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Sustainability 53: Living Buildings

Updated on July 3, 2013
Buildings in harmony with nature
Buildings in harmony with nature

At times it appears that designers, architects, urbanists and planners are diligently trying to 'out-green' one another, taking their clients along to a more sustainable future. Going beyond the mere goals of energy efficiency, green design, and even sustainability is the cutting-edge (some would say bleeding-edge) concept of 'the Living Building'.

Surprisingly, this hyper-green concept of a building in total concert with its environs has in fact been around since 2008, when it was first formulated by Jason McClennan and the Cascadia Region Green Building Council. (The Cascadia Region is a bioregion that encompasses significant portions of the northwestern U.S. and western Canada from Oregon north to Alaska.)

What is a living building? It is a building that goes beyond the prescriptions of LEED — and just about every other prevailing green standard — to become more like an organism. Such a building might mimic nature in its design, and may not only severely limit the production of excess waste, but may also use waste as a resource itself. Furthermore, living buildings are designed in concert with their local climate, resources, environment, and culture. They harvest water and energy, and complement and support happy and healthy human life, as well as that of the other plants and animals inhabiting our world. At their best, living buildings serve to restore and regenerate the local ecosystem and biome.

Since the Living Building Challenge was first issued by Cascadia several years ago, a number of organizations have sprouted to meet that challenge. The International Living Building Institute, based in Seattle, WA, is an NGO (non-governmental organization) devoted to the development of living buildings, sites and communities around the world, through engagement with green builders, policy makers and concerned citizens.

Cascadia’s Sustainability Academy trains and certifies green professionals in matters of sustainability. The Pharos Project piggybacks on the well-known food nutrition label concept in its aim to label building materials with a universally accepted rating system defining such factors as sustainability, embodied energy, toxicity, pollution, fair trade, renewability, etc.

And, less than 40 miles up the Hudson River from West Point Military Academy, in the small town of Rhinebeck, NY, is the Omega Center for Sustainable Living (OCSL). Occupying a portion of the 195-acre campus of the Omega Institute, the OCSL is a demonstration facility enclosing several classrooms and a sizable Eco-Machine, a water collection and filtration system that employs, bacteria, fungi, algae, snails and a variety of plants to purify wastewater. The Eco-Machine thereby serves as wastewater treatment plant for the entire Omega Institute, and in the process contributes to setting OCSL’s water use and energy use both at net zero.

A markerOmega Center for Sustainable Living -
Rhinebeck, NY, USA
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