Building Living Buildings

It’s interesting to watch evolution in action. Whether it is the evolution of a relationship, a species, a planet or, in this case, a sustainable society – we are constantly changing. Several years ago, at a U.S. Green Building Council leadership meeting, I witnessed the launch of an interesting new idea: the Living Building Challenge. I think it was a seminal moment in the evolution of the green building movement. Now the seeds of this bar-raising concept are bearing fruit.

Biophilia is defined as “a love of life and the living world.” This wonderfully simple but powerful concept is embedded in the core philosophy of this greenest of green building programs. Other interesting aspects of the challenge include net zero energy and water use, urban agriculture, social justice and (gasp!) limits to growth. These are just a few examples of the sort of “deep green” goals that make the Living Building Challenge program both unique and meaningful.

The program is administered by the International Living Building Institute and was originally launched by the Cascadia Green Building Council (one of the original chapters of the U.S. Green Building Council). It is considered by many to be the most advanced green building rating system in the world.

According to their website (, “the purpose of the Living Building Challenge is straightforward – it defines the most advanced measure of sustainability in the built environment possible today and acts to diminish the gap between current limits and ideal solutions. This certification program covers all building at all scales and is a unified tool for transformative design, allowing us to envision a future that is Socially Just, Culturally Rich and Ecologically Restorative.”

The program’s structure emulates the petals of a flower. While that evokes a delicate and beautiful image, it is no lightweight when it comes to creating results. In fact, projects are only certified as “Living Buildings” after they have met all of the requirements during a full year of continued operations and full occupancy. In other words, when it comes to green, Living Buildings are the real deal, but they must walk their talk. This is no easy feat and to date only three projects have achieved Living Building certification.

The stringent, no-compromise requirements are designed to expand beyond our often self-imposed limits, eliminate the box and nurture innovation.  It simultaneously shows us how far we’ve come and just how little we know. We’ve come to appreciate the value of our biosphere and the myriad natural systems that provide the basis for all life, yet we have so much to learn about actually reintegrating our activities in ways that heal and protect over the long term.

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion.”

– Abraham Lincoln

The International Living Building Institute has issued a challenge:

  • To all design professionals, contractors and building owners to create the foundation for a sustainable future in the fabric of our communities.
  • To politicians and manufacturers to remove barriers to systemic change, and to realign incentives and market signals that truly protect the health, safety and welfare of people and all beings.
  • To all of humanity to reconcile the built environment with the natural environment, into a civilization that creates greater biodiversity, resilience and opportunities for life with each adaptation and development.

This is indeed a challenge worthy of our times. It is the language of leaders who carry a vision about things that really matter. None of us are excluded from participation.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion.”

Green Living is all about rising to the occasion.

Additional Resources:

  • The Omega Center for Sustainable Living (OCSL) is the first green building in America to achieve both LEED® Platinum and Living Building Challenge™ certification.
  • The Living Learning Center at Tyson Research Center meets the most stringent green building standard of the time, the Living Building Challenge.


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