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Building Green

An Introduction to the Living Building Challenge

A lot of people know about green certifications. You might have heard of systems such as LEED or Passive House. But have you ever heard of the Living Building Challenge? It’s a building certification introduced by the International Living Building Institute that takes a unique perspective on what being ”sustainable“ actually means.

December 14, 2023

What is the Living Building Challenge?

The Living Building Challenge – or LBC for short – is considered the most rigorous green building certification in the world. It was developed by the International Living Building Institute (ILFI) and pushes the boundaries of what is possible with sustainable design by poking holes in what is believed to be sustainable in the first place.

Laurelhurst Storybook Home – Board & Vellum

The Living Building Challenge challenges designers to think critically about what sustainable design can look like.

According to the International Living Future’s Institute, Living Buildings do a lot.

  • They are regenerative buildings that connect occupants to light, air, food, nature, and community.
  • They are self-sufficient and remain within the resource limits of their site.
  • They create a positive impact on the human and natural systems that interact with them.

A Shift in Tone

The main philosophy of the LBC is what sets it apart from other green building certifications. It is a shift in focus from how to reduce our impact on the environment or do less harm to asking, “what does good look like” and “how can we actually make the world better?”

The LBC also shifts away from the term sustainability. This means reframing the goal from “the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level” to what we call “regenerative design,” or a whole systems approach that prioritizes creating resilient and equitable systems that integrate the needs of society with the integrity of nature.

The limited palette of flowering plants creates the illusion of a naturally evolving landscape. – Laurelhurst Landscape at the Tree+House – Board & Vellum
Integrating Nature

In the Living Building Challenge, built environments are treated as part of the greater ecosystem to encourage designers to consider their sites holistically.

This means that the goal is making your site better than when you found it. And that isn’t limited to the footprint of your building. It treats the building as part of a greater ecosystem, which it is, so that every decision you make can potentially make the surrounding sites better and bring nature back as intended.

This rhetoric change shifts the mindset from negative to positive and can actually make it easier to understand how to achieve your goals holistically.

The Three Key Principles of the Living Building Challenge.

ILFI makes it clear that while the LBC is in a certification, it is first and foremost a philosophy and an advocacy tool.


LBC is a holistic approach to sustainable design. It includes water, energy, and site, but it also includes things that are commonly overlooked in sustainable design but are equally important, such as equity, beauty, and health. This is because, while energy savings are great, the well-being and productivity of your staff may result in 10x greater cost savings and that is often overlooked.

Its projects are also measured by outcomes, not prescriptive checklists. You can only receive certification after one year of proven performance. Meaning, the building needs to actually meet the goals intended as occupied, rather than just based on models or pledges.


Possibly the most important and impactful aspect of LBC is that it is an advocacy tool. If you choose to go for LBC certification, the project team will need to work to remove any barriers in codes and policy that might get in the way of building better.

A policy won’t allow for something to happen? You’ll have to advocate for the policy or law to change. If a material you want is on the LBC do-not-use list (AKA red list), You'll have to advocate for the manufacturer to remove those red list materials from their product. Project teams become advocates for those systemic changes that need to be made and real change has been made thanks to these projects.


The Living Building Challenge uses the metaphor of a flower. The challenge consists of 7 “Petals” or performance criteria which include place, water, energy, health & happiness, materials, equity, and beauty.

Each of these petals are then broken into sub-petals, known as Imperatives. The Imperatives make up the list of requirements you must meet to get certified. We don’t want to get too into the weeds, but a few imperatives of note are net positive energy, net positive water, net positive waste, universal access and inclusion, education, and beauty and biophilia. Notice how it says, “net positive” instead of “net zero?” This means you have to produce more energy or water than you use.

If this sounds intriguing but a little daunting to try right off the bat, ILFI has also come out with a number of other certification programs to offer additional ways to work towards Living Buildings without having to go for full Living Building including Zero Carbon Certification, Zero Energy Certification, and Core Green Building Certification programs.

LBC is no easy feat. It is for those who truly want to push the boundaries of green building and to serve as an example of what is possible for others to follow. If this speaks to you, maybe you should consider LBC or one of its affiliated certifications and see just how “green” you can go. It’s exciting to think of a future where we collectively come together to make things better, rather than just reduce our harm.

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Backyard Artist Studio | Photo by Meghan Montgomery

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An Introduction to the Living Building Challenge

A lot of people know about green certifications. You might have heard of systems such as LEED or Passive House. But have you ever heard of the Living Building Challenge? It’s a building certification introduced by the International Living Building Institute that takes a unique perspective on what being ”sustainable“ actually means.

Considering a project? Or, just curious about something?

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