SPECIAL REPORT: As Green as It Gets

The Affordable Housing Summit was one of the highlights of the GreenBuild 2011 conference in Toronto, and while attendees contributed their own ideas about the future of sustainability, the session highlighted the Living Building Challenge.

By Diana Mosher, Editor-in-Chief, Multi-Housing News

Affordable housing took center stage during last week’s GreenBuild 2011 in Toronto. The popular Affordable Housing Summit was an educational marathon that culminated in a series of charrettes where attendees took part in brainstorming sessions – contributing from their own experiences and also drawing from new knowledge they had learned during the day.

It’s interesting that the ideas that seemed far-fetched or simply too impractical to implement five or 10 years ago have gradually become viable options that more and more developers are thinking about incorporating into their new and retrofit housing products in order to stay competitive in the marketplace.

In the end, it’s all about what will the renters want and, in the affordable-housing arena, healthy spaces and green go hand-in-hand.

The multi-housing sector was well represented among the panelists and attendees, and many of the industry’s most influential were seen trading observations and exchanging business cards. Green is not only a growing business opportunity, it’s also a continually changing discipline. Every green conference is a valuable investment. In fact, you can expect to be hearing more about the Living Building Challenge, a Portland, Ore.-based organization that has come up with a new rating system (and a new conference of its own in May 2012) designed to help building projects to actually heal the ecosystem as well as surrounding communities.

The Living Building Challenge is seeking “a visionary path to a restorative future” and is encouraging buildings to act like a flower that is beautiful, adapted to its climate and site, and (except for house plants and a few others) responsible for its own water and energy. The standard looks at seven “petals” of sustainability, including site, water, energy, health, materials, equity and beauty.

For example, it requires “limits to growth,” and projects must not impeach on “the right to nature” by blocking another project’s ability to enjoy the natural surroundings; only grayfield or brownfield sites are allowed; and projects must be on a human scale rather than on a car scale — so gated communities are never an option.

Many will say it isn’t possible (especially the part about no PVC), but LEED was also met with skepticism, and so many of its requirements are now being incorporated willingly, even by projects not seeking certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Since green is always a work in progress, The Living Building Challenge does issue half petals. “But our requirements are simple. All seven of the requirements are required,” explained Amanda Sturgeon, who presented highlights of the program to Affordable Housing Summit attendees at GreenBuild. Sturgeon has taught sustainable design at the University of Washington’s School of Architecture and co-directs Perkins+Will’s Sustainable Design Initiative.

Testing and verification is done after the building has been up and running. “We send a third party to check one year after it has opened,” said Sturgeon. “We want to pull the market forward,” she added. “LEED is a fabulous program to get us all on board, but our goals go a bit further.”

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