Living Buildings Seek Positive Environmental Impact

Thursday, March 10, 2016
Mueller Price

Net positive: Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering Jennifer Mueller Price explains the Living Building Challenge to students during a presentation in January. The challenge promotes construction with a net-positive effect on the surrounding environment.

If you can imagine a building that's a lot like a flower, you can understand the Living Building Challenge.

Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering Jennifer Mueller Price, in a talk sponsored by the Rose-Hulman chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World, introduced students to the concept of a living building, something that goes well beyond a traditional green or LEED certified structure.

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified buildings use natural light, recycled materials, a focus on resource and energy efficiency, and other features designed to minimize environmental impact. But the Living Building Challenge goes further. Its goal is to eliminate negative environmental impact completely, even producing a net positive effect, like a naturally growing flower.

"The Living Building Challenge basically takes [sustainability] to the next level," Mueller Price says.

In the Living Building Challenge framework, buildings are seen as living systems that produce their own energy, water, heating, and cooling, while also providing healthy places to live or work. To achieve living building status, structures should (among other things) be in automobile-free zones, compost their own sewage, use rainwater for drinking, and meet their energy needs from completely renewable sources, such as wind or solar power. In fact, living buildings are expected to produce more energy than they use on an annual basis.

The challenge was introduced in 2014 by the International Living Future Institute based in Seattle, Washington, a not-for-profit organization whose stated mission is to promote the "transformation toward communities that are socially just, culturally rich, and ecologically restorative."

Jennifer Mueller House

Bucking convention: A geodesic dome inspired by American architect Buckminster Fuller requires fewer resources to provide a comfortable and energy-efficient home for professor Jennifer Mueller Price and her family.

So far, only a handful of buildings around the world are certified as full-fledged living buildings, including the new Bullitt Center in Seattle, a $30-million, 50,000-square foot, six-story commercial office building. Among other things, the Bullitt Center uses solar energy, has windows that open and close automatically based on the weather, and has special toilets that use a foamy soap solution, about one cup of water per flush, and gravity to deliver sewage into composting equipment in the building's basement

Mueller Price practices sustainability at home by living with her family in an energy-efficient geodesic dome in Clay County. Although her home is not a living building, it did require fewer building materials than a home of similar size and has a dramatically lower carbon footprint. In the summer, due to excellent air circulation, hot air leaves the dome through windows at the top of the dome while open windows at the bottom allow in cooler air. In winter, closing up the windows locks warmer air inside.

"There have been summers when we've had to use the air conditioner maybe three weeks," she says.

Sustainability is something that should be a part of any engineering design project from the very beginning, Mueller Price believes. And the Living Building Challenge sets a new standard for what is possible.

"To me, [sustainable design] is just a smarter way of doing things," she says. "We have limited resources on our planet. It's just the responsible thing to do."