What’s the Limit for Green Buildings?

The grand opening for the R.W. Kern Center at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, was billed as an environmental milestone. The $10.4 million, 17,000 square foot building—which will house admissions, financial aid, and a coffee shop—is in the running to be one of the greenest in the world.

But it’s hard to actually observe energy conservation or high-performance insulation, so the PR team, including builders, architects, and college administrators, picked the most conspicuous components to show the small swarm of reporters on hand.

To start, builder Jonathan Wright walks us past the chain link fence surrounding the dirt construction site to point out the self-contained water system—a contraption that collects rainwater on the roof of the building, delivers it to one of two large tanks where it’s treated onsite, and then pumps it back through the building as drinking water.

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Rainwater from the Kern Center's roof is captured, stored in two 5,000 gallon cisterns beside the building (above), and filtered before being used as drinking water.

“People ask, is it clean? Will it taste as good as city water?” Wright says. “Are you kidding—no beavers have been swimming around in this stuff.”  Later, Wright opens a door to the composting toilets in surprisingly odor-less rooms where students and visitors will sit on locally-sourced porcelain and scoop in wood shavings when they’re done. The waste falls to a floor below, where it breaks down in tanks for up to seven years.

Above, solar panels on the roof will power the building’s electrical system through BPA-free wiring using regionally-procured casing. And that’s not all. The heating is geothermal. Glass windows exceed the highest performance standards. Wood floors are made with reclaimed oak from dismantled barns using formaldehyde free glue “and finished with a polymer from the back of the Cabot cheese factory in Vermont,” Wright says.

All this to pass what’s called the “Living Building Challenge,” a rare designation, created a decade ago and overseen by the Seattle-based International Living Futures Institute.

By the end of the media tour, it was hard not to be impressed at the lengths this building went to to reduce its ecological footprint. But at the same time, you had to wonder: Do we need to go to these extents to save the planet? And is it possible for such extreme projects as these to lose sight of the bigger picture?

From LEED to Living Buildings

Ever since the late-1990s, the highest standard for environmental building has been LEED-certification, run by the U.S. Green Building Council. With three different levels—platinum, gold, silver—builders can earn LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) points for a variety of measures, from energy conservation to water efficiency to healthy materials.

But some critics of LEED—including those on the more extreme end of the environmental movement—felt it has become too commonplace. Builders can find loopholes in the certification process to receive partial credit and still come off as good citizens.

“A system like LEED gives little pats on the back for doing good deeds,” says Emmanuel Cosgrove, director of the Canadian green-building organization EcoHome, “and the more little pats on the back that you get, the more you get a medal—like going from LEED silver to gold to platinum.”

So green-building advocates started looking for a tougher standard, with less wiggle room for “good effort.” It came in the form of a Living Building, first developed by Bob Berkebile and Jason McClennan, two architects who worked together on a prototype for a highly-sustainable building in Bozeman, Montana, called the EpiCenter.

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The Kern Center is one of only a handful of buildings to meet the Living Building Challenge.

In 2006, Berkebile and McClennan took the idea of a Living Building Challenge to the Seattle-based Cascadia Green Building Council. Cascadia then created what’s now called the International Living Future Institute to oversee the program. According to organization’s online guide, the Living Building Challenge is “a philosophy first, an advocacy tool second, and a certification program third.”

The initial idea was to encourage self-sustaining buildings that are so green that they generate more resources than they use. “Incremental change is no longer a viable option,” the Living Building Challenge website says. “When compared with the rate of change that is required to avoid the worst effects of climate change and other global environmental challenges, our progress has been minute and barely recordable.”

To qualify as a full Living Building (the group also offers partial certification), you must ace seven performance categories, called “petals”: Place, Water, Energy, Health and Happiness, Materials, Equity and Beauty.

For example, energy use must be net-zero or net-positive; all power has to be produced on site, with no combustion, and there should be a way to store excess energy for emergencies. Water should be collected and treated on site.

Builders cannot use any toxic material or chemical on the organization’s 22-item “red list”—which includes asbestos, mercury, arsenic-treated wood, BPA and PCBs—and that applies to anything from duct tape to outlet covers.

Twenty percent of all materials must be sourced within 300 miles; another 30% within 620 miles. Same principle for laborers and consultants.

The building site must be chosen to avoid farmland, wetlands, or any ecologically sensitive land, and to promote “human powered” transit like walking or biking. The interior space should be pleasing and well ventilated with plenty of fresh air and daylight. To cap it all off, the architecture and design itself must be beautiful; the aesthetics must “uplift the human spirit.”

A lot to ask? Perhaps. “The goal of our program is to put a stake in the ground for where we think buildings should be heading in the future,” says Amanda Sturgeon, CEO of the International Living Future Institute. Given the novelty and nuance of the challenge’s many rules, Sturgeon says the effort requires much more than just shopping around for eco-friendly materials. Builders have to start thinking differently from the very beginning.

“Sometimes we have design teams that are really enthusiastic, but we haven’t gotten buy-in from the building owner,” Sturgeon says. “They jump in enthusiastically to do a project, but I think sometimes they don’t quite know what it’s going to entail. And they charge ahead with the usual design process without changing it. It ends up adding cost and time.”

The Living Building judges do occasionally make exceptions if builders can prove the impossibility, or infeasibility, of a task—say, if state regulators don’t allow composting toilets or the conversion of rainwater into drinking water or when the state fire code requires a hook-up to the municipal water supply.

“The bottom line test for us is, does it meet the intent of the imperative?” Sturgeon says. “That you balance the resources of the site and that you’re able to not only live within the means of the site but also have an opportunity to restore the place you’re building in, ecologically.”

In other words, this is an extremely high bar—so high, in fact, that as of July 2016, only 11 buildings have qualified for full Living Building status; a few dozen more are in the process.

The Devil’s In the Materials

Like most aspiring Living Builders, Hampshire College had a few stumbles, especially while making sure that not a single item—not the wiring, not the nail coating—contains anything on the toxic red list.

“Sometimes you’ll go down the line, and you’ll find two months after you think you’ve procured something, you realize you can’t use it,” says Carl Weber, Hampshire’s project manager. “That happened with our electrical equipment. Everybody worked around the issue, but it probably caused the greatest angst in the project.”

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Solar panels on the Kern Center's roof provide 100 kW of power, meeting the building's needs.

Other builders have talked about the challenge of finding the highest performing components within a local radius. For instance, nearby Smith College, whose much smaller eco-classroom was Living Building certified in 2011, had to switch out its counter tops at the last minute. “We discovered late in the process that the porcelain in the concrete was coming from Europe, and that was too far,” says Reid Bertone-Johnson, Smith’s project manager. “Ultimately we went with southern Vermont slate.”

Even after an institution or builder has gone through the whole design and construction process and opened for business, there’s no guarantee they’ll actually get that Living Building certificate. They still need to submit a year’s worth of utility bills to prove they really do produce more energy than they use.

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Inverters convert the solar panel's direct current voltage to the alternating current that's standard in homes and offices.

So is it worth all the trouble? Absolutely, says Hampshire President Jonathan Lash, a well-known leader in global environmental policy. Even though construction cost about 10 percent higher than traditional projects, he says, it will save much more than that in energy conservation. More importantly, a Living Building embodies the college’s green principles, which recently extended to an all-solar pledge. “For everyone who visits this campus, we want them to say: ‘This is what you can do, why would you want to do anything else?’ ” Lash says. (It can’t hurt the student acceptance yield either. During the press event, two college tours walked by and the tour leaders were sure to point out the green attributes of the Kern Center.)

And sometimes you have to go big, Lash says, not just to get attention, but to get funding. “What excited the donors was that the building was way out there at the cutting edge,” he says. “If we’d done something that that was just pretty green but nothing special, it would’ve been much tougher to raise the money.” But for some people, that’s exactly what makes them wary of the Living Building Challenge.

Too Much?

Emmanuel Cosgrove, director of EcoHome, a green-building consulting organization, is hardly someone you’d expect to be a skeptic when it comes to eco-friendly construction.

I met him accidentally, after I answered his Airbnb ad for an “eco-loft” he rents out in Montreal. Tall and fit from biking almost everywhere around the city, he greeted me in bare feet, still vacuuming the hardwood floors, which he explained all came from reclaimed wood—as did the thick and slightly misshapen front door. The water that we used to shower went into a recycled gray water system that flushed our toilets and keeps their roof garden irrigated. The third floor is heated by sunlight from ceiling-to-floor windows.

Not surprisingly, a certificate inside the foyer advertises that this building was one of the first in Quebec to go LEED Platinum. So when I asked what he thought of the Living Building Challenge, I was surprised to learn that Cosgrove, who proudly calls himself an “environmental wacko,” is not a fan.

“Extremes sell,” he says. “And just good buildings that will last a very long time and use very little energy and very little water—they just don’t sell.”

His objection is not to the spirit of the Living Building; he considers it “beautiful in principle” and says he was excited when the challenge was first announced. But over time, he concluded that the individualistic, self-sustaining ideal of a Living Building misses out on the benefits of larger-scale connectivity. In places like Montreal, he says, where power grids already make use of renewable energy like wind or hydro, it takes fewer resources to plug into an large and established shared system than it does to produce your own power, building by building.

He makes the same argument for water. He says his organization conducted an analysis to compare the resources needed to catch rainwater and process it on-site against using a municipal water supply. The municipal system won. “And that’s no fun. We don’t want to hear that,” Cosgrove says. “When we’re doing this to truly make the right decisions, to make our collective environmental impact lesser, then we have to listen to what science tells us.”

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One of two composter units that handle the waste from the six toilets in the Kern Center.

He even balks at the argument, made by supporters of Living Buildings, that you have to go extreme to inspire followers. On the contrary, he’s worried that everyday builders and homeowners—even eco-conscious ones like him—will be so daunted by the hoops you go through to attain Living Building status, they might just throw up their hands. “All we can hope for is it won’t deter more people than it draws into the sustainable building movement,” Cosgrove says.

Nadav Malin, president of the Vermont company BuildingGreen, shares some wariness about the Living Building Challenge, but he doesn’t go as far as Cosgrove. He says he prefers to look at energy conservation from a neighborhood or city-wide perspective. Rather than applauding each building for its net-zero goals, better to add up all the buildings in a city or neighborhood and consider the communal successes.

“If we keep our eye on the bigger picture of climate change, trying to make an individual building net zero may not be the most effective way to get there,” he says. (In fact, the International Living Future Institute has recently launched a “Living Community Challenge” using similar principles as the Living Building but on the larger scale that Malin recommends.)

Malin also says it’s important not to get carried away with “bragging rights” over one special building at the expense of wider scale improvements—especially on college campuses. “If you have a bunch of existing buildings that are very inefficient because they were built in the ’50s or ’60s—when we built horrible buildings from an energy point of view—to invest a tremendous amount of resources in making one building net zero may not be as good from an overall carbon impact,” Malin says.

Yet Malin says the skeptic’s point of view need not derail the Living Building ideal entirely, “because I think that these kind of projects really galvanize interest and excitement and people ideally should be doing both. They should be looking at what I call ‘trophy buildings’ as an opportunity to see what’s possible.”

That’s exactly how CEO Amanda Sturgeon looks at the Living Building Challenge. She says they’ve already inspired smaller scale environmental improvements, on campuses and elsewhere, and have egged on manufacturers to make healthier building products.

“We’re sort of tugging the whole market forward,” she says. “My hope is all the projects looking to be a little more energy-efficient are thinking, ‘Wow, I could actually get a whole lot further than I would have started out thinking I could get to,’ and stretch themselves to more innovative solutions than they thought were possible.”