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A Quantum Leap in Sustainable Building

The International Living Building Institute is promoting a higher level of sustainable construction, such as this office design, on the cover of its 2011 study, “The Economics of Change.”

The International Living Building Institute is promoting a higher level of sustainable construction, such as this office design, on the cover of its 2011 study, “The Economics of Change.”

It’s a new construction certification program even more rigorous than LEED, the once-daunting Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, a green building certification program that recognizes best-in-class building strategies and practices.

The people behind the new program want to change nearly everything we know about buildings. Buildings that take no water or electricity from the grid, instead generating enough for their occupants and even others. Buildings where everybody gets a window and the ambient air isn’t necessarily 68 degrees and static everywhere you go.

We can’t toss it off as a product of fish-kissing, tree-hugging Californians. Rebecca Dunn Bryant, a Fairhope architect and managing partner with the green consulting firm Watershed, says many of the ideas embraced by the Living Building Challenge were propagated by beloved Birmingham-born, Mobile-raised biologist and author E.O. Wilson.

Bryant talked about the Living Building Challenge to about 75 building professionals, students and others at a session of the 2015 Sustainability Summit at the University of South Alabama in late January. The summit was sponsored by, among others, the Green Coast Council and Alabama Coastal Foundation.

Wilson’s popularization of the term “biophilia,” or “love of life,” declares that humans have evolved to appreciate living things. “The problem is that we haven’t been designing our buildings to recognize that fact for a long time,” she says.

And we spend 90 percent of our time indoors, she adds. 

The Living Building Challenge has 20 “imperatives.” One of the first is that designers and builders put their new developments on land that’s been developed in the past, figuring our concrete footprint is already big enough. 

Buildings are allowed to “jump scale,” meaning that several buildings can share a solar array, collected water or geothermal setup. Food has to be grown on site in the Living Building Challenge, either on the rooftop or on land set aside in the development. There’s a one-to-one habitat exchange; every acre of developed land must be offset by an acre put into an approved land trust in perpetuity.

Similar rules apply for power and water usage. “The idea is that the building should be providing water for its own use, using it and reusing it, then releasing it for infiltration or back to waterways,” Bryant says.

All this attention isn’t just for the planet. Those inside the buildings wouldn’t be exposed constantly to chemical vapors and particulates that inevitably get ingested. The human-friendly design requirements would reconnect people with nature, a connection that’s been statistically proven to decrease absenteeism and other negative productivity markers. 

There are so far about 200 registered LBC projects in 14 countries.

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