Radical Green: Living Building Challenge Pushes Sustainability Ahead

You think LEED Platinum is hard? The Living Building Challenge is sustainable design’s new cutting edge.

The Omega Center for Sustainable Living is a pretty little building tucked into the calm green exile of Rhinebeck, New York, 100 miles north of Manhattan. Pass into the main room and a long southern exposure throws a halo of light over ponds burbling amid overgrown elephant ears, calla-lily buds, and banana trees. Just yonder, four outdoor pools descend gently down a hill, their reeds and bulrush stalks fairly singing with a late-summer breeze. The building is the newest addition to the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, a nonprofit that’s every bit as New Age as it sounds and where shape-shifting courses and “bootcamp for goddesses” do the work of its sunny mission: “awakening the best in the human spirit.” Hover over the pools too long, though, and one’s treated to an awakening of an entirely different sort. Issuing from those murky depths is a faint sour odor, unmistakable to anyone who’s ever walked past a sewer grate. The center is a living, breathing shrine to shit.

It also happens to be one of the greenest buildings in America. Those bubbling ponds and placid pools constitute a sewage plant that turns today’s breakfast into tomorrow’s toilet water, chemical-free, for the 23,000-odd bliss seekers who pass through Omega each year. The center generates all its own energy via solar panels and geothermal wells. Materials strenuously eschew toxins—there’s virtually no PVC, lead, or mercury to speak of—and draw from a 250- to 1,000-mile zone, depending on the product. Whitewashed wood traveled some 300 miles from the stage floor of Barack Obama’s inauguration to grace the walls of the mechanical room (complete with a smattering of what appear to be size-12 footprints). Even construction workers had to shed their improvident ways, lest a cigarette butt litter the loam or half a sandwich go uncomposted.

This environment piety—some might say fanaticism—is the decree of the Living Building Challenge, a rating system from the Cascadia Region Green Building Council, whose 16 design imperatives (not options) makes the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED credits look like something drawn up by Exxon. The Center for Sustainable Living is on track to be one of the country’s first Living Buildings, along with an ecology facility at Missouri’s Washington University. (Both opened in May, but they have to operate for a year before earning certification.)

More from Metropolis

Think of the Living Building Challenge as a Port Huron Statement for the green age. Its motto, “No credits, just prerequisites,” rebukes the moderate incrementalism of LEED, which favors plaques and incentives over soup-to-nuts sustainability. The rigors of the Challenge, the thinking goes, will pressure the USGBC itself to radicalize, effectively tamping the entire industry into smaller carbon footprints, one pretty little building at a time. In this era of (perhaps mythical) carbon-neutral resorts and LEED Platinum skyscrapers, it seems a logical next step. Around 60 projects have signed on to the Challenge. But as Omega illustrates, it’s an arduous process, which turns architecture into a series of Carthusian statutes that no one, not even the most devout among us, could possibly follow to a tee. “To say that Living Building Challenge is a challenge—you’ve got to keep that word Challenge capitalized throughout the process,” says Skip Backus, executive director of the Omega Institute. Dan Hellmuth, the architect for Washington University’s Living Building project, puts it more bluntly: “We knew what we were getting into, but we didn’t know how bad it was going to be.”

Omega is, in many ways, the perfect test subject. Rising out of the Human Potential Movement at the apogee of the cosmic 1970s, it has blissfully prospered into the 21st century, a testimony to the enduring notion that the first step of solving the world’s ills is to turn inward. Five years ago, Omega’s sewage plant started nearing capacity, and Backus naturally reckoned that its replacement should reaffirm the institute’s mission. “We’ve been looking at personal transformation as the core,” he says, “but you get to a certain place where that has to turn outward. In the old days, it was called ‘walk your talk.’”

Backus turned to Dr. John Todd, the éminence grise of ecological design (and winner of the first Buckminster Fuller Challenge award), who has spoken at several Omega conferences on water conservation. Todd suggested they build an Eco Machine, a self-contained sewage system that mimics nature’s self-corrective principles by freeing plants, bacteria, micro-organisms, algae, and fish to feast on human waste, thus purify-ing it, much as a stream cleanses its own ecosystem. “The idea was two things: to be able to demonstrate a different relationship to waste and water, and to look at the Eco Machine as a profound living metaphor,” Todd says. Berkebile Nelson Immenschuh McDowell Architects (BNIM), a Kansas City firm with a green pedigree that stretches back to the early days of sustainable building, signed on to design the Eco Machine’s shell. “They said, ‘Let’s do a LEED Platinum building,’ and that’s no small statement,” Backus recalls. “But that was nothing compared to the next thing that came out of their mouths, which was, ‘There’s this other program called the Living Building Challenge.’

We said, ‘OK, yeah, let’s go for that.’ Little did we know …”

Like Omega, the Challenge sprouted from a near fetish for self-improvement. An idea had been percolating in the mind of Jason McLennan, at the time a principal at BNIM. Frustrated with what he saw as LEED’s complacency, in 2005 he set about crafting a building-rating system that would reward nothing less (or rather nothing more) than carbon neutrality. A project at Montana State University was supposed to produce the world’s greenest building. Instead, school politics fatally conspired against it, leaving only research papers and the concept of living buildings. At its heart is a rejection of the “machine as metaphor” conceit, which reduces nature to fuel for architecture’s cogs and has largely defined the profession since Le Corbusier wielded his mighty Modernist pen more than half a century ago. In McLennan’s view, buildings should resemble flowers, those little evolutionary marvels that can shelter assorted organisms but are also completely self-sustaining.

Cascadia was a willing incubator for McLennan’s ideas. An original arm of the USGBC, it has positioned itself as the radical voice of green building, nudging its mainstream predecessor to adopt stricter environmental rules faster. It’s easy to see why. LEED drips with power, its imprint inked on legislation across 43 states. But as any seasoned LEED professional will tell you, basic certification is no more rigorous than following code in certain municipalities. “We’re putting pressure on the USGBC to raise its standards,” says McLennan, who joined Cascadia as CEO in 2006, months before the organization unveiled the Living Building Challenge at Greenbuild. “We believe that LEED Certified should be sunseted—it’s too easy—that Silver should be the lowest level, and Living Building should be recognized as the top tier. We’re going to change the building industry. And we’re going to do it by moving toward the endgame, toward the ideal solution.”

At Omega, the endgame looks something like this: one of the Challenge’s prerequisites forbids construction “on or adjacent to sensitive ecological habitats.” Omega, being hard by a weald of endangered frogs, agreed to build a barrier around the property, in tandem with New York’s Depart-ment of Environmental Conservation and a contract biologist, on the off chance that a frog might leap 500 feet into some construction-site death-trap. Various workers then walked the perimeter three times a day to document entangled frogs. (There were none.)

Another requirement was that the wood be sourced within a 1,000-mile radius, Forest Stewardship Council–certified or salvaged, and free of more than a dozen toxins detailed in a chemicals “red list.” The “materials trifecta,” as Laura Lesniewski, a BNIM principal, calls it, extended from siding down to trifling frame connectors. Consider the center’s glue-laminated beams, small lumber pasted together to create larger structural pieces. “We knew there were folks that could provide FSC-certified beams,” Lesniewski says. “We knew there were places that used an acceptable adhesive. And we knew that there were folks that produced glue-lam beams within the radius. But it was hard to find one that could do all three. It came down to one supplier.” (None of which takes into account the fourth, client-imposed constraint: cost.) “You can’t do one thing,” Backus says, “without tripping over something else.”

Trip, they did. The Eco Machine—that great symbol of sustainability—uses parts manufactured exclusively in PVC (number 12 on the red list). The center’s 211 solar panels traveled about 8,500 miles as the crow flies from the Philippines because American brands were deemed too weak to offset the building’s long-term energy consumption. (The Washington University project architects couldn’t find ceiling fans made in the United States or lead-free brass hardware.) As a result, Cascadia has gotten into the business of granting exceptions. Banned substances are allowed if a letter is written to manufacturers detailing why their products stain the environment. Photovoltaic cells from far-flung corners of the world are OK if it’s proven that they’re more efficient than Stateside offerings. And so on.

As Eden Brukman, Cascadia’s second in command, tells it, these are the headaches that accompany any instance of being first. Years ago, people lodged the same complaints against LEED—the market wasn’t up to snuff, the rules turned design into hidebound drudgery. “Is Living Building Challenge too strong of a program? Too radical?” she asks. “It’s a lot less radical than the actions we’ll be forced to take if we continue on this path.”

“BIG BREATH, BIG BREATH. Heart opens. Body is soft. Yeaaaaaaaah.” That’s a therapeutic-dance teacher purring breathlessly into a microphone. On an August afternoon, she’s in an exercise studio on the western edge of Omega’s 195-acre sylvan refuge, warming up for “Movement,” one of the institute’s many classes to awaken the best in the human spirit. “Exhale out through the hands and feet today,” she coos, eyes at half-mast, smiling so big her teeth look like cotton balls from the back of the room. “Reach the arms out. Let the feet melt. Just be one. Being is number one.”

All around campus, Omega is walking the talk. Students in a wood-furniture workshop mass under an outdoor canopy at the Center for Sustainable Living, taking power sanders to gnarled stumps (all salvaged, their teacher quickly reveals). Others hack around in the hall, a few feet from where plants are busy stripping the day’s sewage of its sordid compounds. This is the postlude to Omega’s vision. The place doubles as a teaching outpost and, in doing so, becomes a 6,250-square-foot, $3.5 million lesson in flushing out collective squeamishness over waste. “When people come here, they have a visceral reaction,” Backus says. “All of a sudden they’re like, ‘Wow, wastewater is beautiful.’ It’s a way of connecting to our impact.” In truth, given the sheer magnitude of the constraints, projects like Omega are probably too far-out to become mainstream anytime soon. The American economy isn’t set up to do this sort of thing on a large scale. (Those that can’t meet the challenge are falling back on LEED certification.) This is micro improvement to get at macro solutions—architecture turning inward and going, “Ommmmm.” The Living Building Challenge isn’t going to revolutionize green building overnight. But maybe that’s not the point. “Our job is to show this is possible,” McLennan says. “The first buildings are doing that. And just like LEED did five years ago, it’s shifting the market further.”

Today, Omega is alive with good vibes. The dance teacher coos on the edge of campus. Over at the Center for Sustainable Living, the bulrush flickers in the pools. The aerated ponds gurgle under their halo of light. Somewhere on campus, someone is awakening the best in the human spirit. He’s flushing a toilet.

Recent Projects