Regenerative Building: We Are What We Create

Click here for Part 1 of BCCI’s Sustainability Team’s Experience at the 2018 Living Future unConference

by Matthew Koester, BCCI Sustainability Coordinator

Material selection plays transformative roles in creating and revolutionizing supply chains. In valuing aspects of the Living Building Challenge’s Materials Petal, specifiers create market demand and a competitive imperative among manufacturers. These market signals were afforded a deep dive in the following material-focused breakout sessions. Each concept is moving construction, design and our spatial interactions in a new direction- toward buildings with healthy materials, reducing construction & demolition (C&D) waste and integrating regenerative building systems.

Credit: Google & Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Contractors, architects and engineers are creating a paradigm of competition for products that incorporate less toxic ingredients. The Opportunities for Innovation: Green Chemistry Challenges for Building Products session, led by the Healthy Building Challenge, Perkins+Will and Google, provided a forum for stakeholders to discuss project challenges in specifying healthy materials. Such challenges included educating sectors of the industry that have yet to catch up, as well as finding product substitutes that are less detrimental to human health. Often these alternatives have different, but equally harmful effects on human health and truly less toxic alternatives do not exist yet. Despite the difficulties, the industry as a whole is moving in the right direction. Participants created a space in which they can signal to manufacturers that healthy materials matter in product selection. Google has largely led the way by cataloguing and vetting all materials incorporated in its new projects. Likewise, BCCI is vetting less harmful products and educating subcontractors and manufacturers.

Lifecycle Building Center

The Repurposing Salvaged Materials session focused on the environmental and cultural benefits of using existing materials. Each year, the U.S. generates 170 million tons of construction and demolition waste, 25 percent of which is reusable. To combat this problem, Joshua Gassman founded the Lifecycle Building Center, which diverts 3,500 tons of material from the landfill each year. Gassman stressed the importance of local markets in this industry- often, the reuse and salvage market relies heavily upon a particular collection center or regulatory framework. For example, in Portland, an ordinance prohibits absolute demolition and requires the deconstruction of homes built before 1917 so that materials inside can be salvaged. This has created a robust market for historic materials and allowed the city to ease the burden of handling construction and demolition waste.

Grasslands being overtaken by juniper near Prineville, OR

Materials specification can support local industries and regenerate ecosystems. Restoring Our Nation’s Forests and Rangelands Through Construction, led by Sustainable Northwest Wood, Zena Forest Products and WholeTrees Structures, focuses on the ecological benefits of sourcing structural and finish wood material. Sustainable Northwest removes invasive juniper forests across Eastern Oregon. Junipers require over 20 gallons of water per day to thrive in primarily high desert environments. This portends a serious threat to a region that depends upon low annual precipitation. By removing and milling Juniper, Sustainable Northwest simultaneously helps return ecosystems to a pre-Juniper equilibrium and creates a market for wood products sourced from struggling, rural communities. Along a similar vein, WholeTrees procures round timber (unmilled) as an alternative to structural steel. Building with whole trees provides a couple major benefits. First, these trees still contain tension fibers- the tree rings. These fibers are severed when wood is milled, so preserving them translates to an incredibly long lifespan. Consider the lifecycle of many western trees- hundreds to thousands of years, which is much longer than the projected lifespans of most modern buildings. Whole trees also replace structural steel, the production of which accounts for 23% of final global industrial energy use– 75% of which is derived from coal consumption.


The International Living Future Institute is part nonprofit, part think-tank and part regenerative design framework. The institute’s most prominent rating system, the Living Building Challenge (LBC), has congruent aspirations to other systems. Like LEED, LBC strives to reduce our impact on the environment by encouraging commissioning and efficient water fixtures. Parallel to WELL, LBC underlines the importance of human health in facilitating healthy lifestyle choices and less toxic material selection.

The ILFI and LBC, however, move past LEED and WELL in beckoning a paradigm shift in how we consider green building. Instead of innovating within established norms, the breakouts, keynotes and networking sessions at Living Future were oriented around building in ecologically and socially restorative ways. The ILFI is interested in how structures can enhance and restore systems in communities, whether it involves water cycles, embodied carbon in materials, urban agriculture or energy storage. We spent several days discussing ways in which buildings could be viewed as habitats for humans, and contribute rather than take from local geographies. The LBC’s framework allows designers, architects, and contractors to step outside of the box- striving towards constructing impressive buildings such as these:

Kern Center, Hampshire, NH: 46 acres dedicated to permanent conservation; 1.6 acres for organic farm production

Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscapes, Pittsburgh, PA: Embodied carbon in materials; net zero energy

ARCH | NEXUS, Sacramento, CA: Contribution to public bicycle infrastructure; net zero water

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