We spend most our days inside hulking concrete and steel boxes that are fixed to the Earth. They don't exactly look like environmental warriors, but can buildings actually help heal the planet?

A small but influential program called the Living Building Challenge poses essentially that question. Since its inception a decade ago, the world's toughest green-building standard has fully certified only 12 buildings. Another 38 have attained Petal (or partial) certification under LBC.

That's one-seventh of 1 percent of the 36,400 commercial certifications issued by LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). But LBC's unique approach and grand ambition have given it an outsized impact.

"There's a phenomenon where those who are seen as leaders have a bigger effect on the broader market," said Jason F. McLennan, a Seattle architect who was the challenge's chief author. "People want to be part of something that represents the highest quality. They want to do good. They want to aspire. They don't want to be left behind."

With the help of his mentor, green architecture pioneer Bob Berkebile of Kansas City, McLennan spent the early 2000s thinking through a program that would reach beyond other certification systems. When he was hired in 2006 to head Seattle's Cascadia Green Building Council, he set about creating documents and gathering support to get the standard off the ground.

McLennan was careful to position LBC as non-competitive to LEED. While LEED has had an enormous impact on commercial construction, LBC is designed to play on a field of aspirations: What would buildings be like if they sought to be as sustainable as possible?

Rethinking the green building

Idealists naturally gravitated toward the new, ambitious program. But the challenge also gained a following among top-tier architects at big firms. McLennan introduced the standard just as the profession started focusing on ethical concerns about the role buildings play in climate change. And some architects had always bridled at LEED's prescriptive approach, which relies on points and checklists of pre-approved green practices. LBC is built instead on 20 "Imperatives," organized under seven "Petals." The thinking is that broad requirements challenge architects and engineers to create their own solutions.

"LEED starts with a conventional building and tries to improve it to the greatest extent possible, whereas the Living Building Challenge starts by asking: 'How do we build an ideal building?' — meaning one that is not just sustainable, but is regenerative for the environment, the economy and society," explained Joshua Gassman. An architect for Lord Aeck Sargent in Atlanta, Gassman has worked on a number of LEED projects. Now, he's design team leader for a Living Building at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "Another way to put it is that LEED is trying to improve on the conventional, whereas the Living Building attempts to go beyond conventional from the start."

The standard itself is deceptively simple. For example, the "Net Positive Energy" imperative just says: "One hundred and five percent of the project's energy needs must be supplied by on-site renewable energy on a net annual basis, without the use of on-site combustion. Projects must provide on-site energy storage for resiliency."

Among other requirements:

  1. All water must come from precipitation or a closed loop, and all wastewater must be treated and released onsite "in harmony with the natural water flows."
  2. By incorporating salvage materials, the building must divert more volume from landfills than it disposes of.
  3. Materials may not include substances that appear on a Red List of toxic chemicals, and each project must purchase offsets to account for the carbon impact of materials used in the building.
  4. The building must incorporate biophilic design and meet a variety of other criteria to encourage the "health and happiness" of its occupants.

But those lofty, simply worded goals can be complicated to reach. LEED projects famously require more upfront planning and team meetings than non-LEED projects. Architects, engineers and builders who've worked on Living Buildings say LBC demands even more planning and more teamwork.

Greening all types of buildings

The Bullit Center in Seattle at dusk The Bullitt Center in Seattle was called the 'world's greenest commercial building' when it opened. (Photo: Taomeister/flickr)

So far, most LBC projects have had a connection to owners and funders who are comfortable with pushing the environmental envelope — and who have the means to afford it. To pick just three examples: The most famous LBC building is the Bullitt Center in Seattle (shown above), a six-story, 52,000-square-foot structure heralded as the "world's greenest commercial building" when it opened. (It's owned by the environmentally-minded Bullitt Foundation.) The Center for Sustainable Landscapes in Pittsburgh is the first of three Living Buildings meant to display the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens' extraordinary commitment to the environment. And the Bechtel Environmental Classroom at Smith College in Massachusetts serves as a venue for environmental education programs at the tony women's school.

But LBC enthusiasts say the rarefied world of Living Buildings is beginning to affect the broader market. For one thing, that Red List is contributing toward a broader push for more transparency when it comes to materials. For another, more than 300 projects are now seeking full LBC, Petals Certification or the related Net Zero label. And more and more conventional commercial buildings are aimed for deep-green goals that LBC or Petal-certified projects showed were feasible.

Still, the biggest impact may be on the mindset of professionals.

"Those who work on a building like this will never approach another building the same way," said Gassman. "It fundamentally changes the way you think about what is possible with sustainable design."

Ken Edelstein is editor and lead writer for the Kendeda Fund’s Living Building Chronicle, which is following construction of the Living Building at Georgia Tech, as well as regenerative design and construction across the Southeast.