If ethics is navigating the moral ground between right and wrong, good and bad, then we should acknowledge that many things about designing and constructing buildings are not good. Many current practices are destructive and wasteful. The operation of buildings creates nearly half of all climate emissions. We send billions of gallons of mostly clean water down drains, to be processed as toxic waste. Construction often displaces species from their natural habitats and people from their communities. Most buildings are far from beautiful, have nothing to say about their particular place, and contain materials made from unknown chemical compounds. Buildings can be barriers, deepening social divides and separating people.
Still, I’m optimistic.
We’ve made progress toward reducing these impacts, mostly by thinking about how to improve current practices. What happens when we stop thinking about “less bad” and instead leap toward good? I’ve had the opportunity to work for clients who’ve committed to this idea through pursuit of the Living Building Challenge (LBC). It has been transformational.
The LBC launched in 2006 as the world’s most stringent green building standard. Projects must meet 20 simple but thoughtful imperatives, designed to challenge current practices and work toward a vision of a positive future where buildings are inspired by nature’s model, where energy and water systems give back more than they take, harvesting resources from the bounds of their sites. The LBC is not one size fits all; each project is encouraged to respond in its own unique way.
More than a rating system, it’s also an advocacy tool, pushing to change current regulations or manufacturing processes. To its founder and creator, Jason F. McLennan, the LBC is foremost a design philosophy that centers around the question: “What does good look like?” In the mid-1990s, when McLennan first conceived of the LBC, he imagined a dramatic raising of the bar, with a generation of designers ready to construct the sustainable future that we seek. But he believes we should build those models now.
The LBC encourages us to think about how the act of designing and constructing might lead to a world where buildings actually regenerate. For example, an LBC building must create 105 percent of its annual energy, on site and without combustion. It must have closed-loop, net-positive water systems. Every material must be free from “Red List” chemicals, such as cadmium, PVC, and formaldehyde. Performance must be verified with 12 months of collected data. An LBC building must consider the uniqueness of its place, use biophilic design principles that connect to nature, consider equity, and even seek beauty.
The challenge seems audacious, but that’s what makes it inspiring. Breaking it into smaller pieces makes it easier to grasp. Each of these pieces has permanently changed the way I think about building design.
Place: Buildings should relate to the human scale, be rooted to their place, and connect to the stories and people that surround them.
Energy: Net-positive energy is pivoting toward the mainstream, with available technology. The number of net-zero buildings or buildings working toward net-zero has increased 700 percent since 2012, according to the New Building Institute.
Water: Closed-loop water systems draw only from the rain falling within the bounds of their sites, recapture nutrients from waste, and return the leftover water back into the air or ground.
Health and happiness: Humans spend most of their time in buildings. Buildings should respect their occupants, surrounding them with light, air, and connections to nature.
Materials: Our choices as designers can support industries and manufacturers that are at the leading edge of safe materials. McLennan puts it succinctly: “Instead of specifying materials that might give you cancer, let’s choose ones that can’t.” There is far-reaching power behind the material-transparency movement: if manufacturers aren’t making products with toxic chemicals, then their workers and the surrounding community won’t be exposed to those toxins. On top of that, we can choose materials sourced close to the site, helping local economies.
Equity: I am encouraged by the power and volume in the movement for greater equity, diversity, and inclusion in architecture. The LBC calls on us to start in our own practices, soliciting and cultivating more diverse points of view, and designing buildings that do the same.
Beauty: The LBC does not attempt to define beauty — that’s too subjective. Instead, it encourages designers to think and write about what they think will make their project beautiful — and then asks them to talk to occupants to see if the design was successful. Beautiful buildings make our world better and encourage us to care more — about our spaces, our environment, and the people who share them.
McLennan intentionally launched the first version of the LBC when it was “three-quarters baked,” imperfect and with some limitations. For example, the LBC has been successful at only a certain scale thus far. The first wave of buildings to be certified were environmental centers on unconstrained, rural sites. The next wave included “normal” buildings — the six-story Bullitt Center office building in downtown Seattle and the R. W. Kern Center, a 17,000-square-foot campus building at Hampshire College. The third wave is likely to take it to the next scale — a 40,000-square-foot Kendeda Building at Georgia Tech is under construction, and a 130,000-square-foot Residential Village is under design for Yale’s Divinity School. Now a Living Community Challenge is emerging to consider applying LBC principles at the community scale and in urban settings.
Requirements sometimes overlap and trade-offs must be made. When our team could not find plywood that was free of red-list chemicals, sourced close to our site, and FSC certified, we sought an exception, complying with the requirement we thought worked toward the most positive change. We chose red-list-free sustainably harvested plywood sourced in the Southeast. The impact of material toxins on workers and occupants and responsible forest management took precedence over transportation energy and supporting the regional economy.
Obviously, not every building can be a Living Building, but the philosophy can guide us. The LBC challenges designers to smash through our preconceptions and reframe what we do in the positive. What does good look like to you?
Artwork: Born and based in Scotland, Emily Moore is an alumna of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design international exchange program. Her paintings and collages explore the tension between environments and the manmade structures that inhabit them. All images courtesy of the artist.