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Jointly administered by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) and the Cascadia Green Building Council, the Living Building Challenge is the most rigorous green certification in the industry. It is a true performance-based system, as it requires more than just energy modeling: The certified building must actually meet its sustainability requirements over a 12 month period after occupation has begun. For condo developments, this means certification cannot happen until one year after the last condo has been purchased and the buyer has moved in.
In addition to sustainability, the Living Building Challenge is unique in the emphasis it places on the concepts of resiliency and community. Given the increasingly intense weather patterns associated/attributed to Climate Change, the Living Building Challenge incorporates measures that ensure buildings can withstand heavy storms and operate effectively in their aftermath. With regard to community, the Living Building Challenge embraces the concept of equitable development, which holds that projects shall “foster a true, inclusive sense of community that is just and equitable regardless of an individual’s background, age, class, race, gender or sexual orientation.”
The Living Building Challenge has a complex framework for its certifications. It is helpful to have a basic understanding of some key terms:
Typology: The generic classification of projects (i.e. renovation of existing homes, new construction, landscaping, etc.)
Petal: A specific area of performance, of which there are seven: Place, Water, Energy, Health, Materials, Equity, and Beauty.
Imperative: A subcategory of petals, imperatives are more detailed sustainability requirements/measures. There are 20 imperatives, including:
Limits to Growth, Urban Agriculture, Habitat Exchange, Car-Free Living, Net Zero Water, Ecological Water Flow, Net Zero Energy (NZE), Civilized Environment, Healthy Air, Biophilia, Red List, Embodied Carbon Footprint, Responsible Industry, Appropriate Sourcing, Conservation and Reuse, Human Scale + Humane Places, Democracy + Social Justice, Rights to Nature , Beauty + Spirit, and Inspiration + Education.
Living Transect: A type of habitat surrounding a building site - ranging from natural habitat preserves to urban centers.
There are three types of certification within the Living Building Challenge:
- “Living” Status (all 7 petals)
- Petal Certification (3 of 7 petals)
- Net Zero Energy*
* All building projects that earn living status (full program certification) under the Living Building Challenge automatically receive Net Zero Energy building certification.
Living Status: This is an intense and comprehensive certification requiring a developer to meet all seven petals (see above for list).
Petal Certification: To earn petal recognition a project must earn 3 of 7 petals - one of which must be either Energy, Water, or Materials. In addition to the imperatives within each petal, all projects must satisfy Imperatives 01 and 20:
Imperative 01 - Limits to Growth: All projects must be built on grey fields or brown fields, which means one cannot develop in natural habitats.
Imperative 20 - Education + Inspiration: The owner must provide educational materials about the operation and performance of the certified building to the public on an ongoing basis, including holding an open house once per year.
Imperative 06 - Net Positive Energy: 105% of the building’s energy must be generated by onsite renewable energy systems. Combustion systems, including gas ranges, are prohibited. Further, projects must incorporate battery storage with sufficient capacity to provide lighting and refrigeration for up to one week.
Imperative 10 - Red List Materials: The project cannot include any toxic materials. Specific prohibitions are enumerated in the Materials Handbook.
Imperative 11 - Embodied Carbon Footprint: The developer must purchase carbon offsets equivalent to the total embodied carbon impact from the construction process.
Imperative 12 - Responsible Industry: The project must utilize products created by firms implementing fair labor practices and sustainable resource extraction (i.e. FSC certified wood).
Imperative 13 - Living Economy Sourcing: The project must use products and services that are sourced locally. Distance restrictions are applied to various tranches of building materials (i.e. 20% of building materials must be manufactured or extracted within 250 km of the project site).
Imperative 14: Net Positive Waste: The project management team must prepare a waste management report detailing how refuse will be recycled throughout all phases of the project, including “end of life” deconstruction of the building.
Imperative 01 - Limits to Growth: See above.
Imperative 02 - Urban Agriculture: The project must provide space for urban farming. Garden size is based on size of the development in square feet.
Imperative 03 - Habitat Exchange: At time of certification, the project owner must purchase a separate, off-site parcel that is equivalent in size to the developed lot and devote said parcel exclusively to conservation. ILFI oversees the imperative by requiring participation in its Habitat Exchange Program.
Imperative 04 - Human Powered Living: The project must contribute toward development of walkable, transit-oriented communities by providing storage for bikes, electric charging stations for cars, as well as showers and changing rooms. The building owner must also make efforts to improve pedestrian routes and advocate for public transportation.
Imperative 05 - Net Positive Water: 100% of the building’s water needs must come from “captured precipitation or other natural closed loop water systems, and/or by recycling used project water, and must be purified as needed without the use of chemicals.”
Net Zero Energy Certification (NZE):
Four imperatives must be met to get NZE certification:
Imperative 01 - Limits to Growth: See above.
Imperative 06 - Net Zero Energy (modified): 100% percent of the building’s energy needs on a annual basis must be supplied by onsite renewable energy. No combustion is allowed.
Imperative 19 - Beauty + Spirit: Features designed “solely for human delight and the celebration of culture, spirit and place” must be integrated into the project.
Imperative 20 - Inspiration + Education: See above.
Project teams pursuing full "living" status may an audit once construction is finished and receive a conditional assessment of those imperatives are not impacted by the operational phase of the certification process (i.e. ongoing energy monitoring).
Step 1: Registration (onset of design process) - Select typology and transect. Project team members join the Living Building Challenge Community and gain access to online support resources.
Step 2: Documentation throughout Construction and Operation - Project team begins organizing and submitting documentation. Project team continues the documentation process through the project’s construction phase and its operational phase — 12 consecutive months of operation, during which building performance data is recorded and logged.
Step 3: Audit and Certification - An independent auditor reviews the supporting documentation and conducts site verification. The auditor then compiles a final report and submits it to IFLI. In turn, IFLI reviews the auditor’s report, notifies the team of the audit results and certifies the project accordingly.
- Registration: $900
- IFLI Membership: $150
- Full Living Certification: $6,000
- Petal Certification: $4,000 (3 petals), each additional petal $1,000
- Auditor Fee: $0 (Included in Certification Fee)
- Estimated Team Increase: High
*Assumes full living challenge certification.
- Certified Multifamily Projects SD County: 0
- Certified Petal Projects in SD County: 2
- Certified Petal Projects in CA: 41 projects
The Living Building Challenge is the most rigorous and exhaustive green building certification available. In addition to having the most stringent sustainability standards, LBC certification promotes social justice, community, human health, and beauty in the built environment. In other words, it includes all of the elements that would make a development truly great.
These benefits come at a high price, however. The process is quite expensive, as it requires significant documentation and monitoring. As discussed above, the project cannot be certified until all of the units have been lived in for 12 months. This monitoring requirement means the certification cannot be used as a sales tool for a project. Furthermore, developers will be weary of pursuing the Living Building Challenge when they cannot control occupant behavior or energy consumption. With that said, obtaining Living Building Challenge certification would provide a builder or developer with instant brand equity and position him/her as true leader in the Sustainability Industry.
At least in San Diego, it appears that developers and builders have not recognized the many benefits of the certification, evidenced by a mere two projects in San Diego. Should the LBC costs come down, though, it may gain traction among early adopters, since the rigorous certification process guarantees an exceptional product.