Beyond LEED: The Importance of Creating Living Buildings

By Ariel Schwartz


Jason McClennan is the CEO of the International Living Future Institute, the organization that runs the Living Building Challenge–a green building standard that goes far beyond LEED and perhaps every other performance standard for the built environment (the first Living Buildings were certified in 2010). The recently revised standard consists of seven "petals"–or performance areas–for buildings: site, water, energy, health, materials, equity, and beauty. Within those performance areas are a number of imperatives, including healthy air, appropriate sourcing, urban agriculture, net zero water and energy, and social justice. I spoke to McLennan about the future of living buildings at the recent Living Future Unconference.

CO.EXIST: How did you first get interested in green buildings?

JASON MCLENNAN: The short version is that I got interested in environmental issues because of where I grew up. It was a story of seeing a community impacted by industry that creates things that we need. You know, you wouldn’t have that iPad if it wasn’t for my hometown, because nickel was mined there, which goes into stainless steel, which goes into other things that are in everything we use. But also Sudbury [Ontario] was a place where a huge regreening process happened starting in the 1970s. I was lucky enough to be one of the kids who got involved through the process. It really helped us to understand at a deep level that regeneration is possible, that we can heal places as well as destroy them, depending on our intentions.

I was always interested in buildings and design and architecture. How you do something is what’s critical. So if you need a house, how do you design it? How do you choose the materials? How do you use energy and water? Those questions haven’t been considered very holistically for some time.

When you launched the Living Building Challenge, what were your goals in terms of how many buildings you thought might adopt it?

Goals are different than expectations. Because the goal is to change everything. We want to have living buildings everywhere. Certainly what we’re building now are the pilots, the models, the demonstrations of what’s possible with today’s technology and know-how, and doing it in enough places and enough different types of buildings. Then you have a powerful model that goes way beyond the picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words paradigm, where you can literally have a three-dimensional full sensory experience and see why this is better. You can’t refute it in the same way as you can with words only, especially when you can’t say, "Well, that might work in that other place, but not here." It’s your town, your school, or your village.

We want to have these models in every country, every city, every town, in every building type as soon as we can. But given how far we are from mainstream practice, we’ve had a lot of very early success.

It seems like it took LEED certification about a decade to become well-known in the mainstream. How long do you think it will take for this to become something that everyone knows about?

Well, LEED is mainstream in terms of how it’s talked about. It’s still not as widely adopted as it needs to be. It’s probably going to take a similar amount of time for this, but the leap is much bigger.

Do you see any technologies coming down the road that will make it easier to construct living buildings?

I think that there are more options coming and there are going to be less economic barriers because of the cost of certain things, the availability, and competition. So that makes it easier. But with the exception of our red list [of banned materials], where there are some real substantive barriers to what’s available, we do have an amazing array of technologies. A lot of what we’re preaching is about design, which isn’t a technological fix. It starts with a philosophy, an approach, a design process, a literal design, and then technology is applied at the end.

The social side of this is that we need to make things in our communities. We’ve given up our manufacturing base and wonder why we have an economic problem. And that’s a big part of the challenge that maybe at first people don’t understand. The Living Building Challenge is also about job creation and local economies and healthy, productive people.

How many buildings are certified now?

We have 140-some active registered projects. We can’t track the projects that aren’t registered, but there are a lot more that we know of that are waiting to register, or they’re not ready but they are using the framework. We have three fully certified living buildings, three partial petal projects, so these are projects that have achieved three or more of the petals. Then the next crop of products have completed construction and are in an occupancy phase, and we have about 20 of those.

Is that next crop of buildings concentrated in any one region?

That’s what’s cool. It’s all over the place, in 13 countries now. All different sizes. People always try to put ideas in a box–like, "Oh, that’s just for houses," or "Oh, that’s just for this," but we’ve got it all.