Living Building Challenge

The following was published as part of my regular “Growing Greener” column in Public Garden magazine, Vol. 25 No. 1 (2010).  Public Garden is the flagship publication of the American Public Gardens Association. In “Growing Greener” I answer sustainability-related questions from public garden staff.

Q: What is the Living Building Challenge, and how is it different from the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system?

A: By the sound of it, you’d think the goal of the Living Building Challenge—to encourage the creation of “living buildings” that “function as elegantly and efficiently as a flower”—was tailor made for public gardens. Although it grew out of the Cascadia Region Green Building Council, a chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, it is designed to push the industry—and LEED itself—to a whole new level. In the words of one observer, the Living Building Challenge makes LEED’s incremental system of credits that get tallied up to determine whether a project earns Certified, Silver, Gold, or top Platinum rating “look like something drawn up by Exxon.”

The Living Building Challenge includes no credits, just 20 mandatory targets called “imperatives” in seven performance areas called “petals”—Site, Water, Energy, Health, Materials, Equity, and Beauty. For example, a Living Building must be located on a previously developed site, and for each acre developed, an equal amount of land must be preserved in perpetuity as part of a habitat exchange. All of its water must come from captured precipitation or used water that is purified without chemicals and recycled. All of its energy must come from solar and other renewable sources that operate year round “in a pollution-free manner.” Every space that may be occupied by people must have operable windows that provide access to fresh air and daylight.

Among the other imperatives: A Living Building cannot contain any material or chemical on a “Red List” that includes not only asbestos, lead, and the like but also petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers. Opportunities for urban agriculture must be integrated in the design. And a Living Building must be beautiful, meaning an effort has been made to “enrich people’s lives” and “elevate their spirits.” Although the 20 imperatives are not optional, some exceptions are being made on a case-by-case basis since it may be impossible to achieve them right now given current market limitations.

Deb Guenther, a landscape architect at the design firm Mithun, calls the Living Building Challenge “an important companion piece” to both LEED and the Sustainable Sites Initiative being spearheaded by the U.S. Botanic Garden, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, and the American Society of Landscape Architects. The latter two initiatives include specific best practices, while the Living Building Challenge offers public gardens a more visionary path to sustainability.

The Living Building Challenge has been instrumental in transforming Duke Farms into a regional center for land stewardship and sustainability for the East Coast Piedmont region. It “helped us to crystallize what was feasible and affordable in adaptively renovating and re-using six of our buildings, upgrading our utilities, and regenerating the surrounding landscapes,” says Timothy M. Taylor, Executive Director of the 2,700-plus acre former estate. Duke Farms is not seeking Living Building certification, but “it certainly impacted our approach,” Taylor says, adding that they combined its best ideas with those of LEED, the Sustainable Sites Initiative, the New Jersey Landscape Project, and the New Jersey Wildlife Action Plan.

Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh is aiming for Living Building Certification for the Center for Sustainable Landscapes, an education, research, and administrative complex. “Our board accepted the Living Building Challenge in January 2007,” says Executive Director Richard Piacentini. Construction is expected to begin this year.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.