Laura Hamilton-O’Hara
Laura Hamilton-O’Hara has been appointed the first chief executive of Living Future Institute of Australia

To keep up with the groundswell of interest in its work to advocate for a regenerative built environment, the Living Future Institute of Australia has appointed its first chief executive officer.

Laura Hamilton-O’Hara will take the reins this month after a diverse career including multiple sustainability roles, such as her most recent as sustainability officer at Macquarie University in Sydney.

Her appointment will help the team meet the growing interest in LFIA’s work on both the Living Building Challenge and the Biophilic Design Initiative, current executive director Stephen Choi told The Fifth Estate.

He says the current management team of two, the board of nine and “massive numbers of volunteers” have been struggling to keep up with the number of enquiries coming through.

“It’s fantastic because anyone that does the work we do is voluntary, it’s based on inspiration.” 

“There’s no government mandate, it’s people inspired to do something that’s good.”

All LBC certifications undertaken overseas through the international institute based in the US and conducted by third party auditors. The Australian branch provided training, support, and design initiatives based on its vision for a world that is “socially just and culturally rich and ecologically restorative.”

Choi says the ultimate goal is creating a “built environment as good as what you’ll find in the natural world.”

Living Building Challenge is growing

Interest in the LBC is also on the rise, with the number of projects swelling from 100 to more than 500 in the past four or five years.

Choi says this is because a wide range of elements are “coalescing.” 

Traditionally the LBC has attracted community-based projects and the occasional university that owns its buildings and wants to be at the cutting-edge of sustainable design. 

But as the market has adopted a more mature approach to energy and climate change risk, and the 1.5 degrees warming target has ramped up the urgency on climate action, Choi says more people are starting to think about what this actually means for the built environment.

He says these things are coming together and drumming up interest in carbon neutrality and the LBC at the top end of town, with more commercial developers starting to getting involved.

The Biophilia Design Initiative is also taking off

A new group of like-minded supporters known as the Biophilic Design Initiative was formed last year after an expressions of interest campaign. The group of nine people from different parts of industry, academia and related areas will explore biophilic design and foster its implementation. 

“We’re pulling together a massive amount of knowledge because a lot of people don’t understand it, and we’re looking at opportunities to explore research,” Choi says.

One opportunity is turning the narrative of biophilic design on its head to explore the costs of not designing in this way.

“Instead of asking what’s the cost benefit of doing a green wall, you say what’s the cost of not?”

Living Building Challenge upgrade

He says the appointment of a CEO will help the organisation start its next chapter with an upcoming upgrade to the Living Building Challenge to the 4.0 edition.

The new version will be announced at the Living Future 2019 Conference in Seattle on May 1. Choi says that like any rating tool, the LBC needs to evolve over time to keep pace with market conditions while “still keeping an extremely high bar.”

He says more toxic chemicals have been discovered to go on the Red List – the list of materials that LBC projects must avoid – and some other upgrades to the tool such as “structural changes around energy and carbon.”

There will also be a “broader” look at water and considerations “beyond the single building”. There will also be additions around social justice and social equity and the “anti-slavery movement as a whole”, Choi says.

More information will be available when the updated tool is released next month.

What the new CEO will bring

Laura Hamilton-O’Hara doesn’t have a built environment background which, according to Choi, is very appealing because she has completely different professional and social networks “compared to myself and others in the team”.

This includes a stint in the South African wilderness caring for the lands and the people and animals inhabiting them.

“So she’s worked in a broader term the sustainable development and not in buildings, but quite frankly buildings are actually the easy part.

“The community and social based changes are really hard.”

He uses waste management as an example, which he says is “not actually technological its purely about people’s engagement with it”.

“And that’s something Laura is strong on, engaging with people everyday. That’s something she brings which is good… I haven’t ever met someone with such a lovely manner.”

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