How will LBC 4.0 and Core certification change the Living Building movement?

Living Building Challenge 4.0, Mary Davidge, Google, Living Future 2019. LBC 4.0

The world’s most rigorous green building standard just got more flexible. That doesn’t mean it’s suddenly a push over.

Living Building Challenge 4.0 is the certification platform’s first major overhaul in five years, and it contains some dramatic changes. Six far-reaching reforms in the standard stand out to me:

  • Google is among five large property owners participating in the pilot for a “volume certification” pathway to allow campuses, corporations, developers and other large property owners to streamline certification of multiple projects with common features.
  • A new set of 10 Core Imperatives must now be met by Petal, or partial, LBC projects (Full LBC certification candidates must, as before, meet all 20 Imperatives).
  • Complete building projects can now gain “LBC Ready Recognition” as soon as they’re occupied, giving owners and project teams an opportunity to celebrate and publicize their achievement prior to the the mandatory year of post-occupancy monitoring.
  • LBC 4.0 places a greater emphasis on reducing the lifecycle carbon in each building. Not only must the buillding’s operations emit zero carbon, but steps requirements to reduce the amount of carbon embodied in building materials have been added.
  • A fourth typology — “Interior” — has been added. The “Building” and “Renovation” typologies have been reordered into “New Building” and “Existing Building,” while “Landscape or Infrastructure” keeps the same name.
  • Project teams will be given more flexibility — in some cases through alternative paths toward fulfulling certain mandates, in other cases by lowering compliance percentages.

The most significant change of all may turn out to be one that falls outside the LBC platform: On their own, those 10 new Core Imperatives define an entirely new ILFI standard. Core certification is intended to fill a gap between the most rigorous iterations of commercially popular platforms (such as LEED Platinum) and the more rarified air of the LBC standard.

“There’s a big, wide space between mainstream green building programs and the Living Building Challenge,” International Living Future Institute CEO Amanda Sturgeon said Thursday as she unveiled the changes at ILFI’s 2019 conference in Seattle.

Although not as arduous as LBC (which has 10 additional imperatives), Core will still require very high performance. For example, a new Core building must use half the water of comparable buildings in the same region, exceed the energy performance of a benchmark building by 70 percent, provide outside views for 75 percent of occupants, divert 80 percent of construction waste from landfills, and meet a more extensive set of “Inclusion” and “Universal Access” imperatives than in LBC 3.1.

Like other ILFI standards, however, Core is designed to be “simple and elegant,” as Sturgeon put it — a not-so-subtle contrast to the U.S. Green Building Council’s more popular and paperwork-intensive LEED platform. The 10 imperatives make it holistic and easy to comprehend. Like LBC, Core avoids prescriptions, leaving it up to project teams to find solutions.

It will be interesting to see whether Core grows more popular than LBC, which — despite its impact on the best-in-clase sustainability sector — thus far has fully certified only 23 buildings and Petal certified only 30 buildings.

At the same time, the volume pathway sets up LBC itself for unprecedented growth. PCC Markets, King County (Wash.), Community Rebuilds and the BLOCK Project are participating alongside Google in the pilot.

Representatives from all five organizations joined Sturgeon onstage at the announcement before most of the 1,300 people attending the Living Future 2019 conference this week in Seattle. In a testament to the progress made toward gender equality at the green end of the building sector, all five executives were women.

“When we align with a third-party certification system, it is important to us that it provides aspirational leadership that resonates with Google’s values of health, sustainability, and community,” Mary Davidge, Google’s director of campus design, said in a statement afterward.

Like updates that are common to LBC, LEED and other green building programs, 4.0 is meant to address feedback from project teams, as well as recent changes in products and construction techniques. But it differs from previous LBC updates in that the emphasis is on structural changes to the program rather than on making the requirements increasingly stringent.

At a session introducing the changes prior to the official unveiling, ILFI Vice President Kathleen Smith was candid that climate change was a “driving force” behind making the platform more flexible and scalable. She argued “need to scale impacts” to meet the urgent challenge has caused ILFI to seek ways to move from simply “aspirational” to impactful.

“We are really just at a critical time in human history,” Smith said, citing recent warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “We have basically 12 years to get our act together.”

For purists who are attracted to LBC for its deep-green bonafides, the new flexibility on some requirements may present something of a red flag. Officials involved in the revamp want it known that more flexibility in the LBC standard doesn’t mean that ILFI is pulling back from its high standards.

“It’s designed to align effort with impact [by] focusing on the leverage points and the places where we get the biggest impact,” Smith said.

In a separate interview, Director of Programs Allison Capen offered succinct assurance: “We don’t want to lower the bar,”

Capen notes, for example, that Petal certification actually will “have to be more holistic” because Petal projects will now have to meet the Core imperatives. (LBC is structured around seven broad categories called petals, which include a total of 20 more targeted “imperatives”; Petal certifications are granted for projects that focus on three of the Petals ).

In addition, some of the imperatives have been bulked up by combining requirements from several old imperatives, making room for entirely new imperatives to be added while keeping the total of them at 20.

But Capen stressed that project teams have been running into problems meeting some of the requirements in LBC 3.1. In particular, the changes streamline the Materials Petal, which has turned out to be the bete noire of many a project team.

For example, an imperative for “Healthy Interior Performance” had required that 100 percent of interior building products meet a tough California Department of Public Health standard for volatile organic compounds. After finding hundreds of products that met that standard, designers were getting hung up on searching for one or two remaining products. So the LBC 4.0 requires only 90 percent of interior products (measured by cost) to meet the CPDH standard.

To explain the change, Capen repeated a mantra that has accompanied the rollout: “effort to impact.”

“There are a lot of pieces of the LBC that take a lot of work,” she said. “We felt like it was more important [to concentrate on those] that have a more significant impact … rather than running their heads up against a wall on that last 10 percent. And we also want them to focus on the most impactful things they can do. … Maybe, having that one table in the building isn’t worth the extra 12 hours of three people’s time.”

Among other doses of flexibility in the full LBC standard:

  • Projects must avoid Red List chemical classes in 90 percent of the project’s “new materials” (by cost). The rule had previously been 100 percent of all materials (it should be noted that some technical changes may at the same time broaden the banned chemical list).
  • While 90 to 100 percent of various classes of construction waste still must be diverted from the landfill, a new standard has been sets a separate overall number for demolition waste of only 80 percent.
  • Only 80 percent of wood in each project will be required to be Forest Stewardship Council certified, and projects may now opt for an alternative path on wood by going through FSC’s  own Project Certification project. “Our project teams,” Capen explained, “were just having a really hard time sourcing 100 percent particularly in some parts of the country.”

For project leaders, the new version presents a choice. Through 2019, projects will be allowed to register either under LBC 3.1 or LBC 4.0. And projects already under 3.1, can switch to 4.0 — although making the transition may require some additional work if the project already is pretty far along. At Living Future 2019, project leaders already were puzzling over costs and benefits.

“I’ve just registered a project in New Zealand with 3.1,” architect Ewan Brown of Auckland said during a break in the introductory session led by Smith and Capen. “”Now, I’ve got to analyze whether the process and pain between this new version and the older one. It may be better to do it this — hard to tell.”

PHOTO AT TOP: Google’s Mary Davidge speaks at Living Future 2019 about her company’s commitment to the LBC volume certification pilot program. Photo by Ken Edelstein.