Navigating the Living Building Challenge

Often the first thing we are asked is “Would you do it again…should we attempt the Living Building Challenge?”
My personal answer is a resounding YES!  But only if you can accommodate and address the uncertainty that the LBC injects into the normal design, construction and occupancy process. Dealing with this uncertainty is often very frustrating; however the results are a much more sustainable and rewarding project. The effort does result in gain…but the pain is unavoidable.
It is like white water rafting on an unfamiliar river; you will never know what is coming at you next, it will be exciting, and you may have to right the boat at any time. Clear answers to LBC design and compliance questions are often not available.  Teams, using incomplete information, must make their best informed judgments… and then accept the remaining uncertainty to advance the project. It is scary to do this, while knowing that achieving the LBC requires complete achievement of all requirementsIf you have an idealistic commitment to sustainability, enjoy being challenged, and are creative in dealing with ambiguity…then consider attempting an LBC project. If team members need to be sure, want an orderly project process, and are strongly attached to fixed predictable project outcomes…then attempting the Living Building Challenge will be much more difficult.
There are no shortcuts. Systematic, persistent, ongoing and repeated effort is required just like facing an unfamiliar river. The recognition by all parties involved (the owner, design team, construction team and building occupants) that basic assumptions about the project will be challenged and this will result in changes to the project goals, program, schedule and budget is essential. These changes will disrupt the normal building design, construction and occupancy process familiar to many of us.  However, a coordinated project team prepared to face a series of unpredictable challenges will help keep the boat on course through these rapids. It will be fun when the boat is on course and frustrating when you get stuck on a rock. You will see some of the rocks coming and others will be just below surface and sneak up on you.
Specifically, how can a team prepare to face the Living Building Challenge?
Here are a few suggestions from an old Pittsburgh architect who is only part way down this challenging new river… but is pretty familiar with the difficult white water rapids on the Yough:

  • Recognize that uncertainty and unpredictability are part of the river. They represent the difficulty of the challenge and NOT failure by team members or the team. Trying to prevent the uncertainty will sap your strength and resources. Accept the uncertainty and learn to navigate through it.
  • Find a guide to help you navigate the river. Talk regularly with people who have attempted the LBC. Involve them on your project team if possible. Use them to help steer through the rapids. Approach the project strategically and don’t waste resources fighting the current. Instead use the current to move the boat toward your goals.
  • Accept that the current will sometimes push you off course. Be prepared to right the boat frequently. Without clear shared goals, it will be difficult to collaboratively right the boat. Initial efforts to build team agreement concerning project goals using sustainable design charrettes to prepare the team to undertake an integrative design process will make collaboratively righting the boat much easier.
  •  Be willing to change course when obstacles require. Again course changes indicate the difficulty of the challenge and not failure. Unwillingness to revise project goals, program, schedule, and budget will make achieving the challenge very difficult. It will not be possible to do everything you want.  Be prepared for compromise and sacrifice…these are essential parts of attempting to build an ideal sustainable building in an imperfect and highly constrained construction marketplace.

Should you attempt the Living Building Challenge?
YES… if everyone on your team knows the river will not be flat and prepares for some rough white water.  It will be exhilarating and challenging, but the benefits are worth it (even if you don’t completely succeed ). The LBC will surely make your project more sustainable, sharpen the project owner’s understanding of sustainability, help move the construction marketplace toward greater sustainability, and develop the sustainability prowess of all the project team members.
 And should you actually succeed, you will help us all recognize that ideals are really possible and a better world is within our reach!

Evolve EA