Institute recently launched the Living City Design Competition in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This international competition calls for design teams to re-imagine the future of our cities and use photorealistic renderings to demonstrate how current technology could transform existing cities into Living Cities—communities capable of achieving all 20 imperatives of the Living Building Challenge 2.0. The first prize is $75,000 plus media coverage and the second prize is $25,000. In addition, the National Trust for Historic Preservation will award a separate prize of $25,000 for the entry that most powerfully integrates a city’s existing built assets and architectural character into a vision for its future sustainability.

At first glance it may seem surprising that the National Trust is not only helping to promote this design competition, but also offering a substantial prize of its own. Why would an organization dedicated to preserving our cultural heritage make such a substantial investment in a design competition about the cities of the future?

The answer tells you something very important about both the National Trust and the Living City Design Competition.

“People sometimes think of historic preservation as an effort to freeze buildings in time,” says Patrice Frey, the National Trust’s sustainability deputy director. “But preservation is by its very nature future-oriented—it’s about finding innovative ways to respond to modern needs, protecting and leveraging the unique character that defines a place, and ensuring that these resources will endure for future generations.”

One of the main strengths of older and historic buildings, notes Frey, is that they have turned out to be very flexible in terms of adapting to new uses—and have been the essential ingredient in urban regeneration for many thriving neighborhoods. Building reuse also helps to avoid the environmental impacts associated with new construction. For the National Trust, sponsorship of the Living City Design Competition is an opportunity to encourage the world’s best designers to think of building conservation as a dynamic part of our future.

The competition is also an opportunity to challenge designers to think creatively about how to improve the environmental performance of older and historic buildings. As the green-building movement picked up steam over the past decade, the National Trust launched a sustainability program to shape a new dialogue around environmentally-driven retrofits and the adaptive reuse of older and historic buildings. Frey explains that “the Living City Design Competition helps to focus attention on the environmental value of reusing what we already have, and doing as much as possible to improve environmental performance of our older and historic buildings.”

As part of its commitment to green building, the National Trust recently teamed up with Green Building Services and the Cascadia Green Building Council to perform a major Life Cycle Assessment study of the comparative environmental impact of adaptive reuse versus building demolition and new construction. Cascadia is the creator of both the Living Building Challenge and the International Living Building Institute, and so it didn’t take long for the National Trust to get excited about the Living Building Challenge, especially since the latest iteration of the Challenge explicitly supports “Living-level” retrofits.

When Jason F. McLennan, the CEO of Cascadia and the International Living Building Institute, asked the National Trust to partner on the Living City Design Competition, they jumped at the chance. As Frey notes, “The really exciting thing about this competition is that it begins with the question, How is preservation and adaptability fundamental to a progressive plan for the future? If you think about it, there are so many parallels with the way we’ve disassociated ourselves from our natural and cultural resources. Achieving a healthy and hopeful future is a matter of reconnecting with culture and nature and the uniqueness of place.”

This reconnection is exactly what the Living City Design Competition is intended to inspire.

Sarah Costello is the development director of the Cascadia Green Building Council. Last May, Costello and Jason F. McLennan introduced the Living City Design Competition with a call for designers, engineers, and urban planners to envision “an inspiring but realistic model for future cities.”

Categories: Cities