A couple of weeks ago I attended the Living Future unConference in Seattle, Washington, USA, organized by the International Living Future Institute, the managing body for one of the most ambitious and visionary environmental building certifications available in the world – the Living Building Challenge. Two weeks later, I was again fortunate enough to attend the introduction of this certification here in Italy at the REGENERATION competition and conference hosted by Macro Design Studio in Rovereto, Italy. Here are my impressions from both events…


LF15 - Place and Community

“The end of incrementalism, and the beginning of being.”

That’s really what this organization’s mission is – to stop making excuses for not using the best that building science has to offer, and to start insisting on actual best practices. “Best practices” not as defined by the current construction market, but instead defined by the word “best”.

Example: What is the absolute best option for water management? Net positive water. The water that arrives on the site is used for the site’s needs, and any water that is expelled from the site leaves in an equal or better quality than it entered. Why should anything less than that ever be acceptable, when the knowledge and the technology to do this already exists?

The Living Building Challenge basically just draws the line in the sand. It doesn’t weigh itself down with assigning points for incremental steps here and there. It simply asks you to meet the objective of creating the best buildings we can create. Each of the 20 required imperatives to obtain the certification is aimed at that goal.

So what happens when a group of trail blazing, innovative, sustainable design professionals (who, by the way, spend the majority of their days tirelessly attempting to drag their industry-standard counterparts into the 21st century) get together for a conference together in Seattle? Well… excessive joy, motivation, inspiration and general happiness, of course (as is evident from the photo above)!

To be among a group of people with shared goals and visions – a group to whom you don’t have to explain why mechanical ventilation is necessary, a group that is already familiar with passive standards and has surpassed them, creating buildings that actually contribute energy and sequester carbon – it reminds us all that we are not crazy for pushing the barriers here in our local communities.

If anything, it puts those local man-made barriers (such as restrictive legislation and outdated mentalities) into a global perspective that makes them seem so insignificant compared to the barriers facing communities with actual problems – those with no rainfall or those with few material resources, for example.

So, within this atmosphere of encouragement and exploration, what lessons were learned at the Living Future unConference?

Keynote on biomimicry by Janine Beynus:

Right off the bat, any outsider could tell that this was not your average building industry conference with the selection of Janine Beynus, biomimicry expert, as the keynote speaker. I think, at least from my experience, biomimicry and biophilia are still kind of disregarded by many industry professionals as a “hippie” or extremist approach to design, when in reality the science of learning lessons from nature is an incredibly valid and essential way of developing building technology.

Beynus delivered a fantastic speech, calling on us to stop making things so difficult and instead to just look to nature for queues. She presented the concept that “goodness organizes itself” and discussed about how we can achieve the “adjacent possible”. She also reminded us that “awakening the awe” in building standards should be a priority; why is beauty and inspiration not a prerequisite in the built environment?

But one of my favorite parts was a simple concept that is often forgotten in the confusion of everything that is involved with being human: “we are not the first to seek shelter”. So why reinvent fire*? Why not think about what nature would do or not do on a particular site?

If you’re interested in learning more about biomimicry, check out the Biomimicry Institute.

Lessons on material toxicity:

The sheer volume of information covered in the dozens of education sessions during the conference would be impossible to cover in any detail, but I will mention a couple of things that caught my attention over the course of the program:

I attended a session on “moving toward a toxin-free world” in which Bill Walsh from Healthy Building Network stopped me in my tracks with some statistics on toxicity in building materials. He was describing the regulation (or lack thereof) of toxins in construction materials in the US, and – at the risk of misrepresenting the information – he said something to the effect of the following:

In the 1990’s 60k+ industrial chemicals (of the 80k+ in existence) were basically grandfathered into legal acceptance simply because they were already prevalent in many typical building materials. Only 20 of them had ever been tested for safety, and of those only 5 are under any sort of regulation in the US.

Later in the session, it was presented that a baby born in the US today comes into the world with over 300 industrial chemicals in his/her blood stream. All but two of those can be traced back to building products. In other words, our buildings are poisoning us even in the womb.

I’d be very interested to know how existing European regulations compare with the US for building materials. As far as I know, there is more restriction here on personal care products (shampoo, lotions, etc). For example, I know my ex-favorite shampoo from the US is actually banned in Europe for one of its cancer-causing materials that I blithely applied to my head for years before moving to Italy. But the only example of a building material with stricter regulations that I can think of (admittedly without know anything at all about this subject) is spray-foam insulation, which has been much more controversial here in Europe than in the US as far as I know.

The conversation does lead one to ask… why has this stuff been allowed at all in any of our products? Who thought that was a good idea? What happened to the precautionary principle?

Transparency in building products:

Later in the conference, ILFI introduced their latest initiative, Living Product Challenge, which uses a tool called Declare to increase transparency in building materials and challenge manufacturers to exclude toxins from their products. Just as a food product has a nutrition label, so should our building products have ingredients lists and toxicity information. There are already some early adopters of the program who have reformulated their products to exclude toxins in favor of natural ingredients.

At the REGENERATION conference in Italy, Amanda Sturgeon (the Executive Director of ILFI) cited an example of a company that substituted vinegar into the formula of their product and found $1 million in profits as a consequence in the first year. As it turns out, when given the choice, people prefer to not have toxins in their materials.

Environmental footprints versus handprints:

Another concept referred to frequently throughout the conference was the notion of the environmental handprint. Many are now familiar with the online tools available to help us estimate our environmental footprints by calculating our annual impact on the environment due to our decisions about transportation, food, and living habits. But what about the regenerative actions that we take? What about the support we provide to others seeking to reduce their environmental footprints? What about the impact we can have on others by increasing their awareness about important topics? ILFI refers to this measurement of our environmental handprint to encourage us to go beyond reducing our negative impact to increasing our positive impact. Read more here.. 

Living buildings as laboratories of proof:

I think the most important take-away from this conference, and one that is essential in communicating effectively (especially here in Italy), is the fact that Living Buildings exist. They are out there. They have been constructed. And they work. Not only do they work, but they are beautiful. So there’s no reason anyone can say it’s not possible. It’s already been done. We have to stop making excuses.

How I would have loved to have rounded up the key decision makers from town councils across Italy and had them seated in front of Amanda Sturgeon as she presented Living Building Challenge to its first Italian audience at REGENERATION, a design competition for young professionals based on the LBC protocol and the first formal introduction of this standard in Italy. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Carlo Battisti and Paola Moschini at the Seattle conference (as we were the only three visiting from Italy to my knowledge), and they in turn invited me to attend the launching of the new Italian Collaborative for the Living Future Institute, which took place this past weekend. Speakers Amanda Sturgeon, Martin Brown, Sue Clark, and Emanuele Naboni presented various aspects of the tasks ahead for Italy.

I enjoyed watching the faces of the professionals in the audience as Amanda described the simple but ambitious imperative of the water “petal” (section) of the certification,

One hundred percent of the project’s water needs must be supplied by captured precipitation or other natural closed loop water systems, and/or by re-cycling used project water, and must be purified as needed without the use of chemicals. All stormwater and water discharge, including grey and black water, must be treated onsite and managed either through re-use, a closed loop system, or infiltration.

many of whom perhaps wondered if the translator misspoke. It made me realize how much of this battle is simple communication. How do you break through the barrier that people think treating sewage onsite is impossible? How do you convince someone that a composting toilet works and isn’t disgusting?

One way is you take them to the Bullitt Center in Seattle and show them to the bathroom, as was done with the conference attendees at LF15. But it’s not quite as simple as that here in Italy. We have no Bullitt Center to show… yet.

#REGENERATION: How can Living Building Challenge find roots Italy?

As with any movement, the first key is strong leadership. My brief encounters with Carlo and Paola from Macro Design Studios have left me with the impression that they are modest and serious professionals with a real passion for bringing Living Building to Italy. The REGENERATION competition this past weekend was a preliminary look at the questions that might arise first here in Italy in response to the Living Building Challenge’s imperatives, especially with regard to building reuse.

In my mind, the water petal suffered the most criticism from the audience, as much of its success depends on shifts in local legislations. That’s a lot of difficult political work over a span of thousands of legislative bodies and committees throughout Italy. The materials section, while also a daunting hurdle, relies on the involvement of Italian manufacturers, many of whom now source materials from outside Italy. There may be more room to make advancements there because of strong brands like Made in Italy that rely on local identity.

However these strong regional, provincial, and sometimes even city level cultural identities that define Italy are often also what prevent it from moving forward. Because a Living Building has never been completed in Italy, it’s easy for many building professionals here to default to saying “Ecco, perché é così qui in Italia. Non si può fare” (translation: “because that’s how it is here. It can’t be done”).

This reaction, which often frustrates me on a level that is difficult to communicate without outrage, is initially interpreted by us foreigners as defeatist and pessimistic. In reality it is simply a cultural defense mechanism that has been formulated from centuries of invading cultures and wary natives. We have to remember that ‘no’ does not mean ‘no’ in Italy. At the risk of going off topic, please allow me to pull a previous quote of mine from a discussion about learning to converse in Italian:

The complex combination of Italian language and culture requires that a conversation has a certain degree of push and pull — a certain degree of suffering balanced by persistence, of beauty balanced by frustration, and of anger balanced by passion.

It doesn’t matter if we are trying to make the same point or reach the same conclusion. Without this tugging back and forth, it’s as if the content of the conversation loses its validity. We have to disagree a bit before we can agree. Hypothetical situations have to be proposed and dismissed. Rhetorical questions have to be asked and mocked. Sensations of both guilt and justification have to be expressed by both sides. We have to dance.

So, you see, the Living Building Challenge will have to dance a bit with Italy.

Success in Rovereto will not necessarily mean success in Reggio Emilia for example (as evidenced by LEED’s progression in Italy). I think the key to promoting Living Building here in Italy is to tap into the local communities who want to improve their cities, towns and villages. Relative to the cultures I have been exposed to, the role of the building professional in Italy is not in a position to carry this message on its own – a notion which is part of a larger conversation about how professional work is valued in Italy. But for an initiative like Living Building Challenge that can be communicated directly to the inhabitants of those buildings, there may be better results by getting parents interested through educational initiatives with their kids, and by getting town councils interested through presentations to their non-professional citizens.

Most importantly, we have to start the dialogue here in Italy. So, if you’re an Italian (or an immigrant to Italy) reading this, please tell me what you think in the comment field below.


*no slight intended toward RMI, which really IS reinventing fire in an impactful way!

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