The Living Building Challenge: Page 4 of 4


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The zHome project
The zHome project, a 10-unit townhouse development in Issaquah, Washington, is designed to achieve net-zero energy, among other Living Building Challenge imperatives.
LBC creator Jason McLennan.
LBC creator Jason McLennan.
LBC Ambassadors-in-training at a Portland, Oregon, workshop.
LBC Ambassadors-in-training at a Portland, Oregon, workshop.
Eco-Sense house in Victoria, British Columbia
A composting toilet, 10,000-gallon rainwater storage cistern, and graywater recycling help the Eco-Sense house in Victoria, British Columbia, meet its Water petal imperatives.
Hawaii Preparatory Academy’s Energy Lab
With few native building materials to choose from, the distance radius and density threshold limits for red-list compliant materials posed a challenge for the Hawaii Preparatory Academy’s Energy Lab. Project managers had to exercise their ingenuity and creativity to meet the Materials petal imperatives.
Home earning its LBC petals
Careful material selection, reuse, and restoration were part of this home’s path to earning its LBC petals. (shown before)
Home earning its LBC petals
Careful material selection, reuse, and restoration were part of this home’s path to earning its LBC petals. (shown after)
The zHome project
LBC creator Jason McLennan.
LBC Ambassadors-in-training at a Portland, Oregon, workshop.
Eco-Sense house in Victoria, British Columbia
Hawaii Preparatory Academy’s Energy Lab
Home earning its LBC petals
Home earning its LBC petals

Locating materials that meet appropriate sourcing criteria and don’t contain Red List components (see “Red List” sidebar) can be one of the most difficult tasks on an LBC project. If no option exists, protocol does allow a “next-best” substitute, but a project team member must write a letter to the manufacturer stating they are using the product reluctantly because no other choice exists. The letter must urge the company to change its manufacturing process and/or collaborate with companies that are closer to the project site.

Direct pressure on the manufacturer can make a difference, and LBC Projects Coordinator James Connelly cites a compelling example. The super-efficient, triple-pane windows sourced for the Bullitt Center—a commercial LBC project in Seattle, Washington—included a unique venting mechanism, but they were manufactured by Schüco, a German company located far beyond the allowable radius for heavy materials. The Bullitt Center Team worked with Schüco to bring manufacturing equipment and expertise to Goldfinch Brothers, a local window company outside Seattle. Goldfinch now provides super-efficient windows to other cutting-edge green projects, including two pursuing LBC certification. In this way, the LBC helps stimulate innovation and local business.

The Responsible Industry imperative encourages LBC projects to support fair labor and sustainable extraction via third-party certification programs. All lumber used in a project (unless it’s recycled or harvested on-site) must be Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified, but for industries that don’t yet have such certification programs, the project team must write letters encouraging their development.

Project teams must also create a Material Conservation manage­ment plan, with the goal of reducing or eliminating waste during the building’s construction, life, and end of life. The embodied carbon from construction must be estimated and offset with a one-time carbon credit purchase that supports a new RE project.


Supporting a just, equitable world.

One of the most striking ways the LBC departs from LEED is the inclusion of Equity and Beauty parameters on par with Materials and Energy. In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements address one facet of the Equity petal—all primary transportation, roads, and non-building infrastructure considered externally focused must be equally accessible to all members of the public—but there’s a philosophical component, too, says Vidas.

“An LBC house wouldn’t be built in a gated community, for example,” she says. The equity imperative functions to dis­courage, if not forbid, exclusivity, by stipulating that the “project may not block access to, nor diminish the quality of fresh air, sunlight, and natural waterways.” In other words, no cordoned-off beaches or homes that tower over neighboring ones.


Celebrating design that creates transformative change.

As for the Beauty petal, the LBC believes that people are more inclined to care for places they find beautiful, and their hope is that beautiful buildings will inspire people to extend this care to the natural world. “It’s not intended to be a objective analysis,” says Sturgeon. “It’s more about what beauty means to [the inhabitants].” For Matt and Kelly Grocoff, who are renovating a 112-year-old Victorian home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, under the LBC guidelines, this meant restoring the home’s original features and connecting with the home’s history by learning about its original owners. For Scott and Elliott in Bend, Oregon, it meant pairing natural materials with a contemporary design (see “LBC Case Studies”). As for documentation, both the project designer and the owners must write essays (at least four and two pages long, respectively) describing how the project fulfills the imperative.

On the Leading Edge

With its varied, stringent requirements, the LBC program is only for the very determined—and those with the resources to pull it off. Although the ILFI offers support through its website, case studies, and network of project teams and ambassadors, there is much that project teams must figure out on their own. However, these first “pioneer projects” show what’s possible and are crucial to breaking barriers, whether technological, legal, or one of public perception. 

LBC offers two alternatives to full certification: Net-Zero Energy Building certification and Petal Recognition, which requires “earning” at least three petals, one of which must be Materials, Energy, or Water. While only four projects have achieved full certification, three others have earned Petal Recognition, and 12 others are complete and somewhere in the 12-month documentation process as of September 2013. There are more than 150 registered projects around the world, including Australia, Romania, New Zealand, and Mexico. In North America, many are in Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska. Google recently announced plans to build a 1 million-square-foot “Living Campus”—a solid sign that the word is getting out.


Freelancer Juliet Grable frequently writes about green building and renewable energy. She lives on a beautiful, south-facing slope in Oregon’s Southern Cascades.

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Comments (2)

Marcos's picture

Hello I am a Spanish architect, I apologize if I do not write English correctly.
Due to the great importance of the sun in our country, in college we have been taught to always take this into account in our designs, like getting in summer gloom and yet let the sunshine come in winter. You could say that we are very specialized in the use of natural resources to achieve in a passive way that positively affect our buildings.
In Europe, the leading exponent of bioclimatic design in the "Solar Decathlon Europe" is a contest in which many universities participate and in which they must design a house that is as efficient as possible. There you can see designs as efficient. I participated in my student days and the truth is that I learned a lot from that competition.
Kind regards,
Marcos Ayuso

Ron Challis_3's picture

I like the idea of the "Petal" concept. I am dismayed with the current building materials and methods. They are not sustainable and they do not produce a safe building. Building Codes are very weak in North America.
This movement could bring much needed change to the construction industry. One flaw that pops out to me is that building or renovating a house in a major city is not feasible and therefore detracts from the petal idea. Many cities demand that one must connect to water supply and connect to sewers. Also city lots are too small to allow for many aspects of the petal concept.
I moved to a small village and built a straw bale home but had to connect to water, sewer, and could not erect a wind tower. The lot is narrow and it was too difficult to site the house to take advantage of the sun. We are very happy with our house, utilities are low and we do not make a large foot print. If we had greater resources we could have improved our design lowered our foot print. We are like the majority of people with limited resources and we did the best we could with what we had but the petal concept is beyond our financial ability. It would be great if the petal concept could make room for people like ourselves.

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