It’s Time To Put Buildings On A Diet

“It’s like buying the stuff around the perimeter of a grocery store—the bakery, the produce, the fish—and avoiding Cap’n Crunch.”

It’s Time To Put Buildings On A Diet

Fast food is delicious, easy to come by, cheap, and filling. It’s also deadly. You could apply a similar analogy to building materials. There are myriad products and finishes that look good, that are inexpensive, and perform fairly well–but also contain toxic chemicals that can be harmful to your health, not to mention the environment.


Helping architects understand the materials they choose is just one of the goals of the Living Building Challenge, a green building certification program that’s been gaining momentum in recent years. It’s a rigorous set of performance standards that looks at seven categories: how a structure relates to its place and site, water efficiency, energy efficiency (it should create more energy than it consumes), how it promotes health and happiness in its users, its material composition, its equity, and how beautiful it is.

Right now, there are just 44 certified Living Buildings in the world. But 335 projects are registered to achieve some level of certification, which doesn’t come when construction is over, as it does in other programs. Instead, the final “Living Building” designation arrives at least one full year after construction is completed to ensure that the structure actually achieves the energy, water, and waste efficiency goals set forth at the project’s outset.

The Living Building Challenge is going for long-term cultural change in the way architects select materials and building systems–much the same way health officials want to change the way consumers think differently about food and nutrition.

Diana Budds for Fast Company

The Paleo Diet Of Design
“We’re moving past sustainability to regenerative design–buildings that can contribute to their environment,” says Amanda Sturgeon, an architect and CEO at International Living Future Institute, the organization that oversees the Living Building Challenge.

This week at the American Institute of Architects’ annual convention, Sturgeon joined architects from Gensler and SmithGroup for a seminar called “Materials Selection and Lessons Learned from Living Building Project Teams,” focusing on material use–one of the biggest impacts the Living Building Challenge can have not just in a specific project, but in advocating greener architecture and advancing collective knowledge and transparency about the materials from which our man-made environments are actually made.


According to the architects, constructing a building from the right materials is just as important as reaching for those leafy greens at the supermarket. “The concept is picking materials that are natural and simple, it’s like the Paleo diet for materials,” Greg Mella, vice president of the architecture firm SmithGroup, says. “It’s like buying the stuff around the perimeter of a grocery store—the bakery, the produce, the fish—and avoiding Cap’n Crunch in the middle aisles. You want the materials ingredient list to be short.”

The Bullitt CenterFlickr user Taomeister

Mella was the project architect of the Brock Environmental Center in Virginia Beach, Virginia, which recently received Living Building Certification. “Whenever you do strategies for sustainable design, you want things that do more than one thing–you want systems,” he says about SmithGroup’s strategy. Materials factored heavily into this; for example, ensuring that the metal used on the roof wouldn’t leech into the rainwater it collected for an underground cistern.

Like processed foods that contain an alphabet soup of artificial ingredients, building materials and products–like upholstery, paint, fabric, plumbing fixtures, insulation, etc.–are often composed of chemicals that aid in performance (like fireproofing or scratch-resistance) but are also harmful. For example: lead, mercury, BPA, and PVC.

To make it easier to identify these substances, the International Living Future Institute compiled a “Red List.” The Red List is a little like Dirty Dozen, a list of harmful pesticides in produce tested by the USDA. It lists over 800 chemicals deemed to be dangerous, with 11 called out for being the worst offenders. The Institute also started a labeling system called “Declare” to make it easier to identify exactly what’s in a product to give architects better information tools and transparency in the specification process. It’s like a nutrition-facts label for architects.

Etsy HeadquartersGensler/via Etsy

Pricier Projects, But Healthier Spaces
The architecture firm Gensler used the Living Building Challenge as a benchmark for Etsy’s new headquarters in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood. “We found that the values were really consistent with that of the company,” says David Briefel, the director of sustainable design at Gensler. “They really wanted to celebrate making, to have impactful community citizenship, and they asked for a fully regenerative ecosystem. This is something they wanted before we even talked about the Living Building Challenge. We heard this language before we looked to it.”


Since the project’s scope was the renovation of a nine-story structure in a dense urban environment, there were certain aspects of the challenge that were unattainable, namely net-zero energy and water. But materials were achievable. Local designers and makers–the people who comprise Etsy’s community–fabricated all of the 600 workstations in the office as was much of the hardware, which helped the architects know exactly what was going into the products. Moreover, much of those materials were sourced within one mile of the project, which helps boost local economies and lowers the carbon footprint of obtaining a product since it doesn’t have to travel far. “Thirty maker products are under review for Declare labels, which will open them up to a bigger market,” Briefel says.

While using the Living Building Challenge as a guideline for designing projects and adhering to the material standards undoubtedly benefits the environment, it does require more time to go through the vetting process–and that translates to more dollars on the final sticker price.

“It wasn’t our most financially successful project,” Mella says. He also notes that the building should have cost the client 20 percent more, but because it was a new process for the company and the client was interested in being ahead of the pack on innovative design (it is an environmental education center after all), the architecture firm ate the extra expense incurred from the time it took to thoroughly research and specify materials.

The Living Building certification is a significantly larger endeavor than LEED certification, Briefel commented, and Gensler absorbed some of the additional costs, which were also time related. However, there are benefits to adhering to its stringent standards, he added–they’re a potential selling point for innovative companies, not to mention the fact that healthy buildings are part of a competitive strategy to attract talented employees. In the end, the idea is to affect long-term change. “Personally,” Breifel says, “I think the baseline should be, ‘Don’t put toxic materials in buildings.'”

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About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.