Kellogg Building Project

LEED vs. Living Building Challenge

As mentioned on the About the Project page, the College is pursing the International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge (LBC) for Kellogg House. This will be among the first institutional projects in Massachusetts (and to our knowledge the most ambitious year-round program) to pursue the LBC.  Only four buildings have thus far achieved Living Building certification, and fewer than one hundred buildings are in the process of pursing the certification. This rigorous new rating system builds upon the momentum generated by the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating program.  Where LEED’s goals could be summarized as “Do less harm,” the Living Building Challenge’s tagline might be “Fix the damage.”

As such, the LBC goes above and beyond the requirements of even the highest level of LEED, LEED Platinum.  A few comparisons might illustrate the tremendous difference between LEED and LBC:

  • LEED gives points for theoretical energy efficiency.  LBC requires meter data from one year of operation to confirm that the project generated at least as much energy as it used. In other words, a LBC building must achieve net-zero energy use while a LEED building only needs to achieve a marginal improvement over standard energy building codes.
  • LEED gives points for high efficiency plumbing fixtures.  LBC requires that the project use only water that arrives on site naturally, and also requires that the water be treated on site and returned to the natural cycle. In other words, a LBC building must achieve net-zero water use while a LEED building only needs to achieve a marginal improvement over standard water efficiency building codes.
  • LEED offers points for irrigation-free landscaping.  LBC requires that the landscape be a source of local, organic food production.
  • LEED allows the use of any sort of material in the construction of a building. LBC requires that buildings do not use any materials from a Red List of materials.
  • LEED offers optional points in a variety of different categories. LBC requires that a building achieve every single imperative, there are no optional imperatives.

LEED has been an incredibly powerful force in the market, and has done a tremendous amount to move the design and construction community to an awareness of buildings’ impact on the environment.  If every new building in the world were constructed to be LEED Platinum, however, it would not be enough to stem the tide of carbon emissions, toxic pollution, and water depletion.

Benefits of Pursuing the Living Building Challenge

This is where the Living Building Challenge comes in.  The LBC is a holistic approach to building that requires all project stakeholders to consider the real life cycle impact of design, construction, and operation.  If all future buildings were constructed to meet the requirements of all LBC petals, growth in emissions from the building sector would cease, and efforts to improve existing stock could yield real reductions in global carbon emissions.

There is no way to “game” the Living Building Challenge which is a complaint occasionally heard with regard to LEED. The LBC standard sets twenty imperatives, grouped into seven petals, which all must be met to be LBC certified. Similarly, LEED does have five main categories (Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, Energy and Atmosphere, Materials and Resources, and Indoor Environmental Quality), but within these categories there are a variety of different points that can be pursued. Other than the prerequisites (each category has between one and three), the design team can pick any of the one hundred points in these categories. The LEED prerequisites are relatively minimal, and it is plausible that a building could achieve LEED certification without obtaining any points in a given category. Thus, an unscrupulous design team could selectively pick the cheapest and easiest credits, which could result in a low performance LEED certified building.

In contrast, there are no optional credits in the Living Building Challenge. Therefore, the design team must carefully consider the impact of every design choice. If a building committee desires a larger building, the design team can accommodate that request, but at the same time must make provisions for providing the extra energy required to sustain the increase square footage. Despite the more stringent requirements of LBC, the Challenge still provides plenty of flexibility to the design team. For example, it does not dictate the balance between energy conservation and energy production (or water conservation and water collection). Rather, it allows the design team to balance the costs of conservation against that of production and pick its preferred equilibrium. If the design team decides to incorporate an enormous photovoltaic array into the project while neglecting relatively simple energy efficiency improvements, the requirements of LBC are not going to stop them.

Arguably, the LBC is much more focused on the ends rather than the means, and those ends are certainly respectable. There are very few, if any, net-zero water use and net-zero energy use LEED buildings, but every single LBC building must achieve those goals. Furthermore, because LBC is contingent upon actual performance, every LBC building will actually meet the stated goals of the program. Numerous owners of LEED buildings have been disappointed by higher than expected energy use. As evidenced by a report published by the USGBC, some LEED Gold and LEED Platinum buildings have substantially higher energy use intensities than the average reported by the Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey (see page 6 of this report). Furthermore, there is low correlation between the level of LEED certification and the actual energy use intensity of the building. LBC removes this uncertainty. If a building is LBC certified, it will truly perform at exceptional levels.

Kellogg House and the Living Building Challenge

The design team will strive to meet the stringent requirements of the LBC while incorporating a wood-framed structure originally constructed in the 1790’s.  This additional layer of challenge will yield lessons for the College and the broader community about deep energy retrofits within existing historic buildings.  This project will provide welcoming, engaging space, even as it meets the most ambitious performance standards.

The transparency of the building’s operation will engage regular occupants and short-term visitors in a deep learning exercise.  This building will be a laboratory for optimizing energy use.  It will challenge the College and the broader community to recognize the problems inherent in the business-as-usual approach to building design, construction, and operation. The building will also provide numerous educational opportunities for the students who use the building. From monitoring the renewable energy systems of the building to maintaining the agricultural gardens and constructed wetlands to overseeing the water systems in the building, students will interact with the building in unique ways and contribute to its success as a Living Building.

The new Kellogg House will be a landmark building.  Projects that follow the path it blazes will contribute solutions to world environmental problems.  Students, administrators and professors who work in this new space will experience this regenerative approach first hand, and the building will be an enthusiastic, engaging teacher.

In addition to being an inviting new home for the Center for Environmental Studies and the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives, Kellogg House truly will be a model global citizen.