Sustainability Ethics: Living Building Challenge

(Paper 2) The following information has been adapted from a poster created for the Bucknell Sustainability Symposium.

Symposium Vertical (3)

Living Building Challenge

The Living Building Challenge is a green building certification program. It was created and continues to be run by the International Living Future Institute. This organization is a non-profit organization dedicated to sustainability in the built environment. The construction industry has an immense carbon footprint and contributes greatly to climate change. Green building design and implementation can greatly reduce these impacts. An important aspect of LBC specifically is that it needs to be considered in planning, design, construction, and maintenance. This is the full life cycle of a building, not just design. Therefore, institutions planning to implement such a project need to begin planning very early, as well as include many important parties in this process early on. In order to encourage this full life cycle approach, LBC uses seven performance areas, called petals: site, water, energy, health, materials, equity, and beauty. Within each petal, imperatives focus on 20 specific key influences and performances of a project.



The petals are a very important aspect of the Living Building Challenge. Every green building rating system has some unique method to categorize the initiatives necessary for certification. These allow project teams to focus on each category at a specific time. They also allow teams to distribute work to team members with specific skills and competencies. This can be very helpful throughout the project because the building industry covers topics that are wide and varied.

The Site Petal specifies locations in which it is appropriate to build. It does not allow greenfield development and rather encourages grey or brownfield development. It also articulates methods to protect natural habitats and restore developed areas. This petal also focuses greatly on pedestrian accessibility and compact communities. One of the goals of this petal is to create a self-sustaining community through local food production as well.

The Water Petal strives to limit water consumption and realign water as a precious resource. It achieves this through several imperatives. Perhaps the most important imperative is net zero water, requiring all water to be captured from rainwater and enter into a closed loop system. This promotes water harvesting, water reuse, and respect for the natural hydrology.

The Energy Petal promotes design that is dependent on renewable energy sources and eliminates pollution. The imperative within this petal calls for net zero energy. This focuses on clean, renewable energy sources, such as solar power. It also promotes innovation to design highly efficient buildings.

The Health Petal is intended to ensure healthy spaces for living and working. This petal focuses on the major conditions that connect occupant comfort to environmental impacts. Some requirements of this petal include operable windows in occupied spaces, specific ventilation rates, and biophilic design elements.

The Materials Petal strives for use of materials that do not have any harmful impact on the environment. In doing so, this petal pushes the industry toward a non-toxic, transparent, and socially equitable economy. Specifically, there is a “redlist” that prohibits the use of chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons or phthalates. They also push industry professionals to advocate to companies to change their existing products to meet these requirements, creating industry-wide reform.

The Equity Petal is centered on the idea that societies that embrace all sectors of humanity are in the best position to foster environmental progress. This petal encourages design that promotes a sense of community. It promotes shared spaces and equal access to necessities and amenities.

The Beauty Petal is intended to elevate spirits. Unlike the other petals, it is simply based on genuine efforts and asks for self-reporting. It also includes an educational component that promotes public engagement with the building before, during, and after construction.

Sustainability Ethics

Sustainability is an inherently ethical field of work. Most people understand sustainability as an effort to address environmental, social, and economic issues in society. Sustainability as an ethical field of study, however, is a relatively new field and therefore employs a wide variety of opinions and ideas. For the purpose of this project, it was helpful to synthesize the vast amount of information available and focus on several aspects of sustainability ethics. Following are three key principles of sustainability ethics that, for the purpose of this project, are the most important principles. Each of these principles is then connected to key imperatives within the Living Building Challenge.

Precautionary Principle

The precautionary principle states that the current generation has a duty to all future generations to leave a healthful, beneficial, and non-harmful inheritance. This includes a healthy environment, safe infrastructure, and useful resources. This principle is important in the decisions that designers and contractors make in the building planning process. The principle states that actions cannot be made if they are known to have harmful effects in some longer time frame. Additionally, actions cannot be made if the long-term effects of some action are unknown. The precautionary principle emphasizes the idea that all of the actions of the current generation can greatly impact the well-being of future generations.

Reversibility Principle

The reversibility principle states that any action should not be performed unless it is proven that it can be reversed. This principle is important for sustainability because it enables projects to change with their environment and respect the natural space they inhabit. With this principle, nothing should be built, removed, or modified if it cannot be undone. This is particularly important for buildings because they are traditionally thought of as permanent structures. They are built with the intention that they will remain in perpetuity and any attempts to undo the construction may pose a great challenge.

Polluter Pays Principle

The polluter pays principle addresses the issue that a great deal of harm has already been inflicted on the natural environment. This principle states that any individual or group that creates pollution or other harm must pay the cost to remove it completely. This is important because the cost of removing harmful effects should not be the burden of society overall. This principle can be very difficult to implement because of the intangibility of many pollution sources. In building construction, this principle is very important because of the large impact this industry typical has on the environment and climate change.



The Living Building Challenge promotes sustainability in its range of petals and imperatives. There are many elements of the Living Building Challenge that enable the designers and builders to act within the realm of sustainability ethics. Each petal includes different principles in a variety of ways.

Precautionary Principle

The Living Building Challenge incorporates the precautionary principle in petals such as site and beauty. Infrastructure for an entire community is a focus of the Living Building Challenge. The Site Petal strives for pedestrian and bike-friendly communities with public parks and recreation space that are useful for the current generation as well as future generations. These spaces encourage community engagement and involvement. They also promote cleaner methods of travel. Pedestrian and bicycle travel do not have the harmful effects on the atmosphere like traditional vehicle travel. This reduction in vehicle emissions can greatly impact the state of the atmosphere and create a healthier living environment for future generations.

The Site Petal also requires any new construction to take place on greyfields or brownfields. Greyfields are defined as previously commercially developed sites while brownfields are previously industrially developed sites. By remediating and developing these sites, the builder creates value in inherited land, rather than developing in untouched greenfields. This untouched environment will remain natural and healthy for future generations. In addition, the Living Building Challenge requires a habitat exchange for any amount of land that is taken by the footprint of the new construction. This exchange requires preservation of natural land for perpetuity. This initiative saves natural habitat for future generations of plants, animals, and people. These future generations will then have the opportunity to appreciate natural land and preserve the biodiversity of such space.

Projects are encouraged and expected to incorporate community education features into the building design and maintenance. Projects find unique and creative ways to make this happen, whether it is holding classes about green building design, hosting an annual open house, or providing frequent tours of the facility. The focus on education is important to the future of building design. This will help inspire the next generation of designers, builders, and community members to live and build sustainably.

Reversibility Principle

The Living Building Challenge incorporates the precautionary principle in petals such as water and energy. One of the most important elements of a project is the focus on water independence. Projects are required to achieve net zero water, monitored over one year. Due to the increasing scarcity of fresh water worldwide, any drawdown of water can be detrimental. It is imperative that water conservation become a common practice because its depletion is irreversible.

The Energy Petal is imperative to ensure energy conservation. Living Buildings are required to achieve net zero energy, monitored over one year. This initiative will begin to stop the use of non-renewable energy sources. When these resources are used up, there is no way to reverse the effects. This petal encourages the use of renewable, clean energy sources such as solar, wind, and geothermal. This can eliminate the risk of irreversible resource depletion.

Polluter Pays Principle

The Living Building Challenge incorporates the polluter pays principle primarily in the site petal. The Living Building Challenge strives to endorse products that are safe for the environment. The redlist specifies materials that are prohibited in the building construction because of their harmful effects on the environment. Unfortunately, it is not yet possible to achieve a net zero impact with regard to building materials. Therefore, the project must account for this pollution through a carbon offset. This requires detailed documentation of every material used on site and a repayment of any potentially harmful effects. For any pollution the materials might create, the project must pay to remediate them.

Manmade structures are an imposition to the surrounding environment. Among other things, they create aesthetic blemishes on the natural world. To account for this imposition, projects must incorporate specific biophilic design elements into its design. This includes pictures, structures, and other elements that mimic the design of a natural element. This does not completely rid the environment of the unnatural element, but it accounts for its impact by creating new elements.


The building industry can have great impacts on the natural environment. It is one of the leading contributors to climate change and global warming. The Living Building Challenge provides designers, builders, and owners with an opportunity to act sustainably and create buildings that do not contribute to this harm. While sustainability ethics is a relatively new field of study, it is clear that several key principles are inherently important aspects of green building design. The Living Building Challenge incorporates elements of each of the key principles throughout its seven petals. Ultimately, it is fair to conclude that the Living Building Challenge is a sustainably ethical green building certification program.


2 thoughts on “Sustainability Ethics: Living Building Challenge

  1. The idea that a building is a blemish, always, seems extreme to me. It locks humans, compared to our own history and all other creatures, in an impossible role of being absent from our environment. All animals disturb the environment when they seek shelter. Would we say birds mar trees with nests? Corals mar the seabed with their um, whatever they are? Spiders with their webs?

    I would rather see a principle that states that our habitats are in harmony, follow the precautionary principle and so on.

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