I recently participated in the Living Future unConference, the annual event that leads the world in regenerative design. Influential people from across the built environment converged in Portland, US for four days to showcase and debate some of the avant-garde developments under the 2018 theme: Authenticity & Action.
It was evident that the movement towards “Living Buildings” – that is, the collection of projects that can somehow give more than they take – is growing considerably.
There were several significant highlights. First, digital superpowers Google, Etsy and Microsoft have all been on their Living Building journeys in Chicago, New York and Silicon Valley, respectively. Google has established the healthiest office environment possible, empowering employees to perform at their best every day; Etsy’s new global headquarters is a beautiful reflection of community, craft and the hand-made; and Microsoft’s key focus areas of people, energy, carbon, water, ecosystems and circular economy is guiding its current development.
A consistent topic of discussion that these Living Building Challenge projects inspired related to people’s desire for immersive spaces that are rich in biophilic design, able to stimulate all five senses.
Another high point was the presentation of the BLOCK Project, an extraordinary attempt to reduce homelessness in Seattle by placing a home in the backyard of single-family lots in every residentially zoned block within the city. It is a brave effort to break down social class barriers, offering healing and advancement to those formerly living on the fringes of society while also bringing often-forgotten compassion back into focus.
All of these case studies reveal something special in that they transcend from the conventional provision of built environments that are frankly mediocre towards the creation of infrastructure for people to share something they might collectively care about.
Each is a story of how people are drawn to spirited environments where human connection and physical experiences still reign over the digital world.
An exciting announcement was the launch of the Living Food Challenge Pilot Program – an aspirational framework to address food’s cradle-to-plate impacts, including food waste, loss of topsoil, hunger and malnutrition, food miles, overconsumption, advertising to children, monocultures, farmworker rights, factory farming and genetically modified organisms. This was a radical gauntlet to throw down to food and beverage supply chains.
To challenge consumers, I have been keeping watch on Sweden’s ReTuna Återbruksgalleria, the world’s first recycling mall, where everything sold is recycled or re-used, or has been organically or responsibly produced.
Since opening in 2015, shoppers have visited the mall with their old toys, furniture, clothes and electronics, sorting items at drop-off before screening and distribution to the shops in the mall. These shops repair, refine and upcycle before ultimately selling the salvaged materials with a new life in a commercial context.
This brings me to Australia and Burwood Brickworks shopping centre, which is attempting, in several ways, to incorporate different aspects of the initiatives outlined above.
When the ambitions of the project were mentioned by a key speaker on the main stage of the unConference, the excitement of more than a thousand people was palpable, giving an indication of where retail in Australia might sit in a wider context. It was clear that nothing of this kind has ever been attempted in the world, let alone in suburban Melbourne.
Fortunately, it is also clear that the boldness of the Brickworks project is not an isolated action. Rather, it is one of a growing global family of developments that characterise an authentic effort towards ecologically restorative development.
Stephen Choi is Living Building Challenge manager at Frasers Property Australia and executive director of the Living Future Institute of Australia.