Nature-lovers who pay attention to the weather may have opened their windows and sliding glass doors in the evening from March through most of May this year. The unseasonably temperate spring meant they could cool their homes at night using only cross-currents and the outside air. In the morning, when it started to warm up, they may have closed the windows and blinds, containing the fresh air inside and delaying the need for AC. I did this. Alas, by the first week of June, it was too hot to open the windows before bed. But knowing the outside temp would drop below the setting of our thermostat just a few hours later, I said to my husband, “If only we had little fairies who could go around and open the windows for us at 2 a.m. We could keep cooling off the house at night for free!”

Though I didn’t know it, what I was wishing for was a Living Building, the new gold standard in green design and construction. Conceived by the International Living Future Institute, an offshoot of the Cascadia Building Council, a Living Building allows people to interact with nature through their homes. (Imagine an electronic system that senses when the outside temperature drops below the thermostat setting and enacts a mechanical system to open the windows while you sleep). Rather than a static structure, it’s a flexible, growing thing that responds to your needs and flourishes under your care.

Support comes from

Only one Living Building is on the drawing board in Southern Nevada: the Ruffin Organic Food & Learning Center at the Alexander Dawson School. At the center’s groundbreaking in June, school officials and members of the design and build teams expressed a mix of hope and trepidation typical to those tackling their first Living Building. “When — or should I say, ‘If’? — it gets done, it will be the first of its kind,” Guy Martin, president of Martin-Harris Construction, said.

“It’s a high bar, yes,” says Eric Corey Freed, vice president of global outreach for the International Living Future Institute. “When it first came out, people said it was impossible. Like, friends of ours said that. But it’s certainly not out of reach.” Today, by his count, there are 270 certified Living Buildings in the world, spread across 18 countries.

To encourage adoption of the vision and offer certification for those who realize it, the International Living Future Institute developed the Living Building Challenge. It invites architects, designers, builders and their clients to rethink their impact on the world: rather than simply minimizing harm to the environment, as LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certification requires, the Living Building Challenge asks participants to actually better their surroundings.

“Living Building starts where LEED leaves off,” says Paul Toplak, vice president of operations for Martin-Harris Construction. “It’s a pretty radical idea, more cutting-edge.”

Which means it also pushes people out of their comfort zones.

“The LEED process is more familiar for us as designers,” Deborah Bergin, project manager for architects LGA, says. “Living Building is a new way of looking at things. … It presents a lot of challenges.”

No one will place bets on whether the Dawson School and its design-build teams from Martin-Harris and LGA will overcome those challenges and earn their Living Building stripes. The process takes years, and many obstacles — water foremost among them — stand in the way. But one thing’s for sure: Just trying to get there will transform everyone involved.

To be good

“We work closely with LEED. It recognizes our energy and water credits. Our organization started out as a Green Building Council chapter, so LEED is in our blood,” says the International Living Future Institute’s Freed. “But it’s designed for the masses, to help people make their buildings less bad — use less energy and water and produce fewer toxins. We asked, ‘What if, instead of less bad, we want to be good?’”

That was the idea that, 10 years ago, struck Jason F. McLennan, the founder and CEO of the Living Future Institute and a celebrated figure in the green building movement. As the first executive director of the Cascadia Green Building Council, which encompasses Alaska, British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, McLennan worked on some of the first LEED-certified projects in the world. The experience revealed to him opportunities to raise the bar in sustainable design. Within a year, he’d developed the first iteration of Living Building standards. Last year, the institute released version 3.0.

Freed describes Living Building as less arcane than LEED. Because LEED is based on checklists, everything has to be specified; for instance, use bathroom faucets made of A, B or C materials that allow X, Y or Z levels of flow. Living Building, on the other hand, is based on a challenge: “to reconcile the built environment with the natural environment, into a civilization that creates greater biodiversity, resilience and opportunities for life with each adaptation and development,” as the current version puts it. How teams meet the challenge is up to them.

“We take an all-or-nothing approach,” Freed says. “We avoid prescriptive statements and just say, for instance, ‘be energy neutral.’”

What constitutes a Living Building is spelled out through the metaphor of a flower with seven petals: place, water, energy, health and happiness, materials, equity and beauty. Spread among them are 20 imperatives, such as “limits to growth” (place), “net positive water” and “civilized environment” (health and happiness). All the imperatives are mandatory, and living building certification is based on actual performance. This means that a project can’t be certified until it’s been in operation for at least a year.

Projects that fail to get full Living Building status can still get “petal certification” for meeting the imperatives of place, beauty and one other petal. They can also earn net-zero certification for meeting imperatives related to growth, energy and beauty. But the Dawson School and its partners on the Ruffin Organic Food & Learning Center don’t want to settle for that. They’re going for the whole enchilada.

Feed the children

The Dawson School project started with a simple wish by someone with the means to make it come true.

“Mrs. (Oleksandra) Ruffin is a strong proponent of organic food,” Phil Ruffin said at the groundbreaking. “She requested some for (our son) Richard when he was in kindergarten … and this is the result.”

Oleksandra’s request came in late 2013, sparking discussions at the school, which, Community Manager Zakeisha Steele Jones says, welcomes innovative ways to blend curriculum with students’ needs. The idea of growing food blossomed into STEM and business-marketing curricula integrating everything from designing and planting a garden to canning and selling the produce.

“It wasn’t just about the dirt,” Jones says. “It’s a balance between what you can grow, how you care for it, what you do with your harvest and how you maximize it.”

To help get teachers and students to dig in, the school hired contractor Garden Farms, which also maintains the Ruffins’ personal garden. Green Our Planet provided the curriculum. LGA and Martin-Harris came on board to shepherd the whole thing toward certification as a Living Building after a former executive was inspired by a similar project at the Bertschi School in Seattle. By the spring of 2014, the Dawson School had a complete pitch to make to the center’s title sponsor. The Ruffins went all in with a $1.5 million endowment.

Administrators always tout what they do as “for the kids,” but to earn Living Building certification, the Dawson School also had to include students’ needs as more than lip-service.

“Normally, we finish a building, we turn over the keys, and we’re done,” Toplak says. “This one is really like, ‘We’re in this together.’”

LGA and Martin-Harris invited students and staff to design meetings. At one meeting, eighth graders from a business class modeled on TV show “Shark Tank” shared their insights.

“The kids at this school are geniuses,” says LGA’s Bergin. “We were lucky to have their input.”

The trick

The Ruffin Organic Food & Learning Center is conceived as a 2,000-square-foot, free-standing structure that will anchor the school’s greater gardening initiative. Features such as doors and windows that open fully blur the barrier between inside and out, turning nature into a classroom. Gardens will radiate out from the building and spread throughout campus.

“We aim for it to be complete in January 2016,” Jones says. “It’s not a huge project. It’s tricky, though.”

The tricky part is water. The Living Building Challenge won’t allow the use of potable water either coming in or going out, Bergin says. So, the designers have to figure out a way to collect, treat and reuse it on site — a closed loop.

“We looked at intercepting wastewater on the existing campus, treating it and using it on this project,” Bergin says. “But we couldn’t capture enough to put back into irrigation. We’re going to have an organic farm, and we’re going to need water year-round, not just when the kids are in session. So, this petal (water) is very challenging.”

The International Living Future Institute’s Freed says there is room for flexibility. Applicants can petition for exemptions, and every project is judged within its context. Deciding factors, he says, are intention and grit — how sincere they are in their efforts to do the right thing. Almost every project sets some kind of precedent, from getting a local code changed to developing a nontoxic version of a common product.

“With LEED, you get to decide which points to pursue,” Freed says. “Teams have this discussion — I was guilty of it too — about the easy and hard points. We’d figure out the pathway to the easiest ones. Living Building is designed so you can’t game the system. … But every project is different. We’re open to the idea of localizing it, changing the exemptions to reflect the local culture and habitat.”

The Dawson School project team may petition the institute for a water exemption, but they’d prefer to solve that and other problems. The challenge is an inherent part of the work.

“This project isn’t the size where it will change us from a financial standpoint,” Martin-Harris’s Toplak says. “But the part that it changes is our community. We see this paying off in 10 to 20 years. Kids that grow up with this, as adults, will be more enlightened than us.”

Megan Gray

Bright green: Dawson student Kayla Salehian presents her ideas for the center to designers.