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living building challenge interview

The Living Building Challenge: Epitomizing Optimism in Our Future

By Tobias Roberts Rise Writer
Jan 14, 2021

The Greek philosopher Socrates once said that "the secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new." In the world we live in today, it is impossible to ignore the predictions of how climate change, biodiversity loss, and other ecological catastrophes will affect the world our children inherit. Instead of focusing on these dire forecasts, focusing our energies on creating a more sustainable world is essential.

The International Living Future Institute (ILFI) is up to that challenge. ILFI is a nonprofit working to build an ecologically-minded, restorative world for all people. ILFI is responsible for creating the Living Building Challenge, the world's most rigorous green building standard and certification process. This standard goes above and beyond the more commonly known LEED certification. It attempts to push for buildings that are net-zero or net-positive energy while also being free of all toxic chemicals.

Rise spoke with Allison Capen, the former Technical Director of the Living Building Challenge (LBC), back in 2018. This conversation is still very valid today as she helped us understand this rigorous yet encouraging green building standard and how it is contributing to a more sustainable future.


What is the Living Building Challenge?

"The LBC is a certification system, but it is also a philosophy, or approach to design and construction, as well as an advocacy tool to fundamentally shift the market towards resilient, sustainable building. The approach is more holistic than other certification systems, and it is based on setting our sights on the ideal, rather than on incremental improvements, or design that is 'less bad.' It is also performance-based, which differs from many other systems," said Capen.

Unlike other green building certifications, the LBC requires buildings to be continuously inhabited for 12 months to receive full certification. Rather than merely focusing on products and components with sustainable advertising, the LBC considers the patterns of occupancy that affect the sustainable performance of a building. For example, we know that LED lights certainly consume less energy than incandescent bulbs. But, if those lights are on during long daylight hours, the energy savings are reduced due to the homeowners and occupants' ineffective behaviors.

According to Allison, the LBC requires 12 months of occupancy "because the proof is in the pudding, particularly when it comes to predicting human behavior. Studies have shown that it is very difficult to accurately model performance, because there are so many variables –in the way the model is set up, changes that happen during construction, and in the way occupants use buildings. By requiring a twelve-month performance period after occupancy, Living Building Challenge project teams know they have met the requirements, and they learn a lot on the way about reducing energy demand, commissioning systems, setting procurement policies, and educating occupants—all so they can continue to operate as desired even after the auditor is gone."

The Living Building Challenge shows what "good" looks like in the built environment. Too often, green buildings are really just slightly less harmful to the environment, wasting a bit less energy or using fewer hazardous chemicals. But the era of harm reduction is behind us. To tackle climate change's challenges and improve human and environmental health, we have to try to do everything right. This effort means net positive energy and water, no hazardous chemicals, wood from responsibly managed forests, healthy indoor air, and much more. We need it all, urgently. Yes, the Living Building Challenge is ambitious, but it's exactly what we need to transform humanity's relationship with the natural world.

Rainwater Cistern

What Are The Different Levels Available in the Living Building Challenge?

The LBC offers several different types of certification for buildings:

Living Certification

This certification requires the project to complete and fulfill all 20 of the Imperatives. These include, among others: limits to growth, human-powered living water, net positive water and energy, healthy interior environment, embodied carbon footprint, living economy sourcing of materials, equitable investment, and human-scale/humane places.  As of January 2021, 13 residential projects have received Certified and Petal certifications.

Petal Certification

This certification requires buildings to complete three out of the seven petals (the LBC is designed around a flower motif). One of the three petals must be either the Energy, Materials, or Water Petal, which are the hardest to adhere to, but also have the highest impact. 

Zero Energy Certification

Zero Energy certification requires that 100% of a building's energy needs be supplied by renewable energy, on a net annual basis, based on actual performance. No combustion—meaning no natural gas, propane, oil, etc.—is allowed. 32 residential projects have achieved Zero Energy Certification.

Zero Carbon Certification

Similar to Zero Energy certification, the goal is to have 100% of a building's energy needs supplied by renewable energy on a net basis, but it does not have to be met with onsite renewables. This certification allows for carbon offsets to accommodate buildings that may not be able to meet Zero Energy Certification due to previously installed combustion and the inability to install renewable energy onsite. No residential projects have achieved this certification yet.


The Living Building Challenge Focuses on the Ideal

Allison believes that "LEED is a great tool, particularly for those who are new to sustainable design and want a better understanding of the basic areas of concern…At the same time, we need to go further if we hope to really live within the means this planet can support—using only renewable energy sources, reserving potable water for only potable needs, and supporting projects, products, and organizations that foster health and treat people equitably."

Modern home construction is typically an "inefficient use of resources (materials, energy, water), which is exacerbated by externalizing the real costs to vulnerable communities and ecosystems." Several eco-certifications do not go far enough in addressing the underlying issues related to sustainable home design and construction. Allison believes that "minor tweaks to current industry practices are not going to have sufficient impact. Generally speaking, certification systems developed by the industry being certified are less likely to foster truly impactful change than those developed by and confirmed through a third party."

Boy Hugging Tree

The Benefits of the Living Building Challenge

Many homeowners interested in living more sustainably want to know about the costs and potential payback through increased energy-efficiency and renewable energy systems.

When it comes to the additional costs related to building an LBC-certified building, Allison admits that "in general, yes, (LBC-certified homes) typically cost a bit more, for a number of reasons. LBC projects are not externalizing their cost on others (e.g., sending their sewage offsite for treatment, installing cheap toxic materials, or using fossil fuels), and for many teams, this is a new approach to design and construction, which takes some time and research to understand. As a team told me: you can't build an energy utility and water treatment plant in your project and expect it to come at the same price [as a conventional building]." 

Radically sustainable homes bring benefits that prevail over economic and budget concerns. An LBC-certified homeowner will certainly financially benefit from lower utility costs, increased home resilience (important due to increased likelihood of climate-related weather events), and improved health through the absence of toxic chemicals in the home (and healthcare is not cheap). In addition, Allison believes that the main reason individual homeowners and home contractors opt for LBC certification is that "people feel strongly that this is how they want to live in the world, and they want their home to be resilient and healthy. This certification speaks to those values: they get the certification to celebrate it and be a part of the community."

pink coneflower

Allison also believes that radically sustainable buildings that meet the rigorous standards set forth by the LBC should become more economically feasible in the coming years. "The good news," Allison says, "is that it is getting easier. There are many people with expertise and interest in helping new teams. There are tools to help with research, and Declare (ILFI's materials transparency label) has more than 800 listed products…to help teams streamline their materials research."

Suppose you are interested in having your home (either newly built or remodeled) receive one of the LBC sustainability certifications. In that case, there is an initial registration fee, which will get you access to project team calls and an online dialogue with LBC experts. The actual price of certification will depend on the size of the project.

According to Allison, "ideally, a project team will register a project when they are in the planning stage, so they have all the requirements in front of them as they develop the design, construct, and occupy the project. They can then access our new Portal, where they can collect documentation as they go, see helpful information, and contact the Institute as needed (e.g., for questions that are unique to their project circumstances and are not yet addressed in current resources). They then submit for certification at the end of the twelve-month performance period."

gray house at dusk

Final Words

The Living Building Challenge offers a critical and imperative lens to analyze the essential demands of sustainability and its relation to the homes in which we live. Every house or building must respond to the location-specific context. Allison believes that for a home to truly fit into the local ecosystem, "the first step is to understand the resources that are available, based on your location (climate, site, orientation, etc.) and how the ecosystem works. That allows the team to design or adjust the program to fit within those parameters and support that ecosystem."

Focusing on the ideal, even when it is hard to achieve, will help move the sustainable construction industry towards more profound and deep-rooted changes. This shift will make the homes we live in a truly more sustainable part of the landscape. 


Reviewed by:

Brad Kahn

Brad Kahn is the owner of Groundwork Strategies, a communications consultancy focused on climate, forests and green building. He works with the International Living Future Institute, Bullitt Foundation and Forest Stewardship Council to tell stories that inspire people to build greener. He has been the communications lead for the Bullitt Center - a Living Building that is often called the greenest commercial building in the world - since it was an idea on the back of a napkin.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-01-29T22:05:05+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.