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The Living Building Challenge Realized

| November 9, 2016

by DiAnn Mroszczak

“The [Living Building] Challenge aims to transform how we think about every act of design and construction. Each act is an opportunity to positively impact the greater community.” — The International Living Future Institute

Recently, I had the opportunity to moderate a panel of contractors, project owners, operations staff, and design team members working on projects in various phases of completion and certification of the Living Building Challenge (LBC). It feels quite obvious after the fact, but when a panel conversation is organized around an idea like the LBC that can be simply stated, but is complicated and diverse in its execution, it can lead to a wonderful and revelatory discourse.

The LBC is at its base a rating system, a philosophy, and an advocacy tool. Six projects in Massachusetts and 11 projects in all of New England are taking on the LBC: growing beyond the current standard of doing less environmental harm to one in which a project team seeks to lead as a steward of a sustainable future.

The LBC, using the metaphor of a flower, structures its requirements into seven categories called petals: Place, Water, Energy, Health & Happiness, Materials, Equity, and Beauty. The seven petals are subsequently defined by 20 imperatives, or requirements, which focus on a specific sphere of influence. All 20 imperatives must be met to achieve full certification. A team is to strive for net positive impact through their addition to the built environment.

In my personal experience, the LBC is a journey — a conversation and experience shared between owner, contractor, and architect — that is best embarked upon with the proper tools, training, determination, and an organized path. Regardless of the final tally, a project team can find themselves at project’s end in a place they never expected, that can truly change them forever.

It was incredible to hear panelists share challenges from their own respective professions. Architects, for example, identified the material vetting and water treatment requirements; contractors, the material specifications and waste requirements; and owners, performance requirements. Over the course of the panel discussion, I came to three realizations about the LBC which I had not considered in my conversations with architects alone.

Realization No. 1: The LBC applies pressure equally all across phases. As mentioned above, each contributor brings a different skillset to the requirements of the LBC. Aspirational goals over all three phases force shared responsibility for a positive outcome. It was noticeable that balanced teams who effectively transitioned leadership roles­­ were the most successful in meeting The Challenge.

Realization No. 2: The LBC is a philosophy. In debating approaches and ideas, the panelists would often wander into deliberations on the relevance of requirements within the LBC. For example, The Water petal’s requirements for purified water led to a philosophical discussion about global initiatives for developing to first world countries, and LBC requirements that hold different weight based on individual relationships to resources.

Realization No. 3: The stronger the project team’s relationship, the more fruitful the results. Individual knowledge or experience is an unreliable tool when it comes to the LBC. The ability to clearly identify appropriate approaches, creatively solve problems, communicate with team members, and know when to apply a bit of stubbornness are truly the tools for success.

This conversation was a true representation of the LBC. The nature of the program does not define how and why an intent is to be achieved. It just throws the stake in the ground, requiring each team to explore the angles of an idea and define a clear relationship to their approach. This is one of the most exciting rewards to the process. The Living Building Challenge is structured to yield the most varied results, each with a beauty and richness that is attributed to the intention behind every act that, in summation, defines a project as a living building.

DiAnn Mroszczak, LEED AP BD+C, is a designer at Prellwitz Chilinski Associates.

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