Anatomy of a Grant (Part 1): A Living Building to Transform Southern Construction

Lord Aeck Sargent, Living Building, Georgia Tech

Even big foundations think long and hard before they give away $30 million. So it’s not surprising that The Kendeda Fund took a while to figure out that its largest grant ever would go toward a single building on the Georgia Institute of Technology campus.

The immediate aim: To design and construct a fully certifiable Living Building in Atlanta and the greenest building on a Southeastern college campus. The broader objective: To leverage the project so that the region will be prepared for the increasing environmental challenges facing the building sector.

Our story starts ten years ago, when Diane Ives found herself on a phone call with a persuasive architect named Jason F. McLennan. Green building had been a major focus for Kendeda since the Fund’s inception in the early 1990s. And Ives, fund advisor for Kendeda’s People, Place and Planet program, was on the hunt for a promising idea that might speed up the pace of innovation.

The nation’s most popular sustainable building program was a logical option. The U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED system charged out of the gate upon its launch in 2000. By the end of 2006, LEED had certified around 700 buildings globally, at least three of which received support from Kendeda.

But LEED was — and still is — a market-based program. While it ratchets up standards as green materials and techniques improve, it’s designed to push for broad adoption in the conventional design and construction communities.

“LEED was making great progress in gaining acceptance for better building practices in the mainstream,” Ives recalls. “But for our purposes, it was too incremental. We were looking for something that was the next step — the next leap.”

Among the nonprofits funded at the time by Kendeda was the Healthy Building Network. HBN, based in Washington, D.C., focuses on getting toxins out of materials. Its founder, Bill Walsh, was working with McLennan on a labeling system for health hazards in building products. Walsh put Ives and McLennan in touch with each other because he thought she might be interested in another of McLennan’s projects — the one that was his true obsession.

Jason F. McLennan, Ecotone, Living Building Challenge
Jason F. McLennan, co-founder and chief evangelist of the Living Building Challenge. Photo provided by McLennan Design

At 33, McLennan already had made a name for himself in sustainable design circles. Under the tutelage of green-building pioneer Bob Berkebile, McLennan established a national sustainability consultancy within the architectural firm BNIM in Kansas City. And Berkebile had collaborated with McLennan to develop early drafts of what would become the Living Building Challenge.

Then, in 2006, McLennan found an institutional base for his LBC platform. He was named chief executive of the Cascadia Green Building Council, a Seattle nonprofit that advocates sustainable practices and administers LEED in the Pacific Northwest.

McLennan was about to take green-building certification in a very different direction. He argued that a truly “regenerative” building should aim “not just to do less harm, but actually to figure out what good looks like.” He envisioned a standard that would require each building to produce at least as much energy and water as its occupants consumed, and that would bar the use of any materials on a toxic “Red List.” Those expectations go further than even LEED Platinum, which is the the highest standard in the LEED system.


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Rather than prescribing specific products and approaches, McLennan envisioned a system that set broad, challenging goals. The emphasis would be on a design process built around firm requirements rather than on meeting various certification levels based on a buffet of options. And unlike LEED, which allows certification upon the building’s completion, a Living Building would only be certified after a full year of data showing net zero performance on energy and water.

The language of LBC was designed to inspire. Rather than viewing buildings as “machines for living,” McLennan suggested that they be conceived as flowers. In that spirit, he organized the Challenge around a set of thematic imperatives that he referred to as “petals.” (The seven petals of LBC 3.1, which is the program’s current iteration, are: Place, Water, Energy, Health & Happiness, Materials, Equity, and Beauty, and the Challenge now requires net positive performance on energy and water.)

It would be the world’s most stringent green-building system, but McLennan aimed to provoke architects to tap into their creativity and engineers to tap into their ingenuity.

McLennan’s vision impressed Ives. She was even more struck by his personality. Not only did he have a well-thought-out program and an organization behind him; he came off as single-minded, self-confident, even bullheaded. “He had the right kinds of blind spots,” she says. “This can frustrate the people he works with, but it’s a quality that sometimes is necessary for a charismatic leader to fulfill a vision.” Shortly after the phone conversation, Ives wrote a note to Kendeda’s donor:

Jason is an innovative and creative leader. Over the past several years he has been developing the idea for a “Living Building,” an opportunity for designers and builders to reach their highest potential with green buildings (Jason sees this as the next step beyond LEED Platinum). The Living Building not only advances how buildings are built, it also fundamentally shifts how the builder (and building owner) track their progress. As you mentioned earlier, one of the big criticisms of LEED is that it is very time-intensive in tracking and accounting for decisions made. The Living Building is built on a different platform for accountability, and could fundamentally shift how green buildings get rated. Jason’s ideas are visionary, which means they might not all come to fruition. But he has a real drive to test the Living Building model to see what can and will work.

At the time, Ives was one of the few people who knew the identity of Kendeda’s donor. In the early 1990s, the Fund seemed to pop out of nowhere. Suddenly, a new foundation with a confounding name was doling out grants, large and small. Many of those grants were focused on sustainability. Most funded projects in Atlanta. Among the high-profile recipients were the Southface Energy Institute’s Eco-Office, one of the state’s first LEED Platinum buildings; Grants to Green, which funds energy-efficient retrofits for nonprofits; and Charis Community Housing, which ran a design contest for an affordable, sustainable model house in Atlanta.

Until last fall, however, the person behind hundreds of millions of dollars in Kendeda giving was anonymous. The Fund’s public face was Barry Berlin, a wealth manager at Atlantic Trust Company. When asked, Berlin simply would explain that the donor wished to remain anonymous.

Then, last fall, in a column by the Atlanta Business Chronicle’s Maria Saporta, Diana Blank revealed that she was that benefactor. The former wife of Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank, she had named Kendeda after the first syllable in the names of each of her three children. Blank hadn’t wanted to draw attention to herself as she established a nimble but low-key philanthropic organization that reflected her interests, including the environment.

“We’ve always tried to support people who are risk takers,” Blank says. “We’ve seen some failures. Maybe, if I had named a board, I would have been protected from making some mistakes. But we also might have missed some opportunities.”

Ives notes that Blank’s non-traditional approach allowed Kendeda to take advantage of opportunities by moving quickly in “a purposeful direction.” The Fund was able to respond to aid an endeavor at just the right point in its development.

Bullitt Center, Bullitt Foundation, Seattle
The Bullitt Center in Seattle was a landmark for the Living Building Challenge. Photo courtesy: The Bullitt Foundation

In McLennan’s case, the timing couldn’t have been better. It so happened that he was about to formally unveil the Living Building Challenge at USGBC’s November 2006 Greenbuild conference. Within five months of that first conversation with Ives, Kendeda had given Cascadia $225,000 to help launch LBC. Ever since, it’s been a major benefactor.

Despite getting started on the cusp of the Great Recession, the Challenge quickly had an outsize influence on the global green-building community. Affiliated groups popped up in Mexico, New Zealand and Australia. Leading-edge suppliers became sponsors. As the program grew, Cascadia spun off a separate organization to manage the Challenge. The new nonprofit eventually was named the International Living Future Institute.

To McLennan, the response wasn’t surprising. He always thought architects would gravitate toward a platform that looked to the design process for creative solutions. Plus, positioning a program on the leading edge of any field “always gets attention that’s disproportionate to its size.”

Then, in 2013, the Challenge crossed a key threshold, when its largest building yet was completed. The Bullitt Center in Seattle billed itself as “the world’s greenest commercial building.” It was the brainchild of Bullitt Foundation President Denis Hayes — a legendary environmentalist best known for organizing the first Earth Day. The building opened to great fanfare that Earth Day.

A month later, Blank and Ives were given a tour of the Center. It was an impressive achievement — a six-story Class A office building that contained no toxic “Red List” materials, collected its own water and produced a good deal more energy than it used. It demonstrated that leading architects and builders were up to the “challenge” of a creating a Living Building on a fairly large scale.

Blank was taken with details that affected the comfort and health of its occupants: Operable windows, which seldom are seen in energy-efficient offices; a stairwell with gorgeous views to reward walkers over elevator riders; and builtins fabricated from locally harvested wood. She wondered whether similar efforts could be replicated in the hot and humid South, where perceptions, at least, held that green building was less accepted than elsewhere.

Ives recalls one specific detail from that tour: “Diana turned to me said, ‘We need to build something like this in Atlanta.’ ”

Now, the question was how to make that happen.


Next: Anatomy of a Grant (Part 2): The Courtship Between a Donor and an Owner. To keep up with our Building Chronicle and other Living Building news follow us on Twitter.

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