How I was inspired to create transformative change, and how you might be too: A report from the International Living Future Conference

Authored by: Andy Cox Published on: July 01, 2019

In May, I was fortunate to experience the International Living Future Conference in Seattle. The conference organizer, the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), uses social and environmental justice principles while “working to build an ecologically-minded, restorative world” for everyone. Its programs are centered around three Challenge certifications: the Living Building Challenge, the Living Community Challenge, and the Living Product Challenge. Each of these certifications comprises seven performance categories — or Petals:20190421_152451

  • Place Petal: Restoring a healthy interrelationship with nature
  • Water Petal: Creating developments that operate within the water balance of a given place and climate
  • Energy Petal: Relying only on current solar income, and produce more energy than they need (i.e. be net positive energy)
  • Health and Happiness Petal: Creating environments that optimize physical and psychological health and well-being
  • Materials Petal: Endorsing products that are safe for all species through time
  • Equity Petal: Supporting a just and equitable world
  • Beauty Petal: Celebrating plans that purpose transformative change

The different petals are linked to each other. For example, if a building recycles its water and generates its own energy with solar panels, it’s saving its own energy while also saving the energy that the city would use to treat and pump the water – what they call the water-energy nexus.

It’s ILFI’s intention that the Challenge concept will eventually extend to our cities, countries, and the whole earth. It is a bottom-up solution to the environmental crisis we are facing.

My Living Future Conference highlight: The Bullitt Center

20190501_095241One of the conference highlights was visiting the Bullitt Center, which was a steep 20-minute walk from downtown Seattle. The Center is described as the greenest commercial building in the world and the first building to achieve all seven Petals.

The Bullitt Center is net positive energy with its solar panels delivering excess electricity to the grid. The building treats rainwater for drinking and treats greywater for infiltration to the local aquifer. All fecal matter is composted, and the compost is given to the community. The goal of the Bullitt Center is to drive change in the marketplace faster and further by showing what’s possible today. The creators of the Bullitt Center believe that the era of harm reduction, half steps, and lesser evils is behind us. As a society, we need to be bold in ways that were once unimaginable.

Sustainable living at every scale

I loved that the conference looked at the challenge of sustainable living at various scales. One of my favorite presentations was titled: “NOT SO Small Talks About Inspirational Pioneers, Extraordinary Lifestyles, Fresh Codes + Deeply Collaborative Calls to Action.” It focused on “tiny living” — how reducing our living space is the most effective step individuals can take to reduce their carbon footprint.

Builder, teacher, and author Dee Williams presented her positive experience of selling her big house and moving into a tiny home of only 80 square feet — which she placed into her friend’s back yard. Engineers tend to think about how technologies can be applied to sustainability, but by far the most efficient thing we can do is reduce consumption of non-renewable , and this includes space.  

We can also use the Challenge concept as a lens through which we view our projects and business operations. However, you don’t have to aim for a specific certification to apply the principles. I have a few thoughts on how we can do this — it’s not a comprehensive list but is aimed at sowing inspirational seeds.

Place Petal

Every business exists in a specific place within a unique natural ecology and community. It’s important for organizations to engage with communities to assist in environmental and social justice. Haley & Aldrich walks that walk — we have an active volunteer program that includes Engineers Without Borders, Habitat for Humanity, local food banks, community gardens, and presenting at local schools. Not only does this contribute to the Place Petal but also contributes to health, happiness, and the beauty of positive transformation.

The Place Petal is all about conserving space: Projects may only be built on greyfields or brownfields: previously developed sites that are not classified as on or adjacent to any of the sensitive ecological habitats. It is satisfying to know that Haley & Aldrich’s remediation of contaminated sites for future development helps projects achieve the Place Petal.

Water Petal

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The Water Summit started with a fascinating talk on the holistic nature of water, from our cells to the cosmos. The most likely origin of water on earth is believed to be water-rich meteoroids — which, to me, is mind blowing. Even when you think you’re looking at something holistically, there’s always a more holistic way to look at it.

There was much discussion about distributed water treatment systems that could work together with central municipal utility plants to reduce infrastructure costs and improve resiliency — almost like an internet of water. It’s similar to how tree roots are connected by vast networks of mycelium through which the trees can “communicate” and share nutrients. The ideas of resilient and redundant systems should be at the forefront of all project decisions.

Energy Petal

The Carbon Summit focused on limiting the “embodied carbon” in buildings. This is the carbon that is generated during all phases of a project or while manufacturing a product. I enjoyed how the architects, riffing on the phrase “form follows function,” said that “form follows carbon.” Addressing climate change is not just about CO2 emissions from our vehicles and energy generation, but about carbon through the entire lifecycle of projects. We can all adopt this holistic view of the carbon cycle through the materials we specify.

Health and Happiness Petal

There are many reasons why I was so inspired by the Bullitt Center. One of the most beautiful things about it was the way the architects had designed an attractive staircase that encourages people to use it. While there is an elevator, it’s hidden around a corner. By contrast, in the office building where I work, the door to the stairs is hidden behind the elevators and is actually locked. Yes, design an energy efficient elevator, but first encourage people not to use one at all. Less is more.

Materials Petal

20170806_111834The Carbon Summit generated much discussion about net negative carbon buildings — that is, buildings that sequester more carbon than was used to building them. One way to achieve this is by using wood, but only if it’s sustainably forested. I dropped by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) booth to find out more about certification. It was interesting to hear how trees in FSC-certified forests are not clear-cut but felled individually throughout a forest to preserve the ecosystem.

You can’t build skyscrapers out of wood, but there was discussion of other carbon sequestering materials. One example is CarbonCure, where CO2 is injected into the concrete as part of the manufacturing process, basically locking it in forever.

For every project we should be thinking about the carbon footprint of materials. One tool to help with the selection is the Carbon Smart Materials Palette. Also, I like their Whole Building Approach to carbon reduction. Often carbon-smart materials have comparable costs to conventional materials.

Equity Petal

How does social equity contribute to fighting and adapting climate change? This was the main theme of the keynote speeches culminating with one by Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland and founder of the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice. In her latest book “Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future,” she describes how the most disadvantaged are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change even when they have not contributed significantly to the cause.

We can only effectively address climate change and its impact if we all pull together with a shared sense of destiny. In terms of the Living Building Challenge, one of the imperatives is that projects “must promote the business practices of organizations that support a responsible, equitable living future.” Let’s start by building equity into our own organizations. The progress a business makes can by gauged by frameworks such as ILFI’s JUST label.

Beauty Petal

One part of the Beauty Petal is to provide an educational aspect to a building. The Bullitt Center conducts tours, displays informational signs, and has an educational website. On any project it is a beautiful thing when we share the technical challenges we addressed and share lessons learned. When we implement projects in public space, like green infrastructure, we should take the opportunity to explain how the project is helping to achieve Petals.

A big sustainability concept, and one promoted by ILFI, is the idea of biophilia, that people benefit from the restoration of their intrinsic deep connection to nature. There has been an emphasis on this in the design of working spaces. Google, who was strongly represented at the conference, for example, has introduced biophilic design into some of its workspaces. The least we can all do is bring in a plant for our desks!

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Overall, ILFI provides a framework of Petals that helps us grow our businesses and manage our projects in a just and sustainable way that benefits everyone. And, each of us can start applying the Challenge concept to our daily lives — a kind of living-life challenge. We could all use less water, energy, and single-use plastic. We can all contribute more to our communities. We all have the power to create transformative change, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable problems.

All photos taken by Andy Cox.

Andy Cox

Andy Cox is a Technical Expert at Haley & Aldrich with over 25 years of experience as a civil and environmental engineer, project manager, and construction manager. He is a Professional Engineer in California and a Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers in the United Kingdom. Andy is passionate about protecting the environment, promoting social justice, and using art as a tool for positive social change.

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