The Living Building Challenge: transformative development

Posted 4/6/11

REGION — Imagine a building designed and constructed to function as elegantly and efficiently as a flower, a building informed by its bioregion’s characteristics, that generates all of its own …

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The Living Building Challenge: transformative development


REGION — Imagine a building designed and constructed to function as elegantly and efficiently as a flower, a building informed by its bioregion’s characteristics, that generates all of its own energy with renewable sources, captures and treats all of its water. Imagine a city block sharing resources from building to building, growing food and functioning without a dependency on fossil fuel-based transportation. Imagine true sustainability in our homes, workplaces, neighborhoods, villages, towns and cities that is socially just, culturally rich and ecologically benign.

Such a challenge has been issued by The Living Building Institute (LBI), conceived and authored by Jason F. McLennan. LBI presented its ideas at the recent Northeast Sustainable Energy Associations Building Energy 11 conference. It is a challenge that could help local planners to come up with better solutions for transforming development in our own area.

Taking up where the United States Green Building Council stops, the LBI invites us to commit to creating our space on this planet in a way that is transformational and restorative. It challenges design professionals, contractors and building owners to create the foundation for a sustainable future in the fabric of our communities, politicians and government officials to remove barriers to systemic change and to realign incentives to truly protect the health, safety and welfare of all beings, and challenges all of humanity to reconcile the built environment with the natural environment.

The Living Building Challenge (LBC) requires that seven development areas (petals) be addressed and that the imperatives of each petal be fulfilled.

• The Site petal addresses limits to growth, urban agriculture, habitat exchange and car-free living.

• The Water petal requires net zero water usage and ecological water flow.

• The Energy petal requires net zero energy through on-site renewable generation technology.

• The Health petal requires a civilized environment, healthy air and biophilia.

• The Materials petal prohibits the use of toxics on the “red list,” calls for appropriate sourcing of materials and conservation and reuse of materials to lower the carbon footprint of the project.

• The Equity petal addresses the human scale in building, and calls for humane places, embodies democracy and social justice and ensures rights to nature.

• The Beauty petal celebrates design that creates transformative change.

We can get an idea of how LBC could be applied locally by examining what it would look like relative to the Apollo Plaza site in Monticello, NY, for which the Sullivan County Legislature recently accepted two proposals.

One of the proposals, by Carbon Harvest Energy, already complies with some of the LBC petals. It proposes to use the buried landfill to generate energy to run at least part of its operations. Including a 25-acre greenhouse, it entails urban agriculture, and by using the effluent from an aquaculture operation that will also be on site as fertilizer for the greenhouse, it both recycles waste and entails ecologically thrifty use of water.

However, the second proposed development, big box stores, meets none of the criteria of the LBC.

According to the LBC vision, the ideal project for the Apollo Plaza site would be a new urban village. Side by side with the aquaculture, agriculture and energy generation provided by Carbon Harvest, it would create affordable housing (with a minimum of 15% of the units remaining affordable through time), housing that mixes social, educational, racial and economic parameters, and that provides transitional housing for homeless citizens. There would be shared green space and walkable neighborhoods. The water for the entire complex could be gathered from available rainfall, with wastewater treated on-site through aquatic ponds that would meet the imperative of the Beauty petal while replenishing the natural aquifer.

In addition to generating energy by sustainable means, energy conservation could be achieved by designing living spaces to be thermally and energy efficient and to provide a healthy indoor atmosphere.

In keeping with the Site petal, there could be an economy of small shops for goods and services that serve the residents, so that car-free living becomes a possibility. Rather than big box stores selling global goods produced by cheap foreign labor and shipped in at enormous waste of energy, LBC would call for small shops that tie in closely to both local production and resident consumers: a small grocery that purveys the food that is grown locally at the site, a butcher shop that prepares the meat, a floral shop that brokers the flowers that are grown all year long in the green house, a barber and beauty shop, a community bank, professional services, alternative and holistic medical practioners and the like.

It may be too late to implement such a vision for the Apollo Plaza site, but there will be plenty of similar development challenges facing our area in coming years. The LBC provides a framework that could help come up with more innovative and successful ways of meeting these challenges.

To learn more about the LBI, visit The Living Building Institute at and the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association at


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