Bing Thom Architects attended Seattle’s Living Future unConference 17 organized by the parent organization of the Living Building Challenge to explore developments at the leading edge of sustainable design. In addition to past achievements such as Seattle’s Bullitt Center, Living Future 17 celebrated fresh triumphs, including the remarkable Te Kura Whare, a Living Certified community and cultural center for the Tūhoe people of Te Urewera, New Zealand. A record setting 22 newly Living Building Challenge (LBC) certified projects were announced; some awarded the full Living Building certification, while others achieved the newer Petal level of certification, recognizing projects that achieve three or more of the Living Building Challenge’s seven ‘Petal’ imperatives. It was clear that the Living Building Challenge, often thought of as too demanding for any but the most environmentally enlightened of clients and designers to consider, has in fact begun to appeal to a wider audience.
This increasing enthusiasm towards the rigorous standards of the LBC was seen in workshops discussing equivalent models of certification at the product scale. The creation of the LBC’s materials Red List, a living document listing chemicals not permitted in building products used in Living Buildings, launched a larger discussion than ever anticipated on the subjects of building materials, transparency, and public health. One result came in the form of the Declare transparency label, a platform creating a path for manufacturers to disclose the chemical constituents of various building products. Subsequent efforts have focused on working with manufacturers to provide pathways towards eliminating prohibited chemicals from products, leading to the creation of the fledgling Living Product Challenge standard. At the unConference, panelists encountered unexpected but greatly meaningful results in working with their supply chains to eliminate the forbidden components. Humanscale, a furniture manufacturer, described the rewarding process of eliminating Chromium VI – producing not just a healthier product, but also far healthier manufacturing conditions at their factory in China. A representative from Kawneer, the storefront manufacturer, later recounted the lengthy ordeal of eliminating Red List items from a crucial gasket in a standard sliding glass door model – after subjecting the Red-List-free gasket model to 2 million use cycles over 7.5 months without performance failure, the gasket was still rejected due to aesthetically unacceptable “dimpling.” After another round of testing, however, the revised gasket went on to succeed, without blemishes and counter to expectations. The process of revising the storefront assembly to comply with the Red List in fact saved Kawneer $100,000 annually in manufacturing costs.
Each day of the unConference opened with a presentation from political and environmental luminaries: inspirational lectures that set the tone for the more technical workshops to follow. The most powerful speaker, however, was Kirsti Luke, Chief Executive of Tūhoe Te Uru Taumatua, Ngai Tūhoe’s Tribal Authority, who described her people’s decision to pursue Living Building certification for their new cultural centre as the simple desire to find the world’s highest environmental standard for building, and thoroughly pursue it. In the process, and in collaboration with the Living Future Institute, the Tūhoe were able to realize the satisfaction of not just building their own cultural centre with their own hands, but building it to one of the highest standards of performance to be found, against significant historical adversity. And while the certification process proved more rewarding than Luke or the Tūhoe originally realized, it was clear that the process was equally rewarding for the staff of the Living Future Institute, and inspirational for all of the conference attendees – an example to remember of when confronted with the prospect of the arduous work ahead in their own pursuit of the living building.