Flowers, Buildings, and a Sustainable Future

The Living Future Institute recently released their updated guidelines for the Living Building Challenge – a program that outlines rigorous building standards geared towards creating a more sustainable built environment. The Challenge is at once a philosophy, advocacy tool, and certification program. Living Buildings are intended to lead by example and demonstrate the realities of the environmental, social, and economic goals outlined in the document.


Seattle now has a prominent example of what a Living Building can achieve. The Bullitt Center bills itself as the World’s Greenest Office Building, and en route to its official Living Building certification, must not only demonstrate net zero energy and water performance, but meet twenty specific performance criteria outlined in the Challenge. To achieve such feats, the building incorporates 26 geothermal wells, a 14,000 square foot solar panel array, a 56,000 gallon cistern, and allows for daylighting in 82% of the interior spaces.

At first glance, the scale of such green accomplishment as the Bullitt Center might make it seem like the Living Building Challenge doesn’t relate to smaller neighborhood projects or individual homeowners, but don’t be discouraged! The underlying philosophy of the Living Building Challenge and the design framework within it are meant to clearly communicate performance areas and make them scalable and manageable for a variety of project types and contexts.

So what do flowers have to do with all of this? Like most buildings, flowers are rooted in place. But unlike most buildings, flowers respond and contribute to their site in a cyclic and sustainable manner—they are valuable members of a diverse ecosystem. What if buildings were more like flowers, and made a permanent, positive impact on their users and surroundings?

The Challenge uses the metaphor of the flower and individual “petals” to describe the different performance areas that combine to make a sustainable whole. Each petal also outlines imperatives and strategies for sustainable achievement. While full Living Building certification requires all petals be satisfied, you can also receive individual petal certifications for a project. The petals include:

PLACE: How can a project establish a balance between the built site and the natural site? Strategies for this petal include suggestions for urban agriculture, habitat protection, ecologically sensitive growth, and improving transportation options.

WATER: Water is an increasingly endangered resource. What are the natural water flows on the site, and is it possible to replenish these water flows despite use? Strategies for this petal include addressing storm water and grey water through harvesting, re-use, or sustainable treatment. Due to regional differences in average rainfall and code barriers to innovation, this is the most challenging petal to address on a widespread scale.

ENERGY: How can the project incorporate passive and renewable energy sources and is there a way to store energy for future use? Strategies for this petal include daylighting interior spaces, maximizing the efficiency of the building envelope, and solar and geothermal options.

HEALTH & HAPPINESS: The spaces we inhabit affect our physical and mental well-being. Strategies for this petal include encouraging human connection with nature and maintaining good indoor air quality.

MATERIALS: Material choices have environmental, social, and economic impacts. Strive for no Red List (link) products, and seek out a team of green producers and suppliers in the local economy to collaborate with on the project. Other useful strategies for this petal include recycling and reusing building materials to realize a waste-free construction process.

EQUITY: Even projects designed for individual or private use influence the broader community and environment. This petal encourages designers and clients to think beyond the immediate scope of the project and consider how the project could make a positive impact in the community. How can a home renovation improve not just the individual dwelling, but the experience of being in the surrounding neighborhood?

BEAUTY: This petal reminds us that design can be inspiring and transformative, and that these features should be celebrated as key components of sustainability. After all, an individual or community is increasingly likely to care for a building through time if they like it.

So if you’re embarking on a design project–no matter the scale–consider using the petals as a guide. While not every building project will be able to achieve Living Building status, each petal is a significant step towards a more sustainable project.