Sunday, May 24, 2009

May AIA-SWO Chapter Meeting Recap

Fantastic! That was my impression of Lisa Petterson’s presentation at our May AIA-SWO chapter meeting about the Living Building Challenge and the efforts presently underway to design the Oregon Sustainability Center in Portland. Lisa, an associate with SERA Architects and a member of the Cascadia Region Green Building Council, served as project manager for the Living Building Financial Study. This groundbreaking work evaluated the effects of climate, building type, and financial incentives on creating the “net zero” buildings of tomorrow. Lisa helped us to imagine the possibility of a carbon-neutral future where the buildings we design can be part of a restorative paradigm shift, rather than impediments to it. Her work and the work of others are pointing the way toward making “Living Buildings” a reality.

The Living Building Challenge
The magnitude of the dilemma we are facing cannot be underestimated: buildings are the source for the majority of man-made greenhouse gases generated today, the leading cause of global warming. Between now and 2030 (the milestone date targeted by Ed Mazria and his organization Architecture 2030 by which all new buildings and major renovations shall be carbon-neutral, using no fossil fuel greenhouse gas emitting energy to operate) the inventory of buildings globally will roughly be double what it is presently. The Living Building concept must become the accepted norm if we are to overcome the impact our buildings have upon the environment.

The Cascadia Region Green Building Council issued the Living Building Challenge to all building owners, architects, design professionals, engineers, and contractors to raise the bar and define the most advanced standards for sustainability in the built environment. The Challenge requires buildings to have no carbon footprint, generate all of the power required to meet their needs, and capture and treat all of the water they use on site.

The Living Building Challenge standards are intended to complement, and not supplant, the efforts of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED system to make green building mainstream. The aim of the Living Building Challenge is to push projects even further toward fulfilling the ultimate obligations of the building industry to sustainability.

Lisa described how the Living Building Challenge is not based on the accumulation of credits, like LEED is. Instead, the Living Building designation is based on criteria established by prerequisite standards, and actual measured performance. The criteria are simple to understand and remarkably few in numbers:

  • Responsible site design
  • Limits to growth
  • Habitat exchange


  • Net zero energy


  • Materials red list
  • Construction carbon footprint
  • Responsible industry
  • Appropriate materials/service radius
  • Leadership in construction waste


  • Net zero water
  • Sustainable water discharge

Indoor Quality:

  • A civilized environment
  • Healthy air: source control
  • Healthy air: ventilation

Beauty & Inspiration:

  • Beauty and spirit
  • Inspiration and education

A Living Building meets all of these listed prerequisites.

The Living Building Financial Study
Clients are often concerned about costs vs. benefits of building greener communities. The Living Building Financial Study investigated the economic obstacles to creating Living Buildings. Lisa’s team (including SERA, Gerding Edlen Development, Skanska Construction, Interface Engineering, and New Building Institute) attempted to establish the cost increment for Living Buildings, understanding that the results of the study will vary in response to a given project’s unique circumstances. The study compiled construction cost estimate and payback calculations to create financial models representing Living Buildings for the various building types and climate zones.

Not surprisingly, the results of the financial study indicate that the cost premium and payback period for Living Buildings vary considerably depending upon the type of building and its location. While the incremental costs associated with developing Living Buildings are not insubstantial, the estimated payback periods are surprisingly brief in many instances.

Site Plan, Oregon Sustainability Center (photo by Eugénie Frerichs)

The Oregon Sustainability Center
As described on the Oregon Sustainability Center blog, the project is “the collaborative vision of a unique public/private partnership between city and state government, higher education, nonprofit organizations, and the business community . . . At the core of this project is a 200,000+ square foot urban, mixed-use high-rise positioned to become the regional hub for Portland and Oregon’s sustainability activities.” Lisa’s firm, SERA, is part of the Center’s development team, which also includes GBD Architects, Gerding Edlen, Glumac, Hoffman Construction, Interface Engineering, and PAE Consulting Engineers, and several others.

The Center is expected to meet the Living Building Challenge and thereby create a world-class facility that will stake Oregon’s claim to leadership in climate change, land use planning, smart growth, green building, and environmental stewardship. Its program is to house sustainable technology and research incubator spaces, nonprofit and business offices, and higher education facilities in one high-rise building.

Lisa reported on the progress of the Oregon Sustainability Center’s feasibility study. Work is proceeding at breakneck pace: the development team was only just selected this past March. The team conducted a weeklong eco-charrette in April to set the direction for the living building design approach. Early design explorations are now underway, which have determined that a living building on an urban scale is possible. The ideas that are taking shape employ “biophilic” design, consciously seeking to express the human-nature connection. This has resulted in schemes that have adopted forms reminiscent of raindrops and nautilus shells, as well as more abstract expressions of natural behavior (including a “torque” scheme that mimics the behavior of a sunflower as it tracks the sun across the sky).

OSC study model (photo by Eugénie Frerichs)

Only ten certified net zero buildings exist today, all of them relatively modest in scope and ambition. Perhaps an additional thirty to fifty are currently being designed. My understanding is that no building has yet met all of the prerequisites of the Living Building Challenge. With 200 billion square feet of new construction projected between now and 2030, it’s clear that our current efforts are a drop in the bucket. Regardless, the development of the Oregon Sustainability Center is a huge step toward the realization of an ecologically-balanced built environment. I am hopeful that the Center will soon be built and stand as an example for all of us to follow. Thanks to Lisa Petterson for her efforts as part of the team that is taking the Living Building Challenge head on and designing the Oregon Sustainability Center.

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Thanks to the PPI Group for sponsoring our May AIA-SWO program. The PPI Group offers a wide array of professional services to serve your CAD needs. The company is constantly talking with architects and provides a direct line to the latest information and enhancements coming out of Autodesk. PPI’s post-purchase support programs deliver value beyond the initial software purchase. PPI’s expert team can recommend the best tools to help a firm achieve its business objectives as efficiently and profitably as possible.

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