A new generation of thinking about our built environment is resulting in buildings that more resemble a living organism.
Our surroundings today, the cities and buildings we inhabit and the roads, power, water, food and waste infrastructure were all built in a ‘brief’ period of cheap energy and labour. Our environments are fixes to the ‘problem’ of continuous growth. As a result they are expensive to maintain and operate because they are wasteful and polluting. They are not renowned for their beauty, but were cheap and intended to be replaced every few years or decades. Consequently our existing built environment does more harm than good for our economy, planet and society.
As an alternative perhaps visualise a flower. Rooted in place, and yet it harvests all its water, energy and nutrients. Is adapted to climate and site to operate pollution free. The flower is comprised of integrated natural systems – and it’s beautiful.
Imagine going to work, or shopping or studying in buildings that mimic the flower to generate their own energy and water; where all habitable space is filled with daylight and has opening
‘Living’ buildings are not about doing ‘less harm’. They start with the question – ‘what does good look like?’
windows! They would grow food and invite nature to inhabit their walls and roofs. Imagine telling your children that your place of work is minimising climate change because it stores carbon dioxide emissions! A building so healthy you feel refreshed after a hard day at work! A tall order, but absolutely possible. To help understand our future options and visionary approaches to creating them, my colleague Justin Evatt and I recently visited the US and Canada, touring buildings that demonstrate positive and regenerative behaviour, aiming to give back more than they take.
The buildings were designed and built to meet the stringent standards of ‘The Living Building Challenge’, a program of Cascadia Green Building Council intended to create tangible examples of the living future.
‘Living’ buildings are not about doing ‘less harm’. They start with the question – ‘what does good look like?’ and then use nature as a measuring stick of success in delivering it.
The CIRS (Centre for Interactive Research in Sustainability) at the University of British Colombia is one of many leading edge examples. Aside from the forty doctorate students engaged in study, it offers seven net positive benefits for people and the environment. CIRS takes waste energy for use before re-exporting it, likewise it captures waste water before returning it for agriculture and to the aquifer after treatment in their plant-based living machine.
In Vancouver the Van Dusen Gardens visitor centre is a powerful design, based on a flowering orchid appropriate to a botanical garden in full spring bloom. The undulating forms finished with living plant roofs and solar collector create a delightfully high arrival lobby. This high dome ceiling tops out with a glass cone to drive the natural fresh air system and daylighting. The Visitor Centre is targeting ‘net zero’ for energy and water by collecting and storing it in the ground. Like CIRS, it treats its own sewage allowing the water and nutrients to be recycled.
In a similar vein the Early Learning Centre for children at SFU University was built to meet the challenge on a tight program and with a conventional budget. Like Van Dusen, it too followed the materials ‘Red List’ for avoiding any toxic materials and providing assurance that they were sourced from appropriate distances and fully accounted for their ‘embodied’ carbon.
The Bullit Centre in Seattle, an office block now under construction, took the water argument further. There is little space to treat waste water on site, so the building incorporates six storeys of composting toilets, thus eliminating both the need for water and avoiding the treatment problem.
The Living Building Challenge is just that, a challenge to us. It asks the question, ‘What if every single act of design and construction make the world a better place?’ Instead of short term thinking and investment creating more waste, pollution and stress, it sets a standard to deliver a future of net positive outcomes. The Living Building Challenge allows us to be smart, to innovate and create cities and buildings that that are not only going to give back for a long time, but are socially just, culturally rich and ecologically restorative.
Above and top left: Van Dusen Gardens Visitors Centre, an orchid-inspired building with a sewage treatment pond in foreground
Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability at UBC Vancouver – solar
energy atrium roof supported by the timber structure to sequester carbon.