Are you up for the Living Building Challenge?

Professionals in the building and real estate industries are being encouraged to embrace the Living Building Challenge by imagining and creating “buildings that generate all of their own energy with renewable resources … a city block or a college campus that shares resources from building to building, growing food and functioning without a dependency on fossil fuel-based transportation … true sustainability in our homes, workplaces, neighborhoods, villages, towns and cities.”

Inspired by the International Living Building Institute (, the challenge goes out to all design professionals, contractors and building owners to create the foundation for a sustainable future in the fabric of all communities. The challenge is straightforward — it defines the most advanced measure of sustainability in the built environment possible today and acts to diminish the gap between current limits and ideal solutions.

San Diegans need only look north to Seattle to see the challenge met in a one-of-a-kind project.

In August 2011, at the intersection of Seattle’s Capitol Hill and Central Area neighborhoods, the Bullitt Center broke ground. The project aims to set a new standard in urban sustainability and is envisioned as a living building designed to satisfy all of its energy, water and waste needs. When completed at the end of this year, it will be home to the Bullitt Foundation, whose vision is to “successfully reconcile our obligation to sustain healthy natural systems with our understandable desire for health, convenience, creativity and prosperity.”

While conventional office buildings and other commercial real estate developments are becoming greener by embracing LEED standards, for some, like the International Living Building Institute and the Bullitt Foundation, change isn’t happening fast enough.

With the goal of being the greenest building in the world, the Bullitt Center will use about 20 percent as much energy as the average building its size, provide all of its own water and process all of its own sewage. There will be plenty of parking for bikes, but none for cars. Common building materials that contain PVC plastics and hundreds of other hazardous substances won’t be used. To avoid too big of a carbon footprint for the building, the steel, concrete, wood and other materials used in the construction will only come from within 300 miles. All of the timber used to frame the building will be from forests certified as sustainable.

One of the most iconic aspects of the building, designed by Seattle-based Miller Hull Partnership, will be an extensive photovoltaic array that will generate 100 percent of the building's energy, approximately 230,000 kilowatts per year. Office equipment is currently the area of greatest innovation and change in commercial building energy use. The focus of the Bullitt Center’s design was to minimize energy use in the base structure, which will have a much longer lifespan and allow the more quickly changing technology — such as office equipment — to catch up. It is possible that over the next 10 years, with the rapid pace of improvements in computing, the Bullitt Center could start to become a net energy exporter.

The Bullitt Center serves as a tremendous role model for those of us in the real estate, development and construction businesses. However, we are not alone in the need to embrace change for a more sustainable future. For the Living Building Challenge to be truly successful, politicians and government officials must “remove barriers to systemic change, and to realign incentives and market signals that truly protect the health, safety and welfare of people and all beings,” according to the International Living Building Institute.

The institute has issued a challenge, and the challenge asks us to explore these questions: What if every single act of design and construction made the world a better place? What if every intervention resulted in greater biodiversity; increased soil health; additional outlets for beauty and personal expression; a deeper understanding of climate, culture and place; a realignment of our food and transportation systems; and a more profound sense of what it means to be a citizen of a planet where resources and opportunities are provided fairly and equitably?

Are you up for the challenge?

Mauer is the business development director of The Miller Hull Partnership LLP, based in the firm’s San Diego office. Mauer is also the director of special events for CREW San Diego.

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