A world where every building adds environmental equity with a low carbon footprint that far surpasses sustainability is the mission of the Living Building. The concept of the Living Building floated to the surface in the mid-nineties through the EpiCenter project that focused on green building research for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) at Montana State University in Bozeman Montana. A team of scientists, engineers, and architects led by environmentalist Bob Berkebile and sustainability expert Dr. Kath Williams, gathered to move the needle in advanced sustainable architecture. Jason F. McLennan was part of the design team and used the knowledge gained from this project to lay the groundwork in developing the Living Building Challenge, which is a certification program that pushes architecture to the forefront of sustainability, renewable energy, environmental responsibility, and design.

The Difference Between LEED and the Living Building Challenge

In 1993, three members of the U.S. Green Building Council organized a summit that consisted of representatives from 60 firms and several nonprofits that determined a diverse coalition that spanned the entire building industry. This coalition identified criteria for a green building rating system, which would later become the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building rating system. The rating method has grown since its 1993 inception and is now LEED version 4.1. This modified version incorporates a Living Standard that now connects green buildings.

The main difference between the widely recognized LEED certification and the Living Building certification is that LEED focuses more on its framework for healthy, highly efficient, and cost-saving green buildings, while the Living Building Challenge pushes the boundaries in a holistic way and challenges spaces to not only limit their carbon footprint but become a healing space for people and the environment. For example, adding parks or green spaces may not necessarily give you a higher LEED rating but could be architected in a way to meet the health criteria in the Living Space Challenge.


The Living Building Challenge can apply to a variety of different project types, and teams must first choose a specific typology that their project fits into before beginning. The typologies include:

New Building: Any new building can fall into this category, regardless of size.

Existing Building: This typology suits any project that alters the frame or the major systems of a building.

Interior: This category is also suited for any project that does not alter the structure’s frame or significant systems of any building.

Landscape or Infrastructure: Teams can use this typology for any project that does not include an enclosed structure as part of its primary program. Projects could consist of parks, roads, bridges, plazas, sports facilities, or trails.

Identifying the appropriate typology is vital because each category determines a specific set of Imperatives that apply. The list of Imperatives includes touchpoints such as inclusion, universal access, inspiration, and education. The Imperative is attached to a holistic passageway to sustainability that assumes the form of 7 flower petals.

Architecting a Living Building

The Flower Metaphor

The flower metaphor is a flower-like map that shows seven attributes across the following areas:

  1. Place – Strict guidelines have been developed for this category since the goal of the building itself is to create a space that has a holistic relationship with nature. The building cannot disrupt any sensitive ecological habitats and must be on land that was previously developed.
  2. Water – Only water that has been captured from rain or other natural resources such as recycled or discharged water can be used.
  3. Health and Happiness – The space should have access to components that promote health, such as natural light, fresh air, and high-grade indoor air quality in accordance with biophilic design.
  4. Energy – The building must be able to produce its own energy and incorporate carbon neutrality.
  5. Materials – Safe and locally sourced materials that are nontoxic and also reduce the building’s carbon footprint must be used.
  6. Equity – Accessibility to all is the core part of the equity criteria. The building must be accessible to the public and encourage exploration.
  7. Beauty – Architecture that inspires humanity through beauty is another element. Beauty, through artistic design, is one of the core values of the project. This was put in place to inspire those who view the work to positive action.

The program’s visionary, Jason F. McLennan, apparently chose the flower-inspired framework because flowers are an accurate representation of a regenerative building that receives all of its energy from the sun, nutrients from the soil, and water from the sky. Similar to a flower, buildings shelter other organisms and support their surrounding ecosystem.

Measuring Success

The International Living Future Institute has mapped out specific indicators for success. Challenge participants will know that they’ve been successful if a building has its own utility in generating private energy, capturing its own water, and has a way to process its own waste. Since many times these factors cannot always be fully built into every project, a few other measures have also been determined.

  1. Low operating costs that can be measured by using a scale jumping tool that allows multiple building projects to share green infrastructure.
  2. Building spaces that actively work to eliminate the negative impact on global health.
  3. Spaces that cultivate biodiversity and natural environments.

Architecting Living Buildings works to remove barriers to systemic change and strives to create a better world that protects and honors people, plant life, and wildlife. The challenge in itself pushes people to organically break down regulatory impediments to green buildings and works to accelerate testing, research, and development of sustainable building methods one project at a time.