Living Buildings and the climate crisis

Architects have been slow to address global warming, says the International Living Future Institute's CEO, but can still make a difference by taking radical steps now.

October 27, 2019

Within the past year, a number of architecture firms and allied organizations have formally declared a climate emergency and pledged to take action. But what should this action involve, and how likely is it to happen at the scale and speed required to prevent the worst outcomes of global warming? In this interview series, the League presents different perspectives on where architecture currently stands with regard to climate action, where it needs to go, and how it might get there.

Widely considered one of the most rigorous green building standards, the Living Building Challenge seeks to create regenerative buildings that produce more energy than they use, harvest and treat all the water they require, and prevent waste. 

The certification program was launched in 2006 by the Pacific Northwest chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council. Today, it’s run by the nonprofit International Living Future Institute (ILFI), which also manages the Living Community Challenge, a neighborhood-scale version of the regenerative standard, along with several other environmental and social justice initiatives.

Amanda Sturgeon, the ILFI’s CEO, worked as an architect at Perkins and Will and the City of Seattle before transitioning to the nonprofit sector. The League’s Sarah Wesseler spoke with her about architecture’s role in confronting the climate crisis.


How would you characterize the architecture community’s response to climate change, generally speaking?

Addressing the climate crisis has happened pretty slowly within the architecture profession. The time for architects to act was probably 20 years ago—certainly a decade ago. It’s still sort of a surface thing, though; a few buildings here and there. There has been some great commitment, but it’s a narrow group of people that are actually enacting it. The majority has ignored the issue or paid lip service by doing some basic things.

I was just in New York, and buildings there are still going up looking the same as they did 20 years ago—lots of mirrored glass, no passive strategies, no use of renewables or low-embodied-carbon material. And it’s the same here in Seattle.

I think it’s a dilemma that stems back to architectural education, where the primary focus is on aesthetics and style, seconded by pleasing the client in terms of the amount of program they asked for, and thirdly by cost. Well, for many people cost comes first, of course. But there’s a perception that, for example, we can afford luxury materials, and those are of value to a client, but onsite renewables, which don’t have the same level of prestige and don’t tend to interest designers as much, aren’t as good an investment.

So we have a long way to go, and we’re now at the point of crisis. The shift has to be pretty radical. We need to get to zero energy now. Now. Every new building needs to be at that performance level.

So you see architectural training as one barrier to scaling up climate action within the profession. What are some others? And what do you think are the main opportunities?

How do we get architects from where they are now to where we need to be? It’s a good question. The strategies and tools to create zero-carbon buildings have been tested and proven, and they’re pretty simple. The knowledge base and the engineering base has gone up. That used to be a challenge; you just couldn’t get anyone to do a good energy analysis. There’s plenty of that resource now.

Of course, architects only have so much control—building owners and property developers are obviously involved as well. If a client isn’t willing to go with a sustainable design, architects have a choice of laying off staff or doing the project and trying to make it as best as they can. I do think a lot of firms are in that position.

Can you briefly describe the strategies that have been proven to achieve zero-carbon buildings? And do you think they’re well understood among the majority of architects at this point?

To date, most thinking about zero-carbon buildings has focused on operational carbon, notably tied to energy use. This aspect is well understood. Proven strategies include eliminating fossil fuel combustion from new construction, maximizing energy efficiency, and using renewable energy sources to power our buildings.

The next frontier, where many people are investing a lot of time, is embodied carbon in the materials used to construct buildings. Using reclaimed or salvaged materials is a proven strategy to reduce embodied carbon. So is sourcing locally, which can reduce emissions from transportation and long supply chains.

At the Institute, we’re working with manufacturers to assess the embodied carbon in the products they make so that design teams can make informed choices. Right now, Living Products 50 companies are leaders in their respective sectors focused on carbon disclosure. There’s a ton of excitement and energy in this space right now, and we still have quite a ways to go before designers can fully integrate embodied carbon into their materials choices. But we’re making good progress.

Are there any commonalities you’ve seen among the architects or contexts that have produced particularly ambitious designs?

Yeah—the project owners had a moral or ethical commitment to this issue and required the architects to push the design further.

That’s not to say that architects can’t play a great advocacy role. They sell things to their clients all the time, and they could do a better job of selling this. But the time for that approach has probably expired. It’s unrealistic to expect that architects can make enough of a difference quickly enough, even if they can get building owners on board. We have to go much further, and it’s probably going to take policy to force owners to do it. The kinds of policies we’ve seen passed in New York and elsewhere in the last year are needed to push the issue.

I used to dislike policy; I believed more in market drivers and inspiration and catalyst examples to move the market. But at this point we need to shift to putting pretty radical policies in place.

Would it be fair to say, then, that you think architects could achieve more by advocating for stronger policies than by focusing primarily on greening their own projects?

They need to do both. If architects can be advocates for policy, if they can testify in support of policy, if they can give input on the effective implementation of policy, they could make a huge difference. But if policymakers don’t see the physical examples, they won’t have the evidence to propose or pass good policy. They also need to see the work done in their own backyard, not off in another state or country. All the best policies are happening at the regional or city level, so local projects and local engagement are critical.

The other side is that architects need to do a better job of educating themselves and their peers on key policy issues. In the Northwest US, we’re part of an alliance called Shift Zero that does just that: zero-carbon-related policy awareness for the AEC community. We need more of these regional cohorts to form, to help architects pay attention to what is relevant and then empower them to speak up in their communities and at public hearings.

Can you say more about the kinds of policies you think we need to have in place?

Overall, we need policies that are smart, impactful, and practical to implement. This means understanding the intervention points where we have opportunities to reduce carbon through a building’s lifecycle so we can focus our attention. To date, we’ve put a lot of energy into new construction, but more policies are needed to get our existing buildings to zero carbon as well.

Some policy examples include bans on new natural gas hookups in Berkeley, San Jose, and other cities. And New York is leading the way on setting targets for eliminating fossil fuels from existing buildings.

We still have plenty of work to do, though. We need to eliminate net metering restrictions, which will take leadership from the utility sector. And we need policies to incentivize the reuse and upgrade of existing buildings. Policies that set targets for embodied carbon reduction by a specific date, like the 2030 targets set in Vancouver and Oslo, send a strong signal to manufacturers to innovate and invest in regional solutions.

How are you thinking about the climate emergency in your day-to-day work at the International Living Future Institute? What are your plans for the organization’s future?

What I love about the organization is that we inspire hope in others. We put out a vision that the market can move toward. I am a believer in hope versus fear as a motivator, which is why I’ve always been a bit hesitant on policy. But now I think you need both.

Now that we’ve shown what’s possible, my vision over the last year has been to scale up. For a long time, we focused on the top end of the market, figuring that we would show where buildings needed to head, and gradually the market would will get closer and closer. But at this juncture, what we’ve been doing is just the minimum that’s required to meet our 1.5-degree goal. We’ve only certified 120 or so buildings, with 650 more or so signed up to participate. That’s a tiny fraction of a percentage of the building happening globally. Every type of project in every location and every kind of density needs to be able to get to zero energy, zero carbon.

We’re now working on volume programs with corporate-level building owners—Google, for example, Salesforce, Kingspan, regional affordable housing developers, a grocery store chain. We are trying to figure out how we could take, say, a portfolio of 10 projects and figure out standard specifications, standard systems, standard policies, in order to take a lot of the effort out of certifying one at a time. Right now, we’ve got a dozen organizations in the pilot program. I hope that by next spring we’ll be able to release it as a formal pilot and say, “Here’s how you sign up to do zero-energy, zero-carbon Living Buildings at scale.”

My other main focus is figuring out how we get the right partnerships to move the industry forward. From nonprofits to business to the government sector, we’re going to need partnership and collaboration, because it’s a big problem to solve very quickly, and no individual organization can do it alone.

What do you think those sorts of partnerships might look like?

In terms of zero-carbon buildings, we’ve worked with organizations like regional Green Building Councils; we have an agreement with the Emirates Green Building Council, for example, in the UAE. The partnerships we’ve developed with the private sector are also pretty critical, because instead of putting ideas out there and seeing if companies use them, we’re working side by side with them to figure out how they might put them in place. And that’s helping to create a feedback loop that can help us figure out how to scale more effectively.

We’re also just starting to work with a few cities, looking at how we can help them understand what policies can be implemented and how to move the market towards those policies. We’re kind of becoming the liaison between cities and the industry. That’s another partnership model that we’ve just proposed, and I think it’s going to happen in terms of funding for next year.

Is there anything else you think is important to mention on the topic of the climate emergency?

The key thing is that everybody has to move, and move quickly. Buildings just have too much of an impact on global climate change for any single architect to stand by and say, “Well, it’s too hard for me to get to zero carbon,” or “My project type, or my location, or my client, doesn’t allow it.” In New York, especially, we hear that a lot—”Oh, our projects are too dense, we can’t really do this.” But I just toured a multifamily apartment building there that’s a passive house—not a particularly groundbreaking strategy.

Now’s the time to call on all the creativity we can muster. We’re great problem solvers, and we need to figure out how to do this.


Interview edited and condensed.


Climate change in the American mind

Anthony Leiserowitz is joined in conversation by Kate Orff, Paul Lewis, and Dale Jamieson to discuss underlying values that are reflected in our various views of climate change, and the extent to which those views are based on cultural predispositions rather than scientific data.

Five Thousand Pound Life Video 2013