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Living Buildings: Are AEC Firms up to the Challenge?

Living Buildings: Are AEC Firms up to the Challenge?

You’ve done a LEED Gold or two, maybe even a LEED Platinum. But are you and your firm ready to take on the Living Building Challenge? Think twice before you say yes.

By By Edward Keegan, Contributing Editor | September 12, 2011
Bertschi School was the first completed building in Washington State to meet the Living Building Challenge criteria.
This article first appeared in the September 2011 issue of BD+C.

Over the last decade, the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program has established itself as the preeminent industry standard for rating green buildings. Despite LEED’s remarkable success, however, there has emerged a determined contingent of USGBC loyalists—many with “LEED AP” after their names—who nonetheless feel that LEED simply does not go far enough. These supergreen eco-warriors have united under the banner of the International Living Building Challenge.

The nesting ground of the Living Building Challenge is the Cascadia Green Building Council, encompassing Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska. It should come as no surprise that such an initiative would find a home in the Pacific Northwest, long a bastion of environmental pioneering and leadership.

The prime mover behind the Living Building Challenge is Jason McLennan, LEED AP, a Canadian-born architect who was involved with LEED from its early days as a principal at Kansas City-based BNIM, where he worked with the legendary Bob Berkebile, FAIA. McLennan and Berkebile were hashing out the basic outlines of the “living buildings” concept, in print and in public discourse, in the late 1990s, when LEED was still in its nascence. McLellan was project manager on two of the first 10 LEED pilot projects, notably the David and Lucile Packard Foundation headquarters, from which came the Packard Matrix (2001), a groundbreaking study that attempted to quantify the relative first costs and life cycle costs of LEED and living buildings.

In 2005, with LEED fast becoming the green building norm, McLennan began formulating the living building concept into a building standard. A year later, he brought the intellectual property of the Living Building Challenge to the Cascadia Green Building Council, which he joined as CEO, later forming the International Living Future Institute (https://ilbi.org/).
The ILFI describes the Living Building Challenge as “a philosophy, advocacy platform, and certification program.” The LBC is organized around seven so-called “petals.” Five of these—site, water, energy, health, and materials—parallel LEED’s credit structure; the other two, equity and beauty, are unique to the LBC.

Unlike the LEED points system, Building Teams can’t pick and choose which petals to emphasize. There are no credits—just prerequisites. The petals are broken down into 20 imperatives, such as net-zero water, net-zero energy, and the notorious “Red List”—materials that are forbidden in a Living Building.

The first three Living Buildings were completed under Version 1.3 and faced a daunting challenge: all seven petals had to be fulfilled. The current version, 2.0, still requires the full list to be addressed in a Living Building, but it offers so-called “petal recognition” for projects that demonstrate adherence to at least three of the seven petals.
Today, there are four certified Living Buildings, with nearly another 100 projects registered with the ILFI. McLennan estimates that there may be a few hundred more that not registered but are following the LBC’s requirements, but he decries this practice as “counterproductive to the movement.” Chris Hellstern, LEED AP BD+C, CDT, a principal with KMD Architects and a proponent of Living Buildings, agrees. “There’s a rigor to the Challenge that drops off if you don’t register,” he says.


No aspect of the Living Building Challenge has caused greater consternation among early adopters than its material requirements. The LBC prescribes a “Red List” of materials and chemicals that cannot be used in any form within a project. The Red List is linked to a so-called “Appropriate Sourcing Imperative” that requires heavy and high-density materials to be derived from within a 500-kilometer radius, medium-weight, medium-density materials to come from within 1,000 kilometers, and low-weight, low-density materials to come from within 2,000 kilometers.
“The materials component is the hardest to comply with, and it takes more time up front, but it will eventually be overcome,” says Stan Richardson, campus planner for the Bertschi School, an early Living Building whose team had difficulty obtaining FSC-certified wood within the distance parameters.
That was nothing compared to what the team on the Hawaii Preparatory Academy had to overcome. “If you go a thousand miles from Hawaii, you’re in the ocean,” says David A. Croteau, AIA, principal-in-charge at Flansburgh Architects. While the LBC does grant exceptions in extraordinary cases, such as the Hawaii project, the specification process under LBC is extremely time-consuming. “No single spec will work from project to project, since the materials are location-dependent,” he says.

Because most building products contain many different raw materials—ingredients that are not necessarily obvious from readily available product information—Building Team members have to spell out the materials requirements clearly from the start or risk jeopardizing the project. In the case of the Bertschi School, a miscommunication led to an incorrect assumption that all materials had been screened for Red List violations. “We had to stop construction twice in order to coordinate,” Richardson says.

On the other hand, the Red List has been responsible for pushing building product manufacturers to new levels, says KMD Architects’ Chris Hellstern. For the Bertschi School, the Building Team convinced a skylight manufacturer to remove PVC from its standard product. That manufacturer has since modified the product to meet the Living Building Challenge in future installations.

“The conversation on materials is newer than that about energy and water,” says Eden Brukman, RA, ILFI’s vice president. “People just don’t know how materials fit together—and that includes the manufacturers.” For the Tyson Living Learning Center, a Living Building in Missouri, “We had two people on the phone for four months, checking on the materials,” says Daniel F. Hellmuth, AIA, LEED AP, principal at Hellmuth + Bicknese, St. Louis.
“The materials requirements are one of the problems of being an early adopter, but they will become part of the norm,” says Richard V. Piacentini, executive director of the Center for Sustainable Landscapes at Pittsburgh’s Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. He compares LBC’s Red List with what happened with volatile organic compounds in early LEED projects: sooner or later, Building Teams learned how to track VOCs to meet LEED requirements.


The ILFI is forthright in its desire to combat what its proponents see as the globalization of the building industry. “The LBC is a place-based solution,” says the ILFI’s Brukman. “A building should be of a place and of a culture.”

However, this ideal, made manifest in the LBC’s Appropriate Sourcing Imperative, has larger implications for the construction industry. “It’s good that buildings should be more responsive to their place,” says Croteau, whose Boston-based firm does work all over the world. “LBC can drive that regionalism, but how can a manufacturer deal with the radius? They can’t just move their factory. It’s a whole different organization of the global economy.”

Design Alliance Architects’ Chris Minnerly says the proper role of a building is to be “part of a local system. It’s what you did centuries ago.” But can modern construction methods conform to such a paradigm? And is it realistic to build this way? The LBC presupposes yes. “We’re trying to create regional economies,” says Brukman.

Hellmuth + Bicknese’s Dan Hellmuth compares LBC’s regional approach to the local food movement in that it should use resources close at hand that provide expression in the buildings. “LBC puts aesthetic, touchy-feely things in,” he says. The beauty and inspiration requirements demand that designers put in whimsical features that are meant to create delight in the building for its occupants. At the Tyson Living Learning Center, the Building Team worked with a local fabricator to create a rain chain and incorporated wood inlays in the floors. “We had fun with it,” say Hellmuth.

Climate is a crucial aspect of regionalism, of course. It’s one thing to design in moderate climates like those of Seattle and Hawaii. “The climate in Seattle helps. It’s pretty benign,” admits KMD Architects founder Jim Diaz, who worked on the Bertschi School as part of the Restorative Design Collective. He acknowledges that designing Living Buildings for harsher climates like Fargo, N.D., or Biloxi, Miss., could be another matter.


Not unlike the profile of early LEED building owners, early adopters of the Living Building Challenge tend to fit a certain profile: nonprofit organizations that have an educational component in their reason for being. “The Living Building Challenge matched our mission,” says Robert “Skip” Backus, CEO of the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies. “We contribute to the public’s understanding of the built environment. This was an opportunity to make a leadership statement.”

For privately funded organizations like the Omega Institute, the very complexity of the Living Building Challenge can be a rallying point. “Doing a building that was both LEED Platinum and LBC was a great fundraising tool,” says Backus. Many of the Omega Center for Sustainable Living’s donors were already familiar with LEED. “I’d tell them, Here’s where LEED stops”—indicating a certain level—“and we’re going here,” pointing to a much higher level.

As in the early days of LEED, LBC Building Teams may not always be fully compensated for the additional work they have to put into Living Buildings. “Psychologically, I’ve avoided adding up all the extra time the project took,” says Hellmuth, in reference to the Tyson Center project. He chalks the costs up to a necessary learning experience that will pay off in future work. “It won’t be as straightforward as LEED, but the slope of our learning curve has gone down.”


Several of the Living Buildings surveyed here used a formal integrated project delivery methodology because its team members view IPD as integral to achieving the LBC objectives. Others say that a formal agreement may not be necessary, although they acknowledge the need for a highly collaborative working environment.

“Having both the general contractor and architect working together, especially on materials, is key,” says the Bertschi School’s Richardson. “Integrated design is the way to go.” KMD Architects’ Hellstern agrees. “IPD is necessary—it requires all parties to be together.”
Thanks to today’s online collaboration tools, achieving a high level of collaboration is much more feasible than in the early days of LEED. “We only had two meetings with everyone in the same room—during schematic design and design development,” says Ken Melrose, project manager for the Hawaii Prep project, whose team communicated virtually between Hawaii and the mainland.

LBC founder McLennan has a stern warning for Building Teams on this point: If you’re not ready to push full team integration, then the Living Building Challenge is not the way to go. As to the nuts and bolts of the IPD, McLennan kicks that can down the road. “We don’t deal with contracts,” he says. “That’s the team’s business. But ask me again in four years.”


Living buildings are still novel enough that every project comes from a visionary owner or developer—not the kind of people who like to stand still. Skip Backus, who has spent 30 years at the Omega Institute, says his organization is now looking at the rest of its 150-building campus in a new light. In some cases, they’re retrofitting existing buildings; in others, they’re dismantling and rebuilding.

No aspect of the Living Building Challenge is easy, nor is it meant to be. “It’s called a challenge for a reason,” says the ILFI’s Brukman. “But it’s not the Living Building Impossible.” Feedback from early adopters is helping the ILFI and LBC adapt to the realities of the marketplace. Under version 2.0 (https://ilbi.org/lbc/v2-0), “petal recognition” status can now be awarded to projects that fulfill at least three petals.

“We’re building a movement of practitioners who see their role in building under a new paradigm,” says LBC founder McLennan. “We’re changing how thousands of people think.”

“The Red List and distance requirements sometimes leave you with no options, or undesirable ones,” says Kevin Smith, PhD, associate director of the Tyson Living Learning Center. “But this is the world we live in, so how do we address it? LBC has taken a chance to pressure industry.”
Smith sees early adopters establishing a kind of sacrificial beachhead. “We’re doing it because it’s hard, but we’ll make it easier for others in the future,” he says. ILFI’s Brukman notes that registered projects are starting to range beyond the expected types into single-family residences, medical facilities, office buildings, parks, bridges, and even whole neighborhoods.

The extra costs associated with building supergreen remain a concern. Not a single person who’s been involved with an LBC project failed to discuss how it’s more expensive to build this way. “We’ll find out if these ideas have taken root when the economy rebounds,” says KMD’s Diaz.
“I don’t know if it will become as widespread as LEED,” says Hellmuth. “LEED is a threshold. LBC, on the other hand, is super-high experimental.” BD+C

SIDEBAR: Living Building Challenge and LEED: Complementary? Or competitive?

As the new kid on the block, it’s inevitable that the Living Building Challenge will be compared to LEED. LBC’s parent organization, the International Living Future Institute, is careful in how it describes the relationship. “It’s complementary to LEED, but not competitive,” says CEO Jason McLennan.
AEC professionals who have worked with both programs are more forthright about the differences. “LEED is trickier for small buildings,” says architect Dan Hellmuth, AIA. “LEED is better for $2 million and higher projects.”

Ken Melrose, project manager on the Hawaii Preparatory Academy’s Energy Lab, said LEED Platinum was seen as a baseline, with the Living Building Challenge as the “stretch goal.” Melrose says LEED does not adequately address passive design strategies as fully as LBC. “There are mechanical prerequisites in LEED that aren’t needed,” he says. “We have a $90,000 high-efficiency air-conditioning unit that’s never been turned on. It’s on the checklist, but it isn’t sustainable.”

The Omega Institute for Holistic Studies was another client that wanted both LEED and LBC. “LEED was very easy by comparison,” says CEO Skip Backus. He liked the idea that the Living Building Challenge goes beyond LEED in key areas to address aesthetics and full ownership of a Living Building.

“The USGBC is about market transformation through incremental change,” says Eden Brukman, ILFI’s vice president. “We’re tugging at the top end, leading by example through high-level performance. It’s a different strategy.”

SIDEBAR: Meet the Pied Piper of Living Buildings

Jason F. McLennan, LEED AP, is the CEO of the Cascadia Green Building Council and founder of the Seattle-based International Living Future Institute. He is the author of the Living Building Challenge and co-creator of Pharos, an advanced building material rating system in North America. He has published three books—The Ecological Engineer, The Dumb Architect’s Guide to Glazing Selection, and The Philosophy of Sustainable Design, which is currently used as a textbook in over 40 universities and colleges—and co-authored (with Mary Adam Thomas) Zugunruhe: The Inner Migration to Profound Environmental Change.

As a principal at BNIM Architects, he worked on many early LEED Platinum and zero energy buildings and created the building science team known as Elements, which set new standards for energy and resource efficiency on many of its projects. McLennan is the founder/CEO of Ecotone Publishing, the only dedicated green building publisher in North America. In 2006, he was named one of the top “40 Under 40” most influential individuals in the design and construction industry by Building Design+Construction magazine.

PROJECT PROFILE Omega Center for Sustainable Living

“Combining wastewater and a classroom is weird,” says Robert “Skip” Backus, CEO of the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies. The organization originally conceived what’s now the Omega Center for Sustainable Living as a wastewater treatment center for its 150-building Rhinebeck, N.Y., campus. The OCSL was the first structure in the United States to achieve both LEED Platinum and Living Building Challenge certification.
Backus says the core idea behind the center was to “make the building a living expression of our connection to natural processes.” While LEED Platinum was the original goal, halfway through the design process ILFI CEO Jason McLennan contacted Backus and asked if he would be willing to have the structure be the first Living Building. “I was a general contractor before I was here, so I was the perfect guinea pig,” says Backus.

Designed by Kansas City-based BNIM, the OCSL uses geothermal sourcing for heating and cooling and solar panels for electricity, but its most unusual feature is the Eco Machine for wastewater management.

The facility is licensed to handle up to 52,000 gallons of water per day, including gray and black water. The use of the campus is seasonal, with about 100 staff on site year-round, but its population grows to about 700 during the spring, summer, and fall, so that’s a lot of water to recycle.
“We used the Living Building Challenge as an opportunity,” says Backus. “We’re about behavior change, so there was a lot of learning.

Owner: Omega Institute for Holistic Studies
Architect: BNIM Architects
MEP engineer: BGR Engineers
Structural engineer: Tipping Mar + Associates
Civil engineer: Chazen Companies
Water systems engineer: Natural Systems Intl.
Landscape architect: Conservation Design Forum
Ecological design: Hohn Todd Ecological Design
Contractor: David Sember Construction

PROJECT PROFILE: The Center for Sustainable Landscapes at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens
When it is completed next spring, the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens’ Center for Sustainable Landscapes, in Pittsburgh, Pa., is expected to achieve both Living Building Challenge and LEED Platinum certification. It is also a pilot project for the International Sustainable SITES Initiative, which is seeking to become the international standard for eco-friendly landscape systems.

Designed by local firm Design Alliance Architects, the 24,350-sf building will house education and research facilities and administrative offices. “We want kids to understand sustainability and a living building,” says Phipps executive director Richard V. Piacentini. The $14.5 million building will utilize a $500,000 passive solar system and geothermal heating and cooling. Another $5 million will go toward building and grounds improvement, landscape site work, and education demonstration projects. Private donations make up the bulk of the funding, with $500,000 from the feds and $750,000 from the state.

“Our buildings should reflect our mission,” says Piacentini. “In 1893, our old conservatory sought to conquer nature by growing tropical plants in Pittsburgh—in a single-pane glass building,” he says. That was possible because energy was cheap and abundant “We isolated ourselves from nature,” he says. “Now, we need to open up our buildings to nature.”

Many of the plants in the new building will be native to the region. A permaculture garden on the roof will demonstrate sustainable gardening methods to visitors. “It’s about stewardship and providing a place that’s healthy for plants and people,” says Chris Minnerly, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP, principal with Design Alliance Architects.

Owner: Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens
Architect: Design Alliance Architects
MEP engineer: CJL Engineering
Structural engineer: Atlantic Engineering Services
Civil engineer: Civil & Environmental Consultants, Inc.
Landscape architecture: Andropogon Associates
LEED certification: Evolve, LLC
Energy, daylight, materials consultant: 7group LLC
Commissioning: H.F. Lenz
Enhanced commissioning: Pitchford Diversified
Water treatment: Sundrive
Construction manager: Massaro Corp.
General contractor: Turner Construction

Carnegie Mellon University (Center for Building Performance and Diagnostics), Chatham University, Duquesne University, Green Building Alliance, National Energy Technical Laboratory, University of Pittsburgh (Mascaro Sustainability Initiative)

PROJECT PROFILE: Bertschi School Living Building Science Wing
KMD Architects led the Restorative Design Collective—a group of the Seattle area’s leading green building firms—in designing the Bertschi School Living Building Science Wing on a pro bono basis. The Seattle pre-K to grade 5 elementary school was the first completed building in Washington State to meet the Living Building Challenge criteria.

The project was originally conceived as an addition to the existing building, with a tie-in to water and mechanical systems, according to Stan Richardson, Bertschi School’s director of technology and campus planning. But the systems needed to be separated to meet the Living Building Challenge. There could be no overlap on water, although some electricity is drawn from the older building.

The 1,425-sf building is split into two forms: a rectilinear classroom and an organically shaped structure called the eco-house, where students do water, soil, and salmon studies behind its glass curtain wall. The eco-house contains an interior green wall. “Our green wall is the first to treat gray water,” KMD Architects’ Chris Hellstern says. “Because it’s inside, it was cooler and we had lower light. We needed plants that could grow in this environment.”
“It’s such a good fit for elementary school students,” says Richardson. “They can see the systems. Every piece of the building is used for education.”

Owner: Bertschi School
Architect: KMD Architects
Structural engineer: Quantum Consulting Engineers
MEP engineer: Rushing
Civil engineer: 2020 Engineering
Geotechnical engineer: GeoEngineers
Landscape architect: GGLO
Sustainability consultant: O’Brien and Co.
Food systems consultant: Back to Nature Design LLC
Preconstruction/Construction services: Skanska USA Building

Cascadia Region Green Building Council, King County Green Tools, City of Seattle Department of Planning and Development Green Building Program

PROJECT PROFILE: Hawaii Preparatory Academy Energy Lab
Boston-based Flansburgh Architects designed the 6,112-sf Hawaii Preparatory Academy (HPA) Energy Lab to enable the school’s K-12 students to experience a sustainable building firsthand. Even better, it would be “a place that will inspire questions,” according to Energy Lab director Bill Wiecking, PhD.

The idea of pursuing a Living Building took hold in 2007 with the project’s sustainability consultant, Büro Happold’s Ana Serra. David A. Croteau, AIA, LEED AP, whose Boston-based Flansburgh Architects led the Building Team, said the energy components of the project weren’t that difficult to master. “The climate is comfortable, and it’s a small, one-story building.”

Croteau says the Energy Lab faced two big challenges: the remote location, due south of the 13,796-sf Mauna Kea volcano; and the Red List, with its “appropriate sourcing imperative.” Many building products had to be brought in from the mainland; for example, all the toilet fixtures had to be shipped from Mexico.

Nonetheless, the Building Team was able to incorporate aspects of the Big Island’s vernacular into the Energy Lab, using indigenous metal roofing and polycarbonate skylights that were manufactured on site. Wind turbines, radiant cooling, and a total 26.13 kW of PV power play into the energy strategy.
The $7.7 million building, funded largely through a donation from the founder of a German alternative energy corporation, is expected to meet both the Living Building Challenge and LEED Platinum.

“There’s a need to prove performance for LBC,” says HPA project manager Ken Melrose, of Paahana Enterprises LLC. “We have a custom-designed program for monitoring the building.” The system can open and close louvers according to pre-programmed parameters, but the students can manipulate it—and hopefully ask questions afterwards.

Owner: Hawaii Preparatory Academy
Project manager: Paahana Enterprises LLC
Architect: Flansburgh Architects
Mechanical engineer: Hakalau Engineering LLC
Electrical engineer: Wallace T. Oki, PE, Inc.
Structural engineer: Walter Vorfeld & Associates
Civil engineer: Belt Collins Hawaii Ltd.
Sustainability consultant: Büro Happold Consulting Engineers
Commissioning agent: Green Building Services
Surveyor: Pattison Surveying
General contractor: Quality Builders, Inc.

PROJECT PROFILE: Tyson Living Learning Center
Washington University in St. Louis’s Tyson Living Learning Center is located in Eureka, Mo., on a 2,000-acre campus in the foothills of the Ozarks. The center, designed by St. Louis-based Hellmuth + Bicknese Architects, was completed in 2009 to provide research and teaching spaces for forestry and biology research.

The building’s green features are buried deep within its L-shaped, shed-roofed structure. Cedar and hard maple trees salvaged from the site were used in the building—cedar for the siding, maple for the floors and eaves. “We still didn’t have enough wood, though,” says Daniel F. Hellmuth, AIA, LEED AP, principal at design firm Hellmuth + Bicknese, St. Louis. “So we made up the difference with storm-downed native trees on site. This gave us ash and hickory that were then used as inlays in the floors.”

“The building is a perfect match of our educational and research missions,” says associate director Kevin Smith, PhD. “There’s lots of post-occupancy work in the day-to-day management of the center. You’re always monitoring the building’s vitals; people have a closer relationship to the building.”

Owner: Washington University in St. Louis
Architect: Hellmuth + Bicknese Architects
MEP engineer, energy modeling, commissioning: SolutionsAEC
Structural engineer: ASDG
Civil engineer: Williams Creek Consulting
Landscape architect: Lewisites
Solar energy consultant: StraightUp Solar
GC/Construction manager: Bingman Construction

The Bullitt Foundation’s Bullitt Center in Seattle is a planned mixed-use commercial structure that’s expected to be a “community resource for urban sustainability education.” Its site, at a transit hub, was chosen for its high Walk Score, 98 out of 100. The 50,000-sf building aims to achieve both Living Building Challenge and LEED Platinum status. It is being designed to fulfill the goals of the 2030 Challenge and last 250 years.

"We didn’t want to build a school. We didn’t want a non-urban site,” says Point32 development partner Chris Rogers. “The Bullitt Foundation wanted to go a step further. That’s why this is a commercial building.” There will be no parking for automobiles, although tenants will be able to share a few electric vehicles. The designers, the Miller Hull Partnership, also hope to encourage tenants and visitors to use the stairs rather the elevator in the six-story structure. “We’re going to have an ‘irresistible stair," says Rogers.

Bullitt Center is likely to become the flagship address for the Living Building Challenge. Its scheduled tenants include many of the movement’s key players, notably the Cascadia Region Green Building Council and the International Living Future Institute.

The building’s photovoltaic arrays will produce 100% of its needed energy, and interactive dashboards will provide continual feedback on energy use. “We plan to be as informative as possible during the life of the building,” say Rogers. Completion is scheduled for late 2012.

Owner: The Bullitt Foundation
Developer/Project management: Point32
Architect: The Miller Hull Partnership
MEP engineer: PAE Consulting Engineers
Structural engineer: DCI Engineers
Civil engineer: Springline
Energy consultant:  Solar Design Associates
Water/wastewater consultant:  2020 Engineering
Commissioning: PAE Consulting Engineers
General contractor: Schuchart

University of Washington’s Integrated Design Lab,
Cascadia Green Building Council, City of Seattle

Author Edward Keegan, a practicing architect in Chicago, is a frequent contributor to professional publications, notably Chicago Architect, the official journal of AIA Chicago. He is author of Chicago Architecture: 1885 to Today.

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