Case Studies

Introducing the Living Building Challenge

In his book “Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology,” David Abram explores the idea of human entanglement with nature—the idea that we are not, as we often seem to assume, separate from the world around us.

“Many long-standing and lousy habits have enabled our callous treatment of surrounding nature, empowering us to clear-cut, dam up, mine, develop, poison or simply destroy so much of what quietly sustains us,” Abram writes.

The Living Building Challenge takes that idea to the next level—suggesting that not only are humans and nature inseparable but the buildings they construct are intertwined in their living landscape.

“One’s relation to one’s house, in other words, is hardly a relation between a pure subject and a pure object—between an active intelligence, or mind, and a purely passive chunk of matter,” Abram writes.

In this US Builders Review segment, we shine a light on companies working against the tendency to view humans as separate from the natural and built environments, companies who have embraced the Living Building Challenge.

Experiential learning

The Living Building Challenge is a rigorous green building standard put forth by the International Living Future (ILF) Institute, an organization that believes we need to “reconcile humanity’s relationship with the natural world.” Each Living Building Challenge project pushes the notion that every single act of design and construction should make the world a better place.

More than 300 projects around the world have used the Living Building Challenge as a framework for regenerative design—that is design that gives more to the environment than it takes.

For companies like Missouri-based general contractor The Harlan Company, the Living Building Challenge can be “a heck of an education.”

John Harlan Jr., President of The Harlan Company, admits the company was not prepared to build a structure that only used water from rainwater collection or other closed-loop water systems or that only used energy supplied onsite through renewable sources. The company found avoiding common construction chemicals and materials banned by the Living Building Challenge a challenge in its own right.

The Harlan Company

The Harlan Company

But the resulting structure, part of an experiential school, allows students to learn about regional building materials thanks to the locally sourced, native species of wood used in construction. That alone is worth it, Harlan says.

In projects such as this, The Harlan Company isn’t the only one to face a learning curve. In Massachusetts, Scapes Builders built The Bechtel Environmental Classroom, the fifth Living Building Challenge certified building in the world and the first in New England.

Bechtel—a 2,500-square-foot field station and earth sciences classroom for students at Smith College—includes composting toilets, massive skylights and exterior solar panels that return 50 percent more energy than the building uses. All materials Scapes used are certified free of chemicals that cause cancer or are known to disrupt the endocrine system by mimicking naturally occurring hormones and causing adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological and immune effects in humans and wildlife.

One mispicked material or incorrectly commingled piece of recycling could have cost the building its Living Building Challenge certification. “It was high stakes,” says Scapes president John Blowers.

Testing the waters

The Living Building Challenge is, after all, a challenge, and it’s intended to push the envelope.

Even for companies like Williams Creek, which helps clients reduce their water footprints, foster environmental stewardship and adopt a holistic, social-environmental approach to design engineering, the Living Building Challenge takes things to the next level.

Williams Creek completed the first ever Living Building Challenge certified building—the Tyson Research Center at Washington University.

Tyson Living Learning Center

Tyson Living Learning Center

There, Williams Creek installed pervious parking, trails and rain gardens to gather on-site runoff. Rainwater captured on the building’s roof passes through biological filtration and UV disinfection so that it can be reused as sanitary greywater. In addition, the trees used in the siding, flooring and cabinets were taken directly from the building site and an adjoining forest restoration project.

Though the Living Building Challenge requirements are strict, Williams Creek principal Neil Meyers says the challenge itself is supportive in nature.

Where some of the more “mature” green building certifications are very much checklist based, Meyers says, the Living Building Challenge is still dialogue driven. The ILF Institute wants each Living Building Challenge project to succeed without watering down the mission.

“Because Living Building Challenge is so new,” Meyers says, “it feels like the collaborative nature of the folks [involved] is more cooperative and open to discussion.”

It’s our hope that the stories in this segment will serve to further that discussion.

Showcase your feature on your website with a custom “As Featured in US Builders Review” badge that links directly to your article!

Copy and paste this script into your page coding (ideally right before the closing tag) where you want to display our review banner.


Spring 2018



  • * We’ll never share your email or info with anyone.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.