Living buildings: clean, green, sustainable

Karl Fendelander | Improvement Center Columnist | May 3, 2013

From organic foods to carbon footprints, awareness about an eco-friendly lifestyle is a growing trend, quite literally. The past few decades have seen a massive increase in demand for all things green and good for the planet, but the movement has also benefited when green has proven good for the wallet.

A 2012 study of home sales in California found that green-certified homes sold for 9 percent more than regular homes. Other studies have found that green homes also sell faster and that certified eco-friendly office buildings rent and sell for substantially more in certain areas.

The homes and offices in these studies all earned certifications like the EPA's Energy Star, Build It Green's GreenPoint Rated or the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC's) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). LEED has been the benchmark for green certification, but now the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) has thrown down the Living Building Challenge™.

Beyond LEED: living buildings

The USGBC's LEED certification "...is a voluntary, consensus-based, market­-driven program that provides third-party verification of green buildings" geared toward reducing the environmental impact of buildings while increasing energy- and money-savings and adding value.

The Pacific Northwest chapter of the USGBC, known as the Cascadia Region Green Building Council, decided to take things a step further than LEED. The council helped create the ILFI and is pushing for adoption of a concept they call "living buildings." As the CRGBC defines it, a living building "...generates all of its own energy with renewable nontoxic resources, captures and treats all of its water, and operates efficiently and for maximum beauty."

Certification as a living building requires adherence to imperatives embodied in its seven "petals":

  1. Site. The building must be constructed on previously developed land that is not any of the following: ecologically sensitive, on a flood plain or farmland. The building's property must also have integrated agriculture; an amount of land set aside forever as natural habitat equal in size to the development; and it must contribute to car-free living.
  2. Water. One hundred percent of the water that the building requires must be captured by precipitation or other closed-loop water collection method without disrupting the natural water flow for the area. All excess and waste water must be used or managed on site.
  3. Energy. All of the project's energy needs must be produced on site in a renewable and ecologically sensitive and sustainable fashion.
  4. Health. All rooms must have operable windows with access to daylight and fresh air. The ventilation systems and air itself must meet certain standards. Smoking is prohibited everywhere on the property. The project must include elements that "nurture the innate human attraction to natural systems and processes," such as natural shapes, forms, and patterns; light and space; and location-based and human/nature relationships -- literally living buildings.
  5. Materials. Materials used in construction must be sustainably and responsibly obtained -- local whenever possible -- and cannot include anything on the Red List of environmentally harmful substances. The carbon footprint of the facility's construction must be offset from the start. Conservation and reuse of materials during construction is paramount.
  6. Equity. The project must be human-scaled, not automobile-scaled; for example, parking and driving areas must be limited in size; treed medians and large sidewalks are required and signage limited. Transportation to and access within the facility must be open to all. The project must not limit access to, block or diminish any part of the natural environment such as sunlight, fresh air or natural waterways.
  7. Beauty. The project has to contain design features solely intended for human delight and celebration of culture, human spirit and/or place. Educational materials about the facility must be available to the public.

living building Omega Center for Sustainable Living

Omega Center for Sustainable Living, a living building (photo by Andy Milford)

Projects that are seeking certification must include the required elements of all seven petals and be operational for at least a year while audits are conducted to qualify it as a living building. Because the eligibility process is so intensive and certification commenced in 2006, only four projects have made it all the way through -- with more currently being audited. Most of the projects are add-ons to existing facilities, like the Living Learning Center located at the Tyson Research Center, which is tied to Washington University in St. Louis; and the Energy Lab at the Hawaii Preparatory Academy high school.

Bringing it home

Using some of the petals as your own inspiration, you can take steps to make your home as green as possible. Try applying those principles to a new addition or remodel. Look at your energy bills, and figure out what you'd need to produce all of your electricity through renewable sources at home. Set up a water collection system to put precipitation and gray water to better use.

With the living building concept to guide you, get started conserving resources, and you can help create a more sustainable Earth for future generations.

About the Author

Karl Fendelander cut his teeth on web writing in the late nineties and has been plugged in to the newest technology and tuned in to the latest trends ever since. With an eye for design and an ear for language, Karl has created content and managed digital media for startups and established companies alike. When he unplugs, Karl can be found biking about town and hiking and climbing throughout the West.