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How the Living Building Challenge Moves the Green Building Industry Forward

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Posted by: abu417 // Climate Connoisseur. Eco-Maniac. Solar Sommelier.

Living Building Challenge R.W. RW Kern Center Hitchcock Center for the Environment Hampshire College Green Building Industry Innovation

            Being an intern at, I learned a lot of vocabulary and catchy names along the way. The things that really stuck out to me the most were things that came up frequently like “LEED certification” or “Resilience” which seem like really common things in the Green Building Industry. There was one that was the most interesting to learn about, however. The Living Building Challenge came up quite a bit and so I thought it was something that was pretty common. This certification though, is not like most, and turns out pretty hard to meet. I learned a lot more about the challenge when doing some research to write my articles on the Hitchcock and Kern Centers and I found out that not only are they certified, but they are 2 out of only 23 certified buildings in the whole world. Both being at Hampshire, the college is home to almost 10% of all of these rare specimens. Now, why exactly is it so difficult and rare to meet their standards?

            The Living Building Challenge is made up of 7 “petals” and each petal is one aspect of the holistic sustainable building method, like water, energy, materials, etc. Buildings have to have zero carbon emissions, generate all their energy on site, collect and filter water on site, along with other very ambitious requirements. The fundamental idea is that the building becomes a part of the natural on-site systems and live off the land with minimal importation. Another additional element of the Living Building Challenge that differentiates it from other industry standards and certifications is the fact that its performance based. That means, while you can earn some certificates by implementing the standards in their design or plans, for the LBC, you actually have to follow through and show that the building is continuing to meet them. It’s much harder to cheat or take shortcuts in order to earn eco-friendly sounding stamps to raise the price of the property when this is the case, which is probably why there’s only 23 of certified projects. If so few buildings can achieve it, what is the point of having it? In other words, what good is the LBC to the Green Building Industry?

            Like I said before, I was writing an article on the 2 LBC sites at Hampshire, and during the research process I spoke to Sara Draper, Project Manager at the R.W. Kern Center. We discussed LBC at length and how truly challenging it is to be completely self-sufficient on site while meeting local regulations. Specifically, a problem they were addressing was local water regulations relating to the bacteria levels in water. Trying to make a complicated situation simple, in their municipality, the law allows certain volumes of bacteria but does not discriminate between the harmful and the harmless bacteria. So, while the water filtration system at Kern is good enough to drink, given that it is a public site, it has to meet these knit-picky standards. Turns out, this issue is not unique to the Kern Center and other LBC projects are working out ways to deal with the issue. UV treatment is the method used at Kern and most common one used on on-site water filtration systems, which works well to reduce bacteria but does not prevent bacteria from growing. Now they have classes looking at water quality with students taking measurements and developing research questions to tackle the problem. Oliver, an Intern at Kern, for example, has been with them for almost a year, writing research papers and looking at the state of this kind of water system and alternative solutions that exist. He worked on a case study and presentation for Kern to develop a plan. The Living Building Challenge model turns issues like these into a team effort. Once one of the projects successfully figures out a way to solve it, the innovations travel through the Green Building Industry as a whole, and, all of a sudden, Green Building is that much better, that much more efficient, and that much more accessible. 

            The Living Building Challenge is, naturally, a very challenging set of standards to meet (and then continuously keep meeting). Anyone, or any set of people, willing to take on this challenge are ambitious. Thankfully some of those people exist, because those people help push our industry forward. Green Building is part capital-driven industry, but as many of us involved in it know, is also partly driven by a mission based in morality and a hope for a cleaner, brighter future. If Green Building thrives, so does the planet and future generations. That’s why it’s so important that mechanisms that drive us forward, spread information, innovate the modes and systems we use, are there. The Living Building Challenge is one of those mechanisms that do that, and the admirable people who build and maintain the operations of the certified projects are to be commended. 

-Ahmed Abusharkh






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