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An uncompromising approach to sustainability

Hattie Hartman
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In the face of mounting sustainability fatigue, leading practitioners are shifting the debate to ‘beyond green’ and ‘invisible architecture’

Imagine being named partner at a leading architectural practice at the age of 30 and resigning to develop a new green building certification system - one which has superseded BREEAM Outstanding and LEED Platinum as environmental best practice.

That is exactly what Canadian architect Jason McLennan did just 10 years ago when he set off to mastermind what became the Seattle-based Living Building Challenge (LBC).

LBC was officially launched in 2006, and currently has only eight fully certified projects, but last week the now-international network boasted 300 project registered in the pipeline, from 13 different countries. The LBC also has 12 net zero energy-certified buildings - those that don’t meet all the LBC criteria, but are net zero in terms of operational energy - and that’s based on performance data.

What differentiates the LBC from other certification systems is its rigorous assessment of materials

McLennan spoke publicly for the first time in the UK earlier this month at an event entitled Beyond Green, hosted by Arup Associates. What motivated McLennan to create yet another green building standard was his realisation that ‘even if we build all LEED Platinum buildings, we are still headed towards a failed ecological state’. What differentiates the LBC from other certification systems is not only its uncompromising approach to energy, water and waste (net zero or net positive for all three) but its rigorous assessment of materials.

Although annoyingly twee in its use of flower petal imagery to represent different strands of sustainability, the LBC requires that manufacturers of any products or materials used on a project disclose its ingredients to ensure that they do not contain items on the LBC ‘Red List’, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), phthalates, or certain wood preservative treatments.

McLennan acknowledges that LBC certification is a challenge, as its name implies, but says he has witnessed what was ‘impossible 10 years ago become very possible.’ The LBC disseminates its message through volunteer ambassadors, who form local collaborations. Sustainability consultant Martin Brown of Fairsnape founded the UK collaboration in Leeds in 2013 and four more UK ambassadors currently in training are likely to be in place by the end of the year.

Closer to home, environmental engineers Atelier Ten celebrated their 25th anniversary last week with the launch of Invisible Architecture, a monograph (which I had the privilege to edit) that charts the practice’s journey from a fledgling London office in 1990 to today’s 180-strong practice with 11 offices around the globe.

Much more than a company monograph, Invisible Architecture is an excellent read for anyone who wants to understand leading-edge sustainable design practice as well as where we’re headed. Chapters on specific building types range from temporary pavilions to laboratories (their portfolio includes more than 50 labs) to tall buildings and there are essays on subjects such as benchmarking, integrated modelling tools and masterplanning. With a list of progressive clients ranging from Google to Yale University to WWF-UK, Atelier Ten continues to push boundaries within the limits of what is possible.

The notion of building services as ‘invisible architecture’ brings me to the main news of the month, AHMM’s Burntwood School Stirling Prize win. This accomplished and deservedly acclaimed building wears its considerable sustainability credentials lightly; or, I should say, invisibly - like the best green buildings.

As Cullinan Studio’s Robin Nicholson aptly tweeted last week: ‘#stirlingprize congratulations on getting CO2 estimates (at last); now for five-year verifications’. In this vein, the British Council for Offices has beaten the RIBA to the starting line in establishing a ‘Test of Time’ award, also given to AHMM this month for its Angel Building.

As was the case with Haworth Tompkins’ Everyman Theatre last year, it’s heartening to see a practice that takes sustainability seriously walk away with Britain’s top architecture prize. Long may this trend continue.



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