A Green Building Program that Doesn’t Allow Combustion In Homes?

RTAblog_2015_0210_GasCooktopIs this our direction? No gas stove? No fireplace? Some people would argue that means no comfort.

The Living Building Challenge (LBC) is one of the toughest sustainable building standards available. Like other voluntary green building programs, it’s intended to help home owners build a home that exceeds the minimum requirements of our building codes. What’s unusual about the LBC is that it only allows combustion in very limited circumstances.

When We Have Combustion
Combustion is common in our homes. We burn wood and natural gas in our fireplaces. We also use natural gas and propane as fuel for cooking, heating our homes, drying our clothes and heating water. These uses commonly occur within our homes though they should always be properly vented for safety reasons.

We use combustion for its benefits. For example, a natural gas water heater will likely have a faster recovery time so it’s better able to keep up with a family’s demands for hot water. Also, some people prefer natural gas cooktops to electric cooktops.

The Ideal of the Living Building Challenge
Version 2.1 of the LBC includes a statement in its Energy section which reads, “The Living Building Challenge envisions a safe, reliable and decentralized power grid, founded on renewable energy that supplies incredibly efficient buildings and infrastructure without the crutch of combustion.”

Footnote 34 on page 22 explains, “By and large, no combustion is allowed.” There are temporary exceptions for isolated applications like gas cooktops for commercial kitchens or bunsen burners in laboratories though there aren’t any noted exceptions that apply to houses. Exceptions must be submitted in writing for approval.

There is also a very limited exception for “a single wood stove or fireplace because ecological impacts are minimal” though these exceptions are only allowed in certain conditions – also explained in Footnote 34. It’s not clear how often this exception would be possible to claim or how often it has been granted.

Why Ban Combustion?
In effect, the Living Building Challenge encourages buildings that produce needed energy through renewable sources such as photovoltaics (solar panels), wind turbines, water-powered microturbines, hydrogen fuel cells, etc. These are often called net-zero buildings because their demands from our energy grid are zero – they produce as much or more energy than they consume.

If this sounds terribly difficult, it’s worth noting that the Living Building Challenge causes architects, builders and owners to favor passive systems over active systems. It makes sense to adjust the design (don’t build more than you need) and insulate it properly so the occupants don’t need a lot of energy to heat, cool and ventilate spaces.

That doesn’t mean you can’t have a free hand in design. It just means you might think twice about building a house with a formal living room (that you rarely use) and a den that you use each day. You can have both though you’d need to invest more in the active systems like PV panels to generate more energy for the larger building. So, it’s probably encouragement in the right direction.

The root of the issue is that a building can’t sustain itself if it requires fuel (for combustion) from off-site sources. It’s then subject to changing availability, fluctuating energy prices and infrastructure issues. For those of you who just thought, “Well, what about water?” the Living Building Challenge addresses net-zero water too though that will have to wait for another blog post.

What’s Missing?
It’s probably worth noting that there’s no mention of climate change as a motivating factor in this blog post. Net-zero houses achieve the energy independence for which our U.S. federal government has advocated for generations. You can have energy independence for your home today with some careful planning – and you’ll have reduced your contribution to climate change as well.

What’s also missing is a big audience for the Living Building Challenge. Version 3.0 of the Living Building Challenge Petal Handbooks (the how-to and requirements) is out though the International Living Future Institute that administers the Living Building Challenge now requires a membership ($150+) to access them. That seems like a significant challenge for a program that has yet to attract an audience, especially when other programs like the National Green Building Standard (NGBS) can be purchased for $36.

The Living Building Challenge claims to have 192 projects as of April 2014. The National Green Building Standard has more than 47,000 certified homes and lots.

In Conclusion
For years, the construction industry has watched voluntary sustainable building programs jockey for position in a housing market that’s challenging even at the best of times. The reality is that there’s not one clear winner because the programs influence one another.

Even if the Living Building Challenge doesn’t have a significant number of projects, the ideals will likely work their way into other standards and our building codes. So, don’t underestimate the influence of the Living Building Challenge – even if you’ve never heard of it before.

As always, if you’ve got a comment or question, please share it below. Thanks!

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Image by Goedeker’s used under creative commons license.

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