Architectural Record BE - Building Enclosure

Live | Build | Sustain

A new green building program aims to push the design and construction industry well beyond current best practices.
This course is no longer active
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Nancy B. Solomon, AIA
Continuing Education

Learning Objectives - After this course, you should be able to:

  1. Explain the goals of the Living Building Challenge.
  2. Describe its organizational framework and requirements.
  3. Discuss the hurdles to achieving Living Building designation.
  4. Compare the Challenge and the LEED rating system.


1 GBCI CE Hour

The Living building challenge is not for the faint of heart. Part polemic, part rating system, it looks squarely at the environmental crisis - from rising global temperatures to shrinking natural habitats - and asks: What are we going to do about it, not in a few decades or a few years, but today?

The program challenges like-minded people to avoid any further degradation when they build. In fact, it asks participants to try to heal their sites as they create structures that exist in harmony with their surrounding ecosystems, inhabitants, and cultures. And if myopic building codes or manufacturing processes are limiting sustainable options, it requires the project team to advocate change.

While applauding the progress that has been made by the green-building movement in the past 20 years, the authors of the Challenge say it has not been enough. In an April 2010 description of the program, they argue that "incremental change is no longer a viable option." Given the enormity of the task that still lies ahead, they maintain that we need "to completely reshape humanity's relationship with nature and realign our ecological footprint to be within the planet's carrying capacity."

The concept of a living building grew out of a mid-1990s project to design a highly sustainable building for Montana State University. The design team, which included BNIM Architects of Kansas City, Missouri, sought to shift from a mechanistic model of architecture, in which natural resources are viewed as fodder for construction, to a more organic one, in which a building is designed to be fully part of, and in balance with, its ecosystem.

The Energy Laboratory at the Hawaii Preparatory Academy in Waimea, Hawaii, was designed by Flansburgh Architects of Boston and completed in January 2010. To source materials for projects in such remote regions, the Challenge increases allowable transportation distances.

Photo: © Matthew Millman


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Although the Montana project was never built, Bob Berkebile, FAIA, a founding principal of BNIM, and Jason F. McLennan, then head of the firm's building-science team, continued to work on the concept. They coauthored an article titled "Living Building," which appeared in the October 1999 issue of The World & I, and used the same term to signify ideal green-building practices in a study initiated the next year for the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. The latter analyzed the construction and operating costs of market-rate construction, comparing them to the costs associated with certification under the four tiers of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, which had only recently been launched by the U.S. Green Building Council. The Packard study also examined the cost of achieving the then-largely-hypothetical living building, which was envisioned to be even more sustainable than one meeting LEED's highest level of certification, Platinum.

McLennan continued to refine the living building concept and, in August 2006, presented the first version of the program to Cascadia Green Building Council (Cascadia), a chapter of both the U.S. and Canada Green Building Councils covering Oregon, Washington State, British Columbia, and Alaska. McLennan joined the organization as its C.E.O. soon thereafter, and Cascadia formally announced the launch of the Living Building Challenge in November 2006. To administer the expanding program, Cascadia established a separate organization, the International Living Building Institute (ILBI), in May 2009, which released Version 2.0 of the system later that year.


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Originally published in Architectural Record