Our planning system is great for objectifying sustainability but how do we make it practical? The Living Building Challenge, an initiative of the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), has the answer – start with the micro and build with ambition.

I recently attended a public lecture by Jason McLennan, founder and CEO of the ILFI, who discussed the simple premise behind one of the strongest ambitions in recent architecture, “imagine, if every design element made our world more sustainable” he said. Building from this ideology, Jason and his team developed a framework and advocacy for creating more liveable and truly sustainable places.

With its launch and certification in 2006, the Living Building Challenge has inspired projects to consider a holistic approach to design. To be recognised under the Challenge, the project must comply with a strict quantifiable list of standards that innovate new ways of expression, creativity and problem solving. Some of the standards include net zero waste, net zero energy, human scale and human places.

While these standards seem rigorous, of which they are, the results speak for themselves. Here are some snapshots of project completed since 2006 –

Project 01 – The Omega Centre for Sustainable Living

Image courtesy of John Todd 2009

What appears to be a lush greenhouse is actually the campus waste water treatment plant. Jason describes it as what it is – “an ecosystem where our waste becomes food”. It’s a relaxing place far from the imagining of the traditional waste water plant, where ‘ecosystem’ attracts butterflies and insects that help create a quiet retreat for students, staff and visitors to the campus. Here is a great blog post about the Omega Centre’s opening.

Project 02 – The Bertschi School

Image courtesy of KMD Architects 2011

At this school, classroom learning is extended to incorporate all weather changes and climatic seasons. Students not only learn about sustainability but also learn how to implement it in practical ways. A great feature of the design was the inclusion of a ‘river’ that meanders through the classrooms and connects with theory about local fish including salmon. When it rains, students have the opportunity to test water quality and explore one of the most important and fragile elements to life.

At both projects the emphasis was on delivering high quality standards while achieving the best possible outcome for people and place. Something that stuck with me, and Jason mentioned in another project he highlighted, was that, “we must establish how much energy we use as humans and then work backwards, instead of building or designing first then matching consumption with energy needs”.

The aim of the Living Building Challenge, and something I admire, is its resolve to quantify sustainability by designing buildings that reflect the uniqueness of each place and people. I look forward to seeing this philosophy popularised in Australia and hope our ambitions continue to motivate us to design better places.

What are your thoughts?