How health factors into green building rating systems: Living Building Challenge

The Living Building at Georgia Tech - LBC

The Living Building at Georgia Tech, a joint project between The Miller Hull Partnership and Lord Aeck Sargent, is pursuing Living Building Challenge certification.

The second in a series on green building rating systems and human health examines the International Living Future Institute's comprehensive certification

While LEED is the most familiar green building rating system, several other options tackle similar themes, including health, in different ways. The Living Building Challenge—developed and managed by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI)—addresses the same fundamental issues as LEED but with different thresholds and expectations. The Living Building Challenge (LBC) has set an aggressive line in the sand, necessitating a significant leap of both standard practices and outcomes.

Living buildings are intended to give more than they take, creating a positive impact on the human and natural systems that interact with them. Instead of being “less bad,” the living building wants to change the whole notion of what a building can do. Striving for the ideal in the built environment, a living building would be zero waste and produce surpluses of both water and energy, moving past the definition of sustainable into the realm of regenerative.

As such, performance based goals in the LBC include net-positive energy and net-positive water. Conceived to model the built environment after a flower, the LBC uses seven “Petals” (or categories) and “Imperatives” (or credits) to push expectations for a built environment that is as clean and efficient as a bloom. The seven Petals are:

  • Place
  • Water
  • Energy
  • Health + Happiness
  • Materials
  • Equity
  • Beauty

Flagship projects are typically the ones that attempt to tackle this certification system, and it will likely remain the same until more strategies for reaching these thresholds become familiar and affordable. LBC is currently the most challenging certification to get, because of the breadth of topics addressed and the thresholds that projects need to achieve. As such, many projects go only for certain Petal certifications, not a comprehensive LBC certification.

The motivation for achieving LBC certification is to undeniably illustrate that the project is in the top tier of green buildings, illustrating the environmental and human commitment of the owner. These projects often want to make a statement. The Living Building at Georgia Tech, currently nearing completion of the design development phase, is targeting full LBC certification. On a post for their ongoing blog about the journey of the project, Ramana Koti and Jim Nicolow, AIA, of Lord Aeck Sargent, state: "The goal of the Living Building at Georgia Tech has been not just to create the most environmentally advanced education and research building ever constructed in the Southeast, but for the project to be a catalyst for sustainability in the region." You can follow the progress of their project, in collaboration with The Miller Hull Partnership, and find more about how the project addresses the Health + Happiness Petal.

Instead of being “less bad,” the living building wants to change the whole notion of what a building can do.

From the beginning, the LBC system has included a Health and Happiness Petal, specifically focusing on issues under this umbrella while other systems have been less explicit. The petal contains three Imperatives: Civilized Environment; Healthy Interior Environment; and Biophilic Environment. Some of the considerations outlined are like peer systems, such as the Civilized Environment; some stretch the intention of the design a bit further, such as Biophilic Environment, which strives to reconnect people with nature through different types of design strategies. These may include tactics such as the presence of water, visual connections to nature, or patterns that mimic those found in nature.

Simply put, the Civilized Environment Imperative posits that “every regularly occupied space must have operable windows that provide access to fresh air and daylight.” The Healthy Interior Environment Imperative addresses many issues found in LEED’s Indoor Environmental Quality Category, such as non-smoking facilities, compliance with ASHRAE 62, and dedicated exhaust systems for specific room functions. These are all recognizable for practitioners familiar with LEED and easily correlate to health outcomes.

How health aligns with the other petals

Several other Petals and Imperatives reside within the LBC system that address health and well-being, pushing the envelope of what projects should address. Many of these Imperatives consider issues in the built environment that have documented links to health impacts, such as Urban Agriculture and Human-Powered Living in the Place Petal. These speak to local food and pedestrian-oriented projects, respectively.

Similarly, the Materials Petal includes issues around material content and sourcing in the Red List and Living Economy Sourcing Imperatives. The Red List would be most comparable to the new material credits in LEED v4 addressing health product declarations: noting components or chemicals in building products that are known to have adverse impacts on the users’ health.

The LBC has published a list of materials—based on previous lists from the EPA and the State of California—that cannot be present in an LBC project. The intent is to reduce the impact of these harmful materials on both the occupants of the building as well as those down the manufacturing and production chain. The Living Economy Sourcing Imperative addresses local livelihood and economic sustainability by encouraging the use of both local materials and local consultants, emphasizing place-based efforts, along with the associated health and economic development impacts.

Other Imperatives in the LBC system are focused on impacts that are harder to measure, such as those hosted within the Equity Petal. The goal of the Equity Petal is to “transform developments to foster a true, inclusive sense of community that is just and equitable regardless of an individual’s background, age, class, race, gender or sexual orientation.”

The Living Building Challenge insists that project teams consider the broader impacts of both projects and processes.

The Human Scale and Humane Places Imperative addresses elements that are scaled to the human as opposed to the automobile, speaking to issues of both mental and physical health. The Imperative of Universal Access to Nature & Place requires that the project not block access to or diminish the quality of fresh air, sunlight, and natural waterways, also addressing both physical and emotional health.

The LBC goes a step further in encouraging healthy living with the Equity Petal’s Just Organization Imperative. This requirement outlines the way different members of the project team run their businesses. The Just label has been created by the ILFI; companies navigate through the process to achieve this label for their business, certifying that their policies address issues like diversity, employee health care, gender pay equity, community volunteering, family friendly, and transparency.

Lastly, the Beauty Petal’s Beauty + Spirit Imperative requires the integration of “public art and design features intended solely for human delight and the celebration of culture, spirit, and place appropriate to the project’s function.” The notion of beauty is, of course, subjective, and requires a narrative, but who among us would argue that beauty is not good for overall well-being?

Extending beyond the topics that first come to mind when considering health and well-being in the built environment, the Living Building Challenge insists that project teams consider the broader impacts of both projects and processes. As the health and well-being conversation continues to grow, the foundational tenets of the Living Building Challenge will continue to provide inspiration and guidance for where the design fields should be heading.  

Traci Rose Rider, Ph.D., Assoc. AIA, is the research associate at North Carolina State University’s Design Initiative for Sustainability & Health and a research assistant professor of architecture at North Carolina State University’s College of Design.

Image credits

The Living Building at Georgia Tech - LBC

The Miller Hull Partnership in collaboration with Lord Aeck Sargent

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