Clive Pohl: The Living Building Challenge: Visionary from the Start

Designers and builders have long looked to rating systems for “how-to” guidance on green building. From the early days of the current environmental movement they were intended to serve as recipes for improved performance and environmental stewardship. Looking back at the earliest iterations we see a snapshot in time that describes a tension between our desire to improve and the relentless influence of market forces.

Variation in the early standards were a reflection of their author’s priorities. Some were heavily influenced by corporate interests who professed a commitment to sound environmental practices – until it impacted their bottom line. Some positioned themselves just ahead of the marketplace in a mission to gently lead economic transformation while others, in recognition of a rising carbon count, ignored economic constraints and advocated for a leap toward true sustainability. They embraced the notion that a “sustainable” marriage would never be good enough. Perceived as too expensive these standards were mostly ignored.

Though they all sought popular embrace it was, of course, impossible for one standard to provide universal satisfaction. After all, much of the construction industry held fast to the notion that a market economy is America’s only true core value.

As the aughts became the teens the plight of the polar ice caps entered mainstream consciousness, catastrophic weather patterns became increasingly commonplace, and our complicity in climate change more widely accepted. Jurisdictions around the country began to embrace legislation requiring credible compliance, building codes were rewritten to reflect increased urgency, and an army of skeptics (from architects and engineers to general contractors and their subs) had no choice but to hook up to the bandwagon. Even reluctant manufacturers began to recognize the value in environmental branding and compliant materials became increasingly affordable. The marketplace was transforming.

Rating systems, too, evolved to reflect this new economic paradigm and while consensus remains a distant target it is safe to say that they are becoming increasingly alike. They are, in fact, learning from and moving toward the most ambitious and visionary standard, the one that never allowed economic forces to dictate: the Living Building Challenge (LBC). Launched in 2006 the uncompromising principles described by the LBC attract the curiosity of the others with a gravitational pull commensurate to the ever-widening recognition that we have run out of time to simply reduce our environmental impact. In fact, the extent of our past misdeeds demand that we must, as quickly as possible, learn how to build environments that surpass sustainability by replenishing and recharging our resources. Anything less would be like approving spousal abuse as long as it is “occasional”.

Utilizing the metaphor of a flower the LBC posits that buildings should, like flowers, be rooted in place, harvest all of their energy and water on site, be entirely pollution free, and support the larger community through equity and inspiration. These are principles that were inconceivable to the earliest rating system authors and, yet, they represent a target that has been certifiably attained by 25 industry leaders with many more closing in.

Organized by seven “Petals” and 20 subset “Imperatives” the LBC standard further expands the definition of minimum requirement by going beyond the usual standards. It insists that our built environment should

  1. Give Back. Net POSITIVE water, energy and waste means that these buildings are providing energy and water for others and putting waste back into productive use.
  2. Reconnect. Biophilic design principles seek to right a long standing imbalance  by encouraging daily connection with nature. We spend 90% of our lives indoors. Even our neighbor’s access to nature cannot be impeded.
  3. Inspire. Recognizing the value of both sides of the brain the standard encourages an embrace of design elements solely for human delight – alongside the analytics that ensure efficient performance.
  4. Respect. By creating built environments that uphold the dignity of all members of society regardless of their physical or economic capacity the LBC aims to harness the power of transparency as a force for social change. Some LBC programs worthy of further exploration: the JUST Program for social justice, the DECLARE Label for chemical toxin transparency and the new Equitable Offset Program which accumulates funds to provide renewable energy infrastructure for charitable enterprises.

Beyond continued advocacy one can only give thanks to visionaries like co-creator Jason McLennan who chose to see beyond the allure of the almighty dollar and to believe that humanity can, if so informed, live in a “socially just, culturally rich and ecologically restorative” manner. While this is clearly easier said than done, the way is being paved and the rest of must simply face the right direction and place one foot in front of the other.

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