Video: Greenest building in world uses no water or electricity

A "Living Building" in Seattle is more like a self-contained spaceship than a conventional building -- and its investors anticipate profiting as a result

About the only thing the Cascadia Center for Sustainable Design won't do is grow food for its inhabitants. Six stories, 50,000 square feet, and it won't use a single watt of electricity from the grid, nor a drop of water from the ample supply in downtown Seattle, where it's sited.

How is this even possible? All of the building's power will come from solar panels studding its roof and façade. But that's not nearly enough to power a conventional building, which is where the designers of the Cascadia Center get really clever.

The building will be ultra-insulated, of course, but its remaining heating and cooling needs will be addressed by a geothermal system that pipes water into the ground, and uses that water either to power an air conditioner or to warm air before it's heated. It's called a ground-source heat pump.

The building will also get 100 percent of the water it uses from collected rainwater, stored and filtered on-site.

Finally, individuals offices in the building will be given energy caps. If they need more energy than their cap allows, they can trade with their neighbors for it. In other words, a classic cap-and-trade scheme, but for energy instead of greenhouse gas emissions. This will incentivize individual tenants to save energy, for instance by investing in energy-efficient appliances, computers and lighting.

The Cascadia Center isn't just a one-off project. It's part of a larger effort called the Living Building design challenge, which makes LEED look unambitious by comparison:

To be certified as a Living Building, a structure is required to be self-sufficient for energy and water for at least 12 continuous months and to meet rigorous standards for green materials and for the quality of its indoor environment.

To be certified as a Living Building, a structure must meet all of the following requirements.

  1. Site: The location will support a pedestrian-, bicycle-, and transit-friendly lifestyle.
  2. Water: Rainwater will be collected on the roof, stored in an underground cistern and used throughout the building.
  3. Energy: A solar array will generate as much electricity as the building uses.
  4. Health: The building will promote health for its occupants, with inviting stairways, operable windows and features to promote walking and resource sharing.
  5. Materials: The building will not contain any “Red List” hazardous materials, including PVC, cadmium, lead, mercury and hormone-mimicking substances, all of which are commonly found in building components.
  6. Equity: Unlike many office buildings, large operable windows will offer fresh air and daylight to all the people who work in the Cacscadia Center. The goals of Seattle’s Community High Road Agreement will guide selection of the construction team.
  7. Beauty: Stunning architecture, an innovative photovoltaic array, a green roof and other native plantings, large structural timbers and a revitalized neighboring pocket park will help beautify the surrounding streetscape.

Not every climate will accommodate a Living Building. It's hard to imagine any structure in drought-prone Texas, for example, being water self-sufficient. Which raises the question: In a future of dwindling resources, where self sufficiency and Living Buildings are the primary sources of wealth, are there certain climates in which we simply can't afford to build?

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