The Bullitt Center

The Living Building Challenge is the toughest green standard for buildings. It’s different from other standards because it uses a totally performance-based accreditation for buildings.

While other environmental standards pre-certify buildings based on conformance of design specifications with best practices, the Living Building Challenge does something else. It approves buildings only after a rigorously documented 12-month occupancy phase. It monitors 20 so-called design “imperatives” across seven categories or what’s otherwise known as “petals” : site, water, energy, health, materials, social equity and beauty. These imperatives, which include mandates like net-zero energy and water use, must be maintained over the full trial year of occupancy. Certification is based on actual, rather than modelled or anticipated, performance.

The Living Building Challenge has a holistic approach to buildings. It’s not just about making them last longer and withstanding storms, wild weather and pollution. It’s also about making them healthier.

This is why the LBC has a list of banned chemicals and substances that suppliers can’t use in building materials. These chemicals include asbestos, cadmium, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), formaldehyde, halogenated flame retardant, hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), lead, mercury, petrochemical fertilisers and pesticides, phthalates, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and wood treatments containing creosote, arsenic or pentachlorophenol.

The LBC is global and has produced outstanding projects in countries as far apart as USA, Canada, mainland Europe, the Middle East, Australia and New Zealand.

Sustain magazine says the LBC can address one of the fundamental problems in the green building industry. For sure there is a lot of work going on but when compared with the rate of change that is required to avoid the worst effects of climate change and other global environmental challenges, it would be fair to say that progress in the green building industry overall has been minimal.

“The LBC is undoubtedly a cohesive standard that pulls together the most progressive thinking from the worlds of architecture, engineering, planning, landscape design and policy. Fundamentally, it challenges us all to ask the questions: ‘What if every single act of design and construction made the world a better place? What if every intervention resulted in greater biodiversity; increased soil health; additional outlets for beauty and personal expression; a deeper understanding of climate, culture and place; a realignment of our food and transportation systems; and a more profound sense of what it means to be a citizen of a planet where resources and opportunities are provided fairly and equitably?’

“In an Al Gore sort of way, the LBC pulls few environmental punches, highlighting in its documentation that we are entering a peak oil/peak water world that is globally interconnected yet ecologically impoverished; a world in which every single major ecological system is in decline with the rate of that decline increasing; a world of seven billion people and counting; and a world in which global temperature increases means shifting rainfall distributions, acidified oceans and potentially catastrophic sea-level rise. So there you have it: the LBC requires nothing less than a sea change in building, infrastructure and community design.”

Certified Living buildings include the Bertschi Living Building Science Wing in Seattle. At this building a 20-kilowatt PV system produces all of the electricity for the building and allows students to participate in real-time monitoring of the building’s energy use and solar power production. All the water needed for the building is collected and treated on site. This is done through a variety of methods including cisterns for storage, an interior green wall of tropical plants which treats grey water and a composting toilet to treat black water.

The Hawaii Prepatory Energy Lab has building systems that employ sun, water and wind.

The Tyson Living Learning Centre in Eureka Missouri uses net zero energy provided by photovoltaic panels mounted both on the roof and on two horizontal trackers. Potable water is provided by a chemical-free rainwater harvesting system.

The Phipps Centre for Sustainable Landscapes in Pennsylvania generates all of its own energy, and treats and reuses all water captured on site.

The Bullitt Centre in Seattle is another one, It is the headquarters of the Bullitt Foundation, an environmental not-for-profit. It will be self-sufficient for energy and water for at least 12 continuous months and to meet rigorous standards for green materials and for the quality of its indoor environment. And it fits in nicely with seven petals:

  • Site: The location supports a pedestrian-, bicycle-, and transit-friendly lifestyle
  • Water: Rainwater is collected on the roof, stored in an underground cistern and used throughout the building
  • Energy: A solar array generates as much electricity as the building uses
  • Health: The building promotes a healthy lifestyle for its occupants. It has inviting stairways, operable windows and features to promote walking and resource sharing
  • Materials: The building doesn’t contain any “Red List” hazardous materials, including PVC, cadmium, lead, mercury and hormone-mimicking substances, all of which are commonly found in building components
  • Equity: All workstations are within 30 feet of large operable windows, offering all workers access to fresh air and natural daylight
  • Beauty: Stunning architecture, an innovative photovoltaic array, a green roof and other native plantings, large structural timbers and a revitalised pocket park help beautify the surrounding neighbourhood

Denis Hayes, the founder of Earth Day who heads the Bullitt Foundation, told NBC the Challenge made financial sense for the Bullitt Center. While it may cost a third more to build than a traditional office building, it was designed to last centuries longer.

“We are using the Bullitt Center to explore what is possible on the cutting edge of green, using existing technology and constrained by reasonable economics,” Hayes said. “Durability is key. The average building lasts 40 years, we’re going for 250 years… It’s a fundamentally different approach.”

In total, approximately 140 projects in eight countries are working to meet the Living Building Challenge.

The Challenge is the brain child of Jason McLennan, an architect and prominent figure in the green building movement. He is the author of five books: The Philosophy of Sustainable Design, The Dumb Architect’s Guide to Glazing Selection, The Ecological Engineer, Zugunruhe and Transformational Thought. He is also chief executive of the International Future Living Institute. The Institute is the umbrella organisation for the Living Building Challenge and the Cascadia Green Building Council, along with The Natural Step USA and Ecotone Publishing.

In this interview, McLennan says buildings have to be designed holistically, taking not only environmental issues into account but also people’s health.

“We have to tackle it all together,’’ McLennan says. “The point of our whole movement is to create abundance of life, and a healthy ecosystem for all future generations. We have a current industrial system where nobody knows what’s in our materials, and there’s no plan for where they go with those chemicals when their lifespan is over. That’s a pretty bad system. So as long as we need to eat and breathe, toxics should be an important thing to watch for. And our list is not long enough, in any sense.

“It’s also strategic: We’re trying to pick on a certain group of chemicals that don’t have to be in our building materials and are particularly nasty. Over time, we’ll add to our list. I hope these things are all banned just like we’ve banned certain things like asbestos and lead. But we haven’t even really abandoned asbestos and lead, we’ve just abandoned some applications.

The Global Change Institute

One example of a building going for Living Building Challenge certification in Australia is the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, which features an operable sun shading system that tracks the sun and protects the glass louvres, and will naturally ventilate the building during 88 per cent of the year. Air flow is managed through a central atrium and “discharged” through the building’s thermal chimney while the thermal mass of the building will be flushed through 11 metres of precast floor panels. The floor panels are constructed from a product made from the chemical activation of two industrial wastes – blast furnace slag (waste from iron production) and fly ash (waste from coal fired power generation). It’s the first building in Australia to use structural Geopolymer concrete, which creates significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions than conventional concrete.  A green wall, bush tucker garden and bio-retention basin have been installed, while walking or cycling is encouraged through pedestrian links throughout the campus. In order to achieve Living Building Challenge credentials, the building’s performance will be measured over a full year to demonstrate that the building is indeed self-sustaining.

The significance here is that these buildings will be the greenest in the world. It could set a new standard for cities and create real growth for sustainable buildings.

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