Living Building Challenge in New York: If it can make it there, it will make it anywhere

croton dam
CC BY 2.0 Croton Dam/ Wikipedia

LEED is for wimps. If you want a really green building certification, it's the Living Building Challenge, the toughest standard around. I have called it "an aspirational standard that tries to define the best of everything, including beauty, biophilia and equity."

It's so tough that some of it is actually illegal in most jurisdictions. Water is probably the toughest; the standard requires that " One hundred percent of the project’s water needs must be supplied by captured precipitation or other natural closed loop water systems". Good luck with this; as the LBC notes:

Currently, such practices are often illegal due to health, land use and building code regulations (or because of the undemocratic ownership of water rights) that arose precisely because people were not properly safeguarding the quality of their water. Therefore, reaching the ideal for water use means challenging outdated attitudes and technology with decentralized site- or district-level solutions that are appropriately scaled, elegant and efficient.

Over at BuildingGreen, Tristan Roberts writes about how one group is trying to deal with water for projects in New York City. Because there is one fundamental problem with the Living Building Challenge with both its water and energy petals: It doesn't do density very well. Tristan writes of the research by the Living Building Collaborative of New York City and New Jersey:

According to Collaborative facilitator Jennifer Preston, sustainable design director for BKSK Architects, hurdles to LBC in New York City appear to push it over a line from merely daunting to simply unachievable. “That's what our entire mission is,” she told BuildingGreen: “To solve the urban model problem” for LBC.

Bullitt center waterBullitt Center water purification system/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I have been thinking of this issue since I visited the Bullitt Center in Seattle last spring. It collects rainwater from its solar panelled hat and runs it through a very expensive water purification system. Rainwater is collected in a 56,000 gallon cistern and then fed through various filtration systems and treated with chlorine, a legal requirement. But chlorine is on the red list of banned materials so the water is then dechlorinated with charcoal. To top it all off, it has not yet even been approved for use by the municipality.

Mountains in distanceMountains in the distance, from top of Bullitt Center/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Everyone else gets pretty good water. Seattle municipal water doesn't get collected from an urban rooftop, but from those snow-covered mountains seen in the distance from the top of the Bullitt Center, from 100,000 acres in two protected watersheds.

Since both watersheds are publicly owned, Seattle Public Utilities makes sure that the land and water is free of agricultural, industrial, residential and recreational use. This means that contaminants have little opportunity to enter the water, making our water some of the best in the nation, and requiring less treatment than most other cities. More than forty people, including biologists and hydrologists, education staff, watershed inspectors, and maintenance people work to protect the watersheds.

new york water systemNew York City Government/Public Domain

Back in New York, the water system is even more extraordinary. I wrote about it earlier:

Very farsighted people built the New York water supply system, starting with the Croton reservoirs built between 1842 and WW1, and the Catskill system started in 1927. Altogether 1,900 square miles of land containing pristine lakes and reservoirs supply approximately 1.4 billion gallons of water each day to nearly 9 million people in New York City and surrounding counties. It is pure, clean, and unfiltered.

It is also inspected and tested constantly. Meanwhile, north of the border in Ontario, Canada, the government decided a few years ago that water systems could be privatized to save money. In Walkerton Ontario, the two guys responsible for monitoring and adding the chlorine were drinking on the job and falsifying records; in a town of 5,000, 5 died and 2500 became ill. Water is tricky stuff and the ramifications of screwing up are severe. There are some things that are done better at a collective municipal level and historically, going back to 1854 and John Snow's famous pump handle, water is one of them.

Then there is the issue of density; it is often easy to get enough water to service a one storey home off its roof, but what about when you start dividing it among more floors? There isn't enough of it. There is the same problem with electricity, which in the living building challenge also has to be generated on site from solar power. In Seattle they actually had to build out over the sidewalks with their big hat because they calculated that the roof wasn't big enough. (It was) This is not something that urbanists should encourage, streets are for people, not solar panels. Tristan writes:

“There might be some technically feasible way of making a high-density building net-zero,” says Christopher Starkey, project manager at Terrapin Bright Green, and a co-author of the paper. But “technically feasible and practically feasible are different,” he points out. Although LBC is known for projects that push the envelope, Starkey worries about the high costs, embodied energy, and operating energy that might be required to bring in enough water. And, he asks, “Is that practical given the context of this place where we have an incredibly sustainable water supply?”

One of the reasons we live in cities is to share resources and to pay for civic infrastructure and services that help everyone. If those who can afford to pull out of the municipal infrastructure, who pays for it? Where do you draw the line? To carry the Living Building Challenge to its logical extreme, the building should have a rooftop or vertical farm to grow all its food, a few chickens and a cow. (This was done in New York in 1904, why not?)

In 1654 John Donne wrote

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

Outside of the gender issues, he had a point. Perhaps a greater good is served by supporting a water system that is used by everyone for the benefit of everyone, instead of trying to do it on your own. Fortunately the Living Building Challenge people are pretty smart and aware of these issues; Eric Corey Freed of the LBC tells Tristan that "What the New York Collaborative is doing I’d like to see groups around the country and the world do. It’s pushing the dialogue forward about how we get to a living future." We all agree on that.

Living Building Challenge in New York: If it can make it there, it will make it anywhere
But there are problems trying to make it work in the big city, mostly to do with water.

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