The Ultimate Green Building Certification

The Earthship, located in Brighton, England, is an experimental sustainable building with a variety of alternative energy and green technologies. (Photo: Dominic Alves [CC BY-2.0]/Flickr)

I often write about the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED certification system. The LEED rating system is the most popular green building standard in the nation and is at least partly responsible for today's green building trend. However, there are other certification systems out there, one is the Living Building Challenge.

A building can be both LEED certified and meet the criteria set forth in the Living Building Challenge documentation. Just last week, I described the Omega Center for Sustainable Living, which will likely achieve both LEED Platinum certification and Living Building Challenge certification. While buildings must meet extremely stringent standards in order to qualify for Living Building Challenge certification, the system is not designed to replace LEED certification.

The Living Building Challenge is a product of the Cascadia Region Green Building Council. "The purpose of the Living Building Challenge is straightforward – to define the highest measure of sustainability possible in the built environment based on the best current thinking – recognizing that ‘true sustainability’ is not yet possible. The Living Building Challenge is by definition difficult to achieve." Source: Living Building Challenge (PDF)

Criteria for Living Building Challenge certification fall into several different categories: site, energy, materials, water, indoor quality, and beauty and inspiration. Unlike the LEED certification rating systems, there are no points, simply prerequisites. A building must meet every single prerequisite in order to qualify for Living Building Challenge certification. Following is a list of prerequisites.


  • Responsible Site Selection – This includes not building on prime farmland, on a flood plain, or next to sensitive ecological habitats.
  • Limits to Growth – Projects may only be built on previously developed sites.
  • Habitat Exchange – An acre for acre habitat exchange must be set up. A four-acre property must have four acres designated as a non-development area for at least 100 years.


  • Net Zero Energy – Onsite renewable energy must account for 100% of a building’s net energy use, annually.


  • Materials Red List – A project may not use any product or chemical on the Red List. This includes neoprene, lead, mercury, phthalates, and more.
  • Construction Carbon Footprint – The building owner will need to purchase carbon offsets specific to the type of construction and size of the building.
  • Responsible Industry – Wood must be FSC certified, salvaged, or onsite harvested timber.
  • Appropriate Materials/Services Radius – Material must be sourced within a specific distance and this distance varies depending by product. For example, heave materials must be sourced within a 250-mile radius while renewable energy technologies have a 9,000-mile maximum.
  • Leadership in Construction Waste – A minimum percentage of construction waste needs to be diverted from landfills.


  • Net Zero Water – Water use must come from rainwater capture or closed loop water systems.
  • Sustainable Water Discharge – All storm water must be handled onsite.

Indoor Quality

  • A Civilized Environment – If a space in the building can be occupied, it must have a working window.
  • Healthy Air: Source Control – This prerequisite manages chemicals, paints, adhesives, and more.
  • Healthy Air: Ventilation – Buildings must meet California Title 24 requirements.

Beauty and Inspiration

  • Beauty and Spirit – Part of the building design needs to be purely for the aesthetic pleasure of visitors and employees.
  • Inspiration and Education - The building must be open to the public at least one day per year and educational materials must be available.

The Living Building Challenge criteria is not something that the majority of green buildings are able to meet at this time. However, having the system in place will encourage companies to look at a more complete level of sustainability when designing their green buildings.