Living Building Challenge – a critique of a great program…

There are a number of things we like about the Living Building Challenge (LBC). First, it’s the most stringent ‘green building’ program around. It picks up the slack where programs like LEED unbelievably strayed in the first place.  Second, and probably more importantly, it isn’t influenced by the whimsical marketing gimmicks of industry – and this is actually one of the reasons we are big proponents of Passivhaus, as well. Third, it’s insanely hard. If you thought Passivhaus was tough, LBC is even crazier. There’s a reason there are only three fully certified ‘Living’ projects…

foto: K. Lindsay

The good bits about LBC are definitely praise-worthy. As urbanists, we wholly agree with the intent to limiting growth/development, aiming for net zero water and healthy buildings. A 1:1 land exchange to protect development in perpetuity is an idea that we love, and not as expensive as one would think. And while Seattle’s a city that makes living sans cars (especially with kids) difficult given our topography and uber pathetic transit system – there are options, including zipcar (which we do use).

However, the Energy and Materials petals – especially in the billing of LBC as a restorative or regenerative standard – need to be revisited. [Warning!!! energy nerd ramblings ahead]

07 Net Zero Energy
‘One hundred percent of the project’s energy needs must be supplied by on-site renewable energy on a net annual basis.’

The problem with this petal is site net zero is only ‘emission/pollution free’ for buildings on batteries. That is, due to grid inefficiency, transmission losses, grey energy, etc., solar PV or wind are not zero emissions!


Frankly, net zero energy is ‘magical electron math’ at best. This is further compounded by a ridiculous boundary condition imposed on LBCs. As Nick Grant (who recently wrote a great bdonline article on the ridiculousness of ‘zero carbon’ buildings)  stated at the Passivhaus conference last May– the actual boundary condition for net zero buildings isn’t the building or the legal site, it is the earth.

This has significant implications – for one, the Bullitt Center (which we previously blogged about) would have a smaller PV if it met Passivhaus. There’d be no need to fudge the legal site boundary and thrust a ginormous PV array into the public domain. Second, if the ‘earth’ is the site – then energy to offset what a building consumes in Seattle could be produced in a more optimal location. In our opinion, building planners should be responsible to get the demand down as low as possible. Then, energy production (and improving the overall grid) can be dealt with on a grander (and significantly more cost-effective/greener) scale. No brainer…

Regardless of boundary, if we’re going to claim ‘emission free’ buildings, then gosh darn it – we should at least be honest! And if we’re talking about regenerative or restorative standards with on-site renewable – shouldn’t we be building plusenergie/carbon reducing buildings like Rolf Disch’s Solarsiedlung in Vauban (answer: yes!)?

12 Embodied Carbon Footprint/14 Appropriate Sourcing

My critique of these two petals is intertwined. First,  by not allowing superior high performance products from longer distances – the building’s overall performance can suffer –in some cases, significantly. We’ve talked about the issue of EU windows saving carbon in a Passivhaus, and that same argument applies to other components (e.g. HRVs). Presently, there are companies in the EU making HRVs/ERVs with upwards of 95% efficiency – even on the commercial side. To use an inferior local product means an increase in the embodied carbon footprint of the building to offset the lack of performance. In many cases, this increased embodied carbon footprint can be responsible for the production of much more CO2 than simply importing the component from farther away. To me, this doesn’t make any sense.

Put it another way – with items that contain ‘red-listed’ ingredients but no alternatives exist – it is possible to allow their use by writing the manufacturer a letter that basically states, ‘your product sucks environmentally, so hopefully you will do something about it’. So why can’t we do the same thing for products manufactured further away?

Dear Regional HRV manufacturer,

I really wanted to use your product and support local business, but the Dutch make an HRV that is 50% more effective in heat recovery efficiency than yours and has a much lower fan consumption. So, I’m going with them for now, as the transportation CO2  is far lower than the added embodied carbon I would have to add to the building with your product – plus I can reduce the size of my PV, actually reducing costs AND embodied carbon of that element. Sooo yeah, perhaps you can engineer a better product as we would love to use it on our next LBC project…

Frankly, I think that kind of letter would have a much more rapid effect, no? If we’re going to purchase a carbon offset for the construction footprint of the building (if you really want to get nerdy, add transportation CO2 as well, which can add up rather quickly), does it really matter if my windows are manufactured in Minneapolis or Austria?

Lastly, there is a requirement for energy monitoring, but nothing in place for quality control or commissioning of buildings. What this means is projects attempting ‘Living’ status may be far from what we would consider ‘high performance’ – poor insulation installations, thermal bridges galore, poor windows. And so to make up for this lack of performance – even more money needs to get thrown on the production side resulting in uber expensive/oversized PV systems. This was the case for the Tyson Living Learning Center. The project wasn’t even commissioned until several months into occupancy! Via the DJC

“The first step was to commission the systems and to perform heating, cooling and building envelope audits to assess infiltration, insulation, and system design and performance. As part of the commissioning a blower door test showed there were areas of the exterior walls and ceilings that were missing insulation, and that air infiltration through the building envelope was a significant issue.”

After the envelope deficiencies were addressed, additional PV panels were added to ensure the project would produce enough energy to meet LBC. Good Grief, Charlie Brown!

For us, this is where Passivhaus can have a significant impact when incorporated into the Living Building Challenge. It’s the quality control needed on the energy/envelope performance side. It helps to attain the Healthy Air petal (meh, ASHRAE62.2…), the Civilized Environments petal (commercial PH projects usually have high daylighting levels), the Inspiration & Education petal (International Passivhaus Days) and Rights to Nature petal if designed properly. While we do have some concerns, we would be thrilled for the opportunity to design an LBC. I think we’d rock it (much like we did our Atka LBC proposal) – and of course we’d have to open source it!

  • Ryan Arnold

    Completely agree with your overall assessment, especially when it comes to the issue of the backwards way projects are reaching net zero status, basically by avoiding the up front due diligence of creating an efficient building first and instead using PV as a way to buy their way to a standard afterwards.

    I give any project team that attempts net zero credit where it is due- these early adopters are making it easier for the general market to be pulled forward by their efforts, AND I think we must focus on improving the systems/interaction/process that are in place to begin with that lead to the “net-zero as a checkbox” mentality.

    The largest hurdle to green building in my view that is blocking the achievement of really efficient buildings (and my assumption why we’re seeing huge PV’s on under insulated buildings) are the silos that most of the industry still work in. All of our company websites and the green building certifications themselves pay lip service to a “collaborative process”, but the reality is that industry habits are hard to break. Even with all the eco-Charrettes, all-hands meetings, and other collaborative flash points, at the end of the day most of us head back to our respective industry corners. There is no doubt that it is much easier to spec efficient lighting, high efficiency boilers, or PV as baseline upgrades than to work cross industry throughout the design phase to build a building that considers how all of these will really work together ahead of time. As an energy modeler working on the engineering side, I’m often brought on the project AFTER all of the design decisions are more or less set, where most of the true energy savings can be captured. Collaboration (and energy modeling) time costs real money, there is no doubt about that- it’s more difficult considering more variables all at once than divide and conquer, but it’s also going to be more and more necessary as we keep raising the bar.

  • Brynn Horley

    For a project to target both the LBC as well as Passivhaus seems very logical to me. These two programs appear very complimentary of each other, and together will aggressively tackle sustainability through both a purely energy standpoint, as well as whole community impacts/benefits.

    That said, this authors arguments against LBC’s ‘on-site net zero energy’ in my mind fully support locally produced energy: grid inefficiency, transmission losses, grey energy, all impact electrical systems which are large and centralized, but are recommended by this author. The author also seems to have missed that a hugely important factor of the LBC is that promotion of community based systems is critical to achieving several LBC ‘petals’. It is certainly more efficient to have many buildings in a community sharing the costs and benefits of a localized, community power generating system. This also alleviates each building from becoming dominated by its own, disconnected power source.

    I agree with the author’s statement that the first step should be to get the demand down as low as possible. The author does not appear to understand the details of the LBC (I should add that I have no idea of the details of Passivhaus), as superior technologies from Divisions 42 and 48 are allowed from within a radius of 15 000km, which is 3/4 of the way to the other side of the planet. Europe is in range. I do really like his idea of notifying truly local manufacturers that the project has had to source from overseas. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t all be pulling up our socks and designing the best equipment.

    His final comments about LBC projects falling short due to lack of guidance, having to take extra measures to meet their mark, could be valid, but these projects are contributing to our learning curve for this extremely tough rating system. One of the things that a lot of designers and builders have appreciated is the very fact that it is not a prescriptive system. There are only benchmarks. Building professionals are free to create whatever solution they can come up with, resulting in innovative solutions. That said, it is certainly wise for any project to also take the guidance of Passivhaus in demonstrating energy efficiency through commissioning, blower-door tests, etc. I think that any project striving to achieve net-zero energy has in mind to be eliminating inefficiencies such as poor insulation, thermal bridges, etc. as a first step, knowing that even with these measures the project is facing an up-hill battle with the LBC.

  • meliason


    A number of folks feel the increased PV is sort of like buying indulgences. In a lot of ways, I tend to agree. It’s sort of like using the grid to power your electric vehicle – it may be cheaper (in final costs to you) but it isn’t the ‘greenest’ option.

    And I completely agree that attempting LBCs is a laudable challenge – I just repeatedly find myself questioning the paths taken from a performance standpoint. And we hear you on being brought to the table after many of the decisions have been made – we continually find that process to be the least efficient or cost effective.

  • meliason

    I don’t see how buildings can be labeled ‘regenerative’ or ‘restorative’ when they’re grid-tied and thus still produce CO2 emissions. Also, it is more efficient to have buildings in a community sharing the costs and benefits of a system – but this approach already exists – it’s called the grid! Let’s update it, and then green the sources. This is the most cost-effective manner to do so. To pretend otherwise is to pretend your grid-charged Nissan Leaf is a zero emissions vehicle (e.g. zero emissions ONLY at the tailpipe!)

    Completely aware that Divs 42 & 48 allow a 15,000km radius – however, my critique was mostly directed towards non-renewables. The good stuff for us high-performance envelope folks, meaning doors/windows (Div 8) and mechanicals (Div 23). A limit of 5,000km wouldn’t get any of the superior EU products to the east coast, let alone Seattle. Alas, I don’t think companies our side of the pond will be designing/building superior products until the market and/or incentives catch up.

    That being said, I do believe there is very strong synergy between Passivhaus and LBC, and hopefully we’ll see projects that take on both certifications simultaneously.

  • Brynn Horley

    The trouble with today’s grid is one generating location serves millions of sites. These long distance transmission lines are where so much loss occurs. The line are also very vulnerable with one problem putting 1/2 the eastern seaboard in the dark for days. And such major generating stations inevitabley requre some sort of destructive technology (whether it’s combustion, maga hydro dams, etc).

    When I use the word community i’m thinking a systems that serves 100 sites.

  • Rollin White

    Returning to the living building challenge, why go half way? The goal of Net-Zero Energy Building (NZEB) to generate at least the same amount of energy as buildings consume doesn’t solve the problem of how to construct buildings which are completely self sufficient. A more holistic approach is to reach beyond NZEB to Zero Energy Concept Building (ZECB). ZECB includes technology to purify waste water and improve indoor air quality by harnessing the power of Mother Nature to replenish these resources. ZECB addresses poor indoor air quality which has been linked to health problems, while at the same time applying natural processes defined as FFE for waste water purification. With FFE water is used and reused in diverse ways; continuously cycling through nature’s cleansing process through a series of wetland tanks which do double duty by scrubbing the indoor air through the process of photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is a natural charge particle technology that makes pollutants heavy causing them to drop out of the air which is the natural method of cleansing indoor air. A draft of a definition for ZECB is on a website developed for this purpose. Links are provided to support conclusions backed up by 3 years research. There are two pages on the site; the HOME page illustrates an example of a ZECB and the second page is a draft of a definition for ZECB. Here’s the link

  • Rollin White

    The abbreviation in the post above of FFE stands for Fixed-Film Ecology – see John Todd’s Eco-machine for a better understanding of FFE – click on this link

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