Reflecting back on the Living Future UnConference 2019

By: Melissa Wechsler, Principal

It’s been nearly 2 months since the International Living Futures (ILFI) Un-Conference and the panic has subsided. Is there a lot of work to be done? Yes. Does it seem insurmountable? Yes.

Is there anything we can do about it?  Yes.

Now past the panic attacks over plastic packaging at the grocery store and dealing with fewer sleepless nights, guilty over the next morning’s drive to and from work to shorten my commute, I’ve had some time to take inventory of the situation.  The keynote speakers and industry experts made apparent the big problems – both globally and locally – facing the built environment and the impact choices made today will have on future generations.  With perspective afforded by time and a calmer mindset, the following is a summary of what resonated after the conference, how it makes me think about our architectural practice at Runberg Architecture Group and ideas for new initiatives we could take on in our work going forward.

The Living Building Challenge (LBC) addresses a broad host of aspects to the built environment that should be considered and addressed in each project, but there are three elements it highlights above the others: Water, Energy, and Materials. These are the petals critical to the LBC, and projects must meet the challenge in one of those three categories to obtain Petal Certification. Very few projects can achieve the Water Petal, and ILFI admits it is the most difficult Petal to achieve on urban infill project sites. Since 95% of Runberg Architecture Group’s work fits that description, I spent my time at the conference learning what I could about Energy and Materials, eager to find practical ways our projects could better themselves, regardless of pursuing LBC or Petal Certification.

My first question: which is more important, Energy or Materials? Having worked in a design culture where Net Zero Energy (NZE) is touted as the most important objective for fighting global warming, my eyes were opened to a new reality.  Yes, reducing energy use in building operations is critical work and advancements on that front must be made. But when you’re working in a location served by clean energy, as we are here in the Puget Sound, our effort would be better spent researching and advocating for more sustainable material selection. Long proud of our work on Stack House Apartments, which, when completed, was one of the most energy efficient apartment buildings in the country, and looking forward to confirming the EUI performance of Sitka Apartments (its new, more energy advanced neighbor), my pride was diminished when one presenter noted the futility of voluntarily over-insulating buildings in this region. Adding more carbon-emitting materials like spray foam insulation, polystyrene, and even mineral wool, in the effort to use less clean energy during building operations, isn’t as beneficial as I’d thought. The added carbon emissions directed by our designs for more insulated building envelopes added years to the carbon-payback timeline extended by reduced energy use.  It was a deflating reality.  Many of the favored projects in our portfolio would have had a smaller carbon footprint if we had reduced the amount of insulation and accepted higher energy use during operations.

Continuing through the conference, ping-ponging between what felt like two separate camps – the “energy” team vs. the “materials” team – I saw another presenter who spoke about the impact of LEED on energy efficiency. By setting goals to achieve relatively modest energy improvements, LEED and other Green Building Programs lead development teams to implement new strategies and prove those goals were achievable, which in turn gave jurisdictions the ability to develop more stringent energy codes. Understanding this achievement helped restore my pride in our LEED Gold and Platinum projects as I recognized those buildings not only proved out new technologies but helped improve building codes as well.

On the materials side, I spent the better part of a morning learning about SKL Architect’s multi-family housing project in design for Othello Square in south Seattle. Their project is pursuing Petal Certification in Materials and the effort sounded… intense. The lead architect spoke of many long hours researching products and trying to track down manufacturers to confirm their materials met the stringent LBC requirements. She estimated her firm spent 20 – 30% more time on the project than they would have on a non-LBC project. Naturally, the hope is that as more projects certify and ask material suppliers to verify their projects and list them with IFLI, the easier it will be for future projects.

Continuing to dig deeper, I was introduced to the concept of categorizing materials in two categories – “carbon emitting” and “carbon absorbing.” The simple reality that plant-based materials store carbon by absorbing it during their growth cycle is obvious, but I’d not made the connection that the harvest and material production of plant-based materials had the ability to negatively offset the carbon benefit of their growth process unless they are handled responsibly. An architect from David Baker Architects in San Francisco shared a case study project where they specified FSC Certified Wood in their lumber package. Initially considered too expensive, their client was supportive of at least pricing out the difference between FSC certified and standard lumber. The results were surprising. FSC wood, which preserves the carbon benefit of the plant-based material up to 30% more than traditionally harvested trees, was only 2% more expensive than the standard lumber package. This is a statistic we can share with clients and encourage them to make likeminded considerations on upcoming projects. And hopefully, like SKL’s material research and LEED’s ability to push for stricter code requirements, driving up market demand for FSC wood will help shift forestry practices for the better, faster.