Miller Hull's Loom House and the Challenge of the Living Building Challenge

The architects create a model for both technical and architectural brilliance.

Loom House interior

Kevin Scott

UPDATE: This post has been revised after receiving more information from the architects.

There are only four residences certified by the Living Building Challenge (LBC) because the certification system is well-named: It is a challenge to pull off the seven "petals" of place, water, energy, health & happiness, materials, equity, and beauty.

After reviewing one of the other houses, I wrote that "every building that meets the LBC is a wonder, a monument to sustainable design, and a testament to the courage and endurance of the people who went through this process."

The Loom House, a renovation of a stunning 1960s modern home on Bainbridge Island in the state of Washington by Miller Hull, demonstrates the strengths of the LBC, but I believe also the weaknesses. It is the toughest standard, and I have often thought too tough; Chris Hellstern, Living Buiding Services Director at Miller Hull, doesn't agree, telling Treehugger:

"It is not that the LBC is too tough, it is that we must change the way we have all been designing and shift the business as usual of an entire design and construction industry in order to more equitably and sustainably design homes and buildings for people and our planet."
exterior from water

Kevin Scott

The architects write:

"The 3,200-square-foot residence consists of a renovated north and south home. Miller Hull worked to improve the building envelope, provide self-sufficient systems and offer updated interiors while maintaining the original architectural character of the home. A new, 725-square-foot detached carport and storage area was added to the property to house the owner’s electrical vehicles and bicycles."

The original house was designed by the late Hal Moldstad, who according to the Loom House homeowner, was "known for a local expression of Pacific Northwest Modernism with a keen eye for integrating place and structure." He also designed homes for Bill Gates and Paul Allen. It's a warm, woody style that delivers vast beautiful views over the water.

Typical housing development

Miller Hull

Many of these have been lost over the years, particularly north of the border in Canada, where the lot gets paved and a giant McMansion gets plopped on the site, much like the sketch above demonstrates. I mean really, who can manage in 3,200 square feet? Credit to the clients here for being willing to squeeze in.

detail through wall

Miller Hull

Instead, the house was modernized and its envelope significantly upgraded. Unlike other standards like Passivhaus, the LBC doesn't specify how much energy it can use per square foot but does insist that it be truly net positive, generating 105% of its energy needs. No fossil fuels are allowed, so one has to reduce the energy demand to where it can be met by the solar panels on the roof.

Living room

Kevin Scott

Thickening up the walls and retaining details like the exposed rafter tails running through the walls is indeed a challenge, but Miller Hull pulled it off.

One enters the house through a magical garden where "a variety of edible berries, as well as vegetables and a mycological foraging forest, will provide urban agriculture for the property."

bridge to house
Curated view from bridge to house.

Kevin Scott

I have long been critical of how the title "architect" has been appropriated by the computer world, but also how "curator" has moved out of the museum, so I have to highlight the marvelous misuse of the term here, by an architect yet: "A new entry bridge curates a path through the mature, 200-foot tall evergreens that guide residents and visitors to a redefined main entry."

Interior modernist design

Kevin Scott

It's always so disturbing when houses like this are lost, so often because the owner says it's not big enough or too hard to heat or cool. Yet Miller Hull somehow managed to find the space needed.

"The home’s previous maze of small rooms was transformed into an open great room with a new stair leading to a lower-level primary suite, replacing an underutilized garage. Triple-glazed windows and skylights throughout the project maintain a connection to the gardens, Puget Sound, and beyond."
site plan and house plans

Miller Hull

The plan includes three buildings; a new garage for the electric cars and bikes now that the lower level has been turned into sleeping, and what is described as a work building.

Workspace at Loon House

Kevin Scott

This just happens to be what is probably the most beautiful home office I have ever seen. It is often the case with architects who are proficient with complicated certification systems like Passivhaus or the LBC are not the kind of architects that make the most beautiful buildings, But Miller Hull has shown with the Bullitt Center, the Kendeda Building (done with Lord Aeck Sargent) and especially Loom House that their design chops are up there with their technical skills.

office at night

Kevin Scott

This point needs to be reiterated. LBC projects are often expensive and difficult—that is why there are so few of them. The house we previously showed plucked all the LBC seven petals but was an architectural jumble. I have written that in LBC projects it seemed that money was no object, but In the Loom House, they worked to control costs by reusing materials and of course, the existing structure, and the architects argue that the mechanical systems in the house itself are not unusual: "Typical equipment like a heat pump with hydronic radiant floor and heat recovery ventilators were employed. These are not expensive nor unique solutions."

water system

Miller Hull

My other usual reservations about LBC apply to the Loom House. The LBC pushes the envelope so far that it's often not even legal. The architects note that "the project team successfully lobbied the City of Bainbridge Island to change the city code to treat grey and black water on-site, paving the way for other residents in the area to follow. "

But the water system is pretty elaborate, all designed with purification to filter out the bird poop and soot from the wildfires, and storage in a 10,000-gallon cistern buried not far away from a septic tank, instead of using municipal water that is tested constantly. There are some things that are done better together, and water is one of them. I have argued this point before with both the Bullitt and Kendeda Buildings, noting:

"Potable municipal water is a collective good that all should be able to depend on; I am not sure that the Living Building Challenge should be promoting making your own. If the rich can make their own drinking water or buy bottled, who is going to stand up for the municipal systems?"

But then, I live in Ontario, Canada, where we have seen what happens when a water system isn't properly maintained.

exterior of house

Ben Schauland

The main problem with LBC is that it is so expensive to do these things. The architects write: "The impact of Loom House has continued to drive the project forward, advocating for change far beyond its property line. From design through construction, the goal of the project was to create a global impact by showing a path to Living Building Challenge Certification for all residential remodels."

But as far as I can tell, LBC doesn't scale like that. I thought that the real impact of the Loom House is that it is and always will be a glorious, magnificent one-of-a-kind. Chris Hellstern of Miller Hull vehemently disagrees with my position, so I will give the last word to him, as I rethink my position on the Living Building Challenge:

"LBC is actually designed to scale exactly like that. Continuing our theme with shifting an entire industry and the way we have built for generations, there must be some projects that take the first steps and show that it is possible and show a path for others. The 28 full LBC projects certified around the world to date are those leaders right now much in the same way that the first LEED projects broke the mold more than 20 years ago. 
Miller Hull’s 5 certified Living Buildings and the dozens of others that are out there now show that designing, building and operating or living this way is absolutely possible. It may take a little more effort. It may take a little more commitment. It may take a lot more reevaluating the importance of human health, equitable communities and the health of our planet, but these projects are about building in a more responsible way. And that is something we can all do better and for the sake of each other, help to scale."
exterior at night

Kevin Scott