Green building 'not going far enough'

By Sam Eichblatt

The goal is positive impact not a smaller negative effect, says Jason F. McLennan, the creator of the Living Building Challenge.

The Bullitt Center in Seattle works like a plant (powered by sunlight and able to harvest rainwater), produces no waste and is ecologically restorative. Photo / Joshua Fisher
The Bullitt Center in Seattle works like a plant (powered by sunlight and able to harvest rainwater), produces no waste and is ecologically restorative. Photo / Joshua Fisher

Ed Gillespie, the British environmental advocate and founder of Futerra Sustainability Communications, once memorably compared the world's sluggish and conflicted reaction to climate change as similar to that facing the slave emancipation movement of the 1780s: "Did Wilberforce ask us to cut down from two slaves to just one?" he asked. "No. It's not about 'tweaking'. It's about committing to the big changes."

One architect who is leading the charge for full commitment is Jason F. McLennan.

A prominent figure within the green building movement in the USA, he is a speaker, author and advocate, and creator of the Living Building Challenge - an advanced, rigorous performance standard for sustainable design - for which he won the prestigious Buckminster Fuller Challenge Award in 2012.

Considered "socially responsible design's highest award" (Metropolis magazine), the $100,000 prize goes to solutions that address a pressing global problem, with a comprehensive approach taking in social, environmental, economic and cultural factors.

As our cities continue to both sprawl and consolidate, and rural areas increasingly empty out, it's obvious that such an all-embracing and radical approach to designing and constructing new buildings is critical.

The Living Building Challenge can be applied in any climate and any country, using existing technology, to any scale of development, from new buildings and renovations, to infrastructure, landscapes and neighbourhoods.

Currently, it has 170 active projects in half a dozen countries, including Te Wharehou o Tuhoe, the new Tuhoe headquarters near Whakatane. (Most of the materials used in the Tuhoe Living Building have come from a radius of 100km, and 95 per cent of the timber is from the Tuhoe's own supplies. Contractors involved include Biobuild Ltd, Earth Building Association of NZ, Abodo (timber) and TTT Structural Systems.)

Jason McLennan. Photo / Paul Dunn
Jason McLennan. Photo / Paul Dunn

It also goes much further than other certification systems such as LEED or BREEAM, says McLennan. "I was working on many of the greenest building projects in North America, and it was clear to me that the current trend in green building wasn't going far enough, fast enough."

The LBC is familiar enough on the surface that architects who are up to speed on established certification systems can easily work with it - however, at its core it's a philosophy, rather than a checklist approach, says McLennan, and it takes a new way of thinking to achieve, a blend of right- and left-brain elements.

Its criteria is also much more stringent. There's a meticulous, performance-based aspect to the LBC that goes beyond what other certification systems do, based on a minimum of one year's performance, and exhaustive practical evaluation and visits.

"None of the other systems do that," says McLennan. "The people giving you the plaque will never actually see the projects. So those systems can be gamed, but we've created a system that can't be gamed."

The LBC evaluates seven areas of performance- site, water, energy, health, materials, equity and beauty - which have, between them, a total of 20 'imperatives'. For example, the site needs to be compatible with, and facilitate, car-free living, limits to growth, and urban agriculture, whereas materials will be evaluated on their embodied carbon footprint, appropriate sourcing and potential for conservation and re-use.

But perhaps the most interesting part of the LBC is that it also sets standards for equity - projects are required to be on a human scale, and enable democracy, social justice and rights to nature - and beauty, which has criteria for beauty / spirit, and inspiration / education.

"We created those standards because we know that those issues are huge in terms of impact," says McLennan. "You can't measure them in the same way - but they need to be valued as equal."

The LBC's holistic plan aims not to make cities less bad, but more good, says McLennan.

"We want to understand the end game, and there was nothing in the market to help people understand what that actually is. We're not interested in buildings that are less likely to give you cancer - we want buildings that can't. Not buildings that require less toxic fossil fuel, but none. We want people to leapfrog over things that are less polluting to things that are non-pollutants. And we have to create solutions that are good for all of humanity, not just the wealthy."

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