Live From New York The First Living Building Sets the Bar

According to Jason McLennan, CEO of the Cascadia Region Green Building Council (GBC), “living buildings’ are ready for their mainstream debut. “It’s possible financially and technologically,” he says. And, if we built them, says McLennan, “Our quality of life would be higher, and we’d be protecting the future for the next generations and other species.”

The Living Building Challenge, introduced at the 2006 Greenbuild Conference in Denver, Colorado, has set an incredibly high bar. The Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, crossed the finish line first with its Omega Center for Sustainable Living (OCSL), a 6,200-square-foot, one-level building, designed to gain the Living Building certification. At the groundbreaking on October 11, 2007, folk musician Pete Seeger performed for a gathering of environmental and civic leaders. The building was completed at the end of June 2009 and will host a grand opening on July 16.

“There are others nipping at their heels,” says McLennan. “We have about 60 projects that we’re tracking around North America, and a couple in other countries beyond Canada and the U.S. The way our system works, the building has to be built and operating for at least 12 months to get audited.” The audit examines the building’s construction and performance to see if it fulfills the requirements of the Living Building Challenge (LBC).

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, introduced in 2000 by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), launched green building into the mainstream. The Cascadia Region GBC is a chapter of both USGBC and Canada GBC. Its area includes Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Alaska. “Alaska is a very different market for us,” says McLennan. “It’s new to the green scene. Oregon, Washington and British Columbia—and I would add California—[are places] that have the longest and deepest roots in green building and environmental issues.” Out of this fertile territory came the LBC. “We view our role as the organization that is meant to ask the really tough questions,” McLennan says, “to push the boundaries as far as possible. I think that’s part of the USGBC mission, too, but their main mission is to try to pull the mass of building into the thinking of building green. It’s a different marketing strategy and job from what we do. We’re tugging at the top, and they’re pulling the bottom up.”

The LBC rating system has similarities to the LEED system, but its requirements far exceed the demands of LEED Platinum, the highest LEED building certification. There are six categories: Site, Energy, Materials, Water, Indoor Quality, and Beauty and Inspiration, with 16 prerequisites that must be met for LBC certification.

The Omega Center, south side.

“It’s amazing,” says Skip Backus, executive director of Omega Institute. “I’ve done construction for 30 years, and this is very unique.” Backus worked as a general contractor before becoming Omega’s director, and says there was a learning curve for the construction crews. “It took us a good six weeks to get the recycling together and get all the people to understand that this is part of what we are trying to model,” Backus says.

One feature of the project will solve Omega’s wastewater infrastructure challenge while fulfilling the LBC prerequisite to treat and purify a building’s wastewater with a chemical-free process. An Eco Machine, designed by John Todd, a pioneer in ecological design, will treat all of the campus wastewater. Omega, founded in 1978, currently has about 23,000 people pass through their campus each year attending wellness and personal-growth workshops and retreats, so on-site wastewater treatment is no small task. This past Earth Day, a couple hundred people planted 12,000 reeds, cattails and ferns in constructed wetlands. The wetlands are part of the Eco Machine, which can process 52,000 gallons of water in a day and meet advanced wastewater standards for nonpotable use.

After the grand opening, the building will be open to the public with regularly scheduled tours. Its classrooms and labs are equipped for demonstrations, and the building is replete with windows into the workings of all the systems. Plaques offer explanations of the building’s many features. An educational component is also a prerequisite of LBC. Systems and features on display include a geothermal heating and cooling system, solar panels, rain gardens, a 4,500-square-foot greenhouse (part of the Eco Machine), daylighting design and eco-friendly building materials all around. The building must be net zero, meaning that it will use no more energy than it generates during a year.

The cost of the project is $3.2 million, says George Kaufman, who directs Omega’s fundraising. Achieving net zero can be especially costly, and McLennan sees that as one of the two most challenging hurdles in LBC. That, and finding permissable materials. Many building materials are toxic, and LBC has a red list of prohibited materials, which includes PVC. “The entire wastewater industry uses PVC,” says Backus, “so when you want to find an alternative to that, you’re talking a major commitment.” LBC also has a distance radius for the origin of materials, which Backus found put constraints on some acquisitions. Green building is expensive, but costs are projected to come down as green materials, technologies and methods advance into the marketplace.

“The building industry is in a very tough time,” says Backus. “I think the desire to build green is very high, but we’re still driven by a price point that makes it difficult to include a lot of these green materials.” He thinks that will change with a better economy.

The Omega project will demonstrate what is possible. “We need to have examples of this type of architecture to show the way,” says Backus.