Q&A: Jason McLennan

Jason McLennan, CEO of the International Living Future Institute (home of the Living Building Challenge, a standard launched by the Cascadia chapter of the Green Building Council in 2006 and intended to push beyond LEED at the time) has published a memoir about his own effort to live green, Zugunruhe: The Inner Migration to Profound Environmental Change (published by the ILFI’s Ecotone Publishing, 2010, which is, full disclosure, the same publisher that brought out my book, Women in Green in 2007). After reading his new book and in the wake of his organization’s annual Living Future conference (billed as an “unconference” because of its unconventional learning and networking formats and quickly becoming known as an intimate event for so-called “deep” greens) held this past April in Vancouver, I got a chance to talk with Jason about the book, the Institute, and some of its programs.

Kira Gould: This is a very personal book about living “green,” mindfully, and purposefully. Why now?

Jason McLennan: I started to notice a lot of folks coming to me for career and life advice, from many walks of life, and they were asking good questions. It felt like it’s a good time to bring together some of the things that work for me. In effect, I was seeing a demand for advice on how to make things meaningful.

KG: I was intrigued with your chapter about learning from failure, which I think is something that the AEC industry is notoriously bad at doing. Are there key things we could do to change a culture where admission of failure is something that designers and consultants feel compelled to avoid altogether due to liability and reputation?

JM: We have to keep talking about it. It’s important that leaders in the architecture community, individuals and firms that are deemed successful by their peers, be willing to talk about their failures: This gives others a “permission to be human.” We have to show that we all screw up, but what matters is what we do with those moments.

KG: I liked the section on “leading with love,” especially from someone who has long referred to himself as a “green warrior”. (I believe that has been your email handle since the early 1990s!) I think this is important because love and beauty are at the heart of designing places that will inspire people and communities to care for them over time. You note that this chapter was the hardest to write; can you talk about why?

JM: You know, “warrior” and “love” are only in opposition in Western society. A true warrior is one who avoids violence at all costs. I was reminded of this by one of our keynote speakers at this year’s Living Future event, Margaret Wheatley. She thinks that we all need to be “warriors of the heart.”

KG: You talk about the U.S. Green Building Council as a trim tab that grew into a rudder. Is that also true of LEED? Is that what sparked the need for the Living Building Challenge?

JM: I actually don’t think LEED sparked the need for the Living Building Challenge. I believe that the environmental urgency sparked the need. The way things have developed the LBC plays off of LEED in a nice way.

KG: What’s next for the Living Building Challenge program?

JM: We just certified the fourth project and there are more in the pipeline. We are really pleased to see interest from so many places. It’s also great to see that the projects are getting bigger and more complex.

KG: What’s behind the name change for your organization?

JM: In effect, we are stepping into and owning what we’ve already become. We changed the name of the Living Building Institute to International Living Future Institute and adjusted its relationship to the other entities [the Cascadia Chapter of the Green Building Council] and putting it into a proper context. We wanted our structure to make good sense. Also, because telling stories and publishing information is so essential to success, we have brought the publishing house, Ecotone, into the mix, and that will now run the magazine, Trim Tab.

Kira Gould, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP, is a writer and director of communications for William McDonough + Partners. She is co-author of Women in Green: Voices of Sustainable Design. Follow her on Twitter.

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