Are ultra-sustainable 'Living Buildings' coming to the city?

A green-building certification process more rigorous than LEED requires that buildings collect their own energy and water. But can it work in the city?

The Omega Center for Sustainable Living. One of only three "Living Buildings."

Buildings that meet the Living Building Challenge requirements are at the peak of sustainability.

This green-building certification process is much more rigorous than even a LEED-Platinum building. That's one of the reasons why there are only three buildings that have met the certification requirements. The process requires, among other things, that buildings not use a list of unhealthy building materials -- lead, mercury, PVC, and others -- and also generate their own energy and collect their own water on-site.

These buildings are miles ahead of their green-building competition. But that's also part of the problem, they're so far away, writes Jonathan Hiskes in Sustainable Industries.

Currently the only three buildings that are certified as Living Buildings are in rural areas. So while these buildings are sustainable, those who use them still must drive. And typically, even green building that are built in auto-dependent places use more energy than non-green households that are located near transit.

But supporters of the Living Building Challenge hope to see more urban Living Buildings, Hiskes reports from the Cascadia Green Building Council's Living Future unconference.

I was glad to see a panel at Living Future on Thursday about bringing living buildings to urban infill projects that are the most inherently sustainable sites for new development. Architect Jon Hall of Seattle firm GGLO put the next task in clear terms.

“That’s great,” he said of the first three living buildings. “But how do we bring living buildings to the masses? How to we bring it to housing that people use every day?”

What would one of these ultra-green buildings look like in the city?

Hall had developed a mock-up plan for doing just that – a mid-rise urban building with street-level retail and four or five floors of smallish housing units. A sophisticated airflow system with basement heat exchangers kept heating and cooling needs low, and a rooftop combined solar photovoltaic array and solar thermal water-heating system took care of energy needs. The roof also included a catchment system to collect rainwater, and it extended over, not just the building, but also the right-of-way and a public plaza on the south side.

That’s meant to address a key barrier to larger living buildings – it’s tough to collect enough water on site, even in the drizzly Northwest. Hall’s plan calls for using water three times – first for sinks, showers and dishwashing, then for the shared laundry facilities, then for flushing toilets (with filtration between each step).

It's an ambitious goal indeed, but one that, if successful, could make urban living even more sustainable.

Photo: milfodd/Flickr

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