Standards for Sustainable Building

I decided to return to a previous series of blog posts that covered sustainable building certifications to explore the Living Building Challenge (LBC). It has and continues to set standards in the building industry. 

We have explored many building and product certifications lately here on The Thread. One of those was the Zero Energy certification which was created by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI). Zero Energy certification is a part of ILFI’s Living Building Challenge. LBC encompasses a building project in its entirety and has set stringent standards for building performance and sustainability. It started as an idea in the 1990s and officially became a certifying agency in 2006.

I think the word “challenge” in LBC is highly appropriate. ILFI and LBC’s standards usually exceed building code requirements and set rigorous requirements for designers and builders alike to create top level sustainable building projects.

Living Building Challenge: Petals and Certification

ILFI and LBC consider the built environment as a living, inner connected system. We all must remember that built environments are made up of systems and processes that affect their occupants’ well being. LBC does this well by approaching the certification requirements with an approach that mimics natural systems. Each petal of the certification requirements represents a component of the living, interconnected systems that make up a building. LBC seeks to reconnect the natural elements of a place with human-made built structures.


The Place Petal sets up projects for success before any building begins. Choosing a site with the intentions of increasing healthy levels of density and creating connections with nature are key to the Place Petal. Healthy density reduces the number of single occupancy vehicle trips and encourages walking, biking, and carpooling.

To support a growing population, new development is unavoidable.  LBC seeks to approach that development in a restorative way. Building sites and their connections to neighboring communities can benefit from reconnection with nature as well as close connection with services that are vital to everyday human lives. 

Within developed areas, LBC requires a pedestrian and human focused approach to developing a site, whether it has been previously built on or not. Pedestrian walkability and access to transportation that does not require fossil fuels in a major component of the Place Petal. This human focused approach also emphasizes a reconnection with nature and food sources. So, urban agriculture should be woven into urban areas and remain visible and accessible. In addition, development should consider existing habitats and find ways to not cause major disturbances to wildlife.


Just like the Place Petal, the Water Petal focuses on responsible use of natural resources. Water should be treated like a precious resource. It has traditionally been treated as a replaceable commodity, but the LBC program knows that potable water shortages are a real and current problem. LBC encourages closed loop systems that involve water collection and smart distribution throughout a building’s systems. It also prevents potable water from being used for irrigation. As we saw in the Place Petal, the Water Petal also prevents habitat degradation by treating stormwater and preventing downstream water pollution.


We covered a major part of the Energy Petal and its intent in the recent blog post Hero to Zero: An Exploration of Zero Energy Certification. LBC certified projects must create 105% of their energy use via on-site carbon-free renewable energy resources. To gain certification, projects must meter their energy use. This avoids scenarios where modeled or designed energy use varies widely from the building’s uses once occupied. In addition to reducing carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion, the Energy Petal also addresses the reduction of carbon embodied in building materials. LBC certified projects must be net positive in terms of carbon emissions. This can be accomplished by carbon sequestering materials as well as purchasing carbon offsets. 

Health + Happiness

LBC ensures its certified building’s occupants have access to healthy air and daylight. It is surprising how many old and new buildings do not provide either of these to their occupants. Access to daylight and outdoor views are vital to healthy and productive building occupants. The connection to nature through views and experiences encourages physical and mental health. Building owners must monitor the health of air and indoor environment as a whole throughout the life of a building. 

Healthy indoor environments often include non toxic cleaning protocols as well as opportunities for occupants to access outdoors and/or be active throughout the day. Additionally, building materials and furnishings should not contain toxic materials or release toxins as they age. 

You are probably starting to notice how each of the Petals ties in with each of the others. This exemplifies how LBC considers a building as an interconnected, living thing.


LBC is dedicated to a regenerative approach to building materials. Sourcing, producing, and transporting building materials has been and continues to be harmful to the environment. Even at the end of a building’s life, the materials used to create it make up a large amount of our country’s waste. 

In addition to regeneration, ILFI supports material transparency via their Declare® program. Declare is a public, online database that shows the ingredient list for materials and products that are certified by ILFI. LBC sets stringent standards for products to include a certain amount of Declare products as well as products certified by other responsible certifiers like FSC and Living Product Challenge. 

LBC also addresses certain types of products that are not allowed in their certified buildings due to certain chemical ingredients. These chemicals are on LBC’s Red List and have proven to degrade healthy interior environments. To continue with healthy indoor environment strategies, LBC makes sure that their certified buildings include responsibly and locally sourced materials. Material waste should also be minimized during all phases of the building’s life, including occupancy. 


I believe the Equity Petal sets LBC even farther ahead of other sustainability certifications. This Petal reaches beyond the physical building and influences the societal impacts of the building. Access for all is an important component of this Petal and is supported by the Principles of Universal Design and the American Disabilities Act (ADA), both requirements of LBC. Equity in LBC projects is achieved from the projects’ concept phases via the requirements for hiring project team members with a Just label. Learn more about Just in this blog post. LBC certified buildings and the programs that go on inside them should seek to provide healthy indoor environments and employment opportunities, especially for those who have not experienced much of either. 


The Beauty Petal is uplifting just to read about. It is substantially more uplifting when implemented in building designs. LBC knows that it cannot define beauty necessarily, but it can emphasize the importance of beautifying our indoor environments. That is often achieved with a biophilic approach to design and providing access to nature. Biophilic design considers humans’ innate need to view, experience, and be near nature and natural elements. It has also proven to be an important contributor to a healthy environment. Biophilic design often includes natural (organic) shapes and forms and patterns. Of course, access to natural lighting and outdoor views is also key. Locally sourced, public art is an important way designers can foster a place based relationship and contribute to the Beauty Petal. In addition to public art, publicly available and visible information about the LBC Certification and the process is required.

Upholding LBC Standards and Values

As someone who works in the building design industry, the Living Building Challenge’s standards seem almost idealistic (as if they could only work in a perfect world). What we all have to grasp is that LBC’s standards are attainable at this very moment. Humans have lived in a way that does not harm the environment around them, up until a few centuries ago. So, really, LBC is a way to return to an ecologically sound way of living while utilizing modern technology. I really appreciate LBC’s approach to building design and the cultural, societal, and ecological effects that design has. LBC’s approach is the necessary approach for the building industry to effectively and quickly make a positive impact on the current climate crisis. 


Image Sources