An Introduction: The Living Building Challenge and Schools

Unfortunately, we will be requiring every future generation to live in a world with increasing environmental limits. In order for our students to succeed in this world, they will need a deep understanding of our societies’ energy, water and material use and how it is connected to human health. Can the built environment address these environmental limits while inspiring our students to lead sustainable lives? Absolutely, and the rapidly growing Living Building Challenge attempts to do just that.

Initially developed by the Cascadian Green Building Council (CGBC) in 2006, the Living Building Challenge (LBC) raises the “green bar” and motivates significant change in the built environment. It goes beyond other green building programs, such as the USGBC  and the Canadian Green Building Council (which both influenced and endorsed the LBC), to set aside prescriptive standards and truly push the envelope of regenerating buildings. In the past six years, the Living Building Challenge has rallied such strong support for its progressive sustainability message, that the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) was created to oversee it.

So what makes the Living Building Challenge so unique? At first glance, it may seem very similar to LEED. For example, it is organized into seven categories (called petals to reflect the regenerative beauty and persistence of a dandelion) many of which overlap with LEED: site, water, energy, health, materials, equity and beauty.

However, unlike LEED’s prescriptive checklist, the LBC is a performance-based standard representing actual, rather than anticipated, building performance. You can’t pick and choose which credits or environmental issues your project will satisfy. You must satisfy them all.

To explain it clearly, the Living Building Challenge 2.1 states, “There are never more than 20 simple and profound imperatives that must be met for any type of project, at any scale, in any location around the world.”

This makes the challenge beautifully uncomplicated; all 20 criteria are mandatory, and if you meet them, your project will be certified as “‘living” and will be one of the most sustainable buildings in the world. 

This sounds easy enough, except that criteria are extremely rigorous and require 12 months of full occupancy and operation to determine if they have been met. Some of the building requirements include net-zero energy, net-zero water, the use of locally sourced materials and the production of agriculture on site. There is also a materials “Red List,” that prohibits toxic materials from being used within the building. This list includes polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is often used in plumbing fixtures and as a coating for electric wires, which can be very difficult to replace with non-toxic alternatives.

As you can imagine, it can be very challenging for every project to adhere to all of the strict challenge requirements. Therefore, the ILFI also offers “petal recognition” for projects that meet the performance requirement of one or more petal. In fact, the Living Building Challenge is so demanding that only three buildings are currently certified as ”living,” with an additional two having received petal recognition. However, the popularity of this challenge is growing exceedingly fast, with 90 projects, across 10 countries, currently in some phase of the LBC certification process.

The majority of the these projects are education and environmental institutions, such as the Living Building-certified Hawaii Preparatory Academy (K-12), the Tyson Living Learning Center (higher-ed) and the Omega Center for Sustainable Living (interpretive center). This is a very important point because the goal of the Living Building Challenge is to advocate, educate and inspire occupants to live more sustainably. In fact, one of the LBC mandatory requirements is “inspiration + education,” requiring all buildings to provide educational materials about their operation and performance.

Can a non-green school educate its students about sustainability? Of course. Ultimately, it is up to individual teachers and school curriculum to articulate sustainability ideals to their students. But Living Building Challenge provides something unique: a holistic physical representation of those sustainability ideals. When integrated with a school’s mission and curriculum, Living Buildings maximize the pedagogical potential of the built environment, and give our students the tools they need to live sustainability. 

More information on the Living Building Challenge can be 
found at All facts and quotations in this article were provided by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI). The terms “Living Building” and “Living Building Challenge” are trademarked by the ILFI.

Craig Schiller, MSSD, LEED-AP
, Build to Teach Consulting LLC, is an active member of the Council of Educational Facility Planners, International (CEFPI). Craig can be reached at [email protected].