Is “the world’s most rigorous building standard” ready for its close-up on the residential construction stage? That’s how the International Living Future Institute describes the construction standards of its Living Building Challenge.

Structures certified under the Challenge have achieved net zero energy, water and waste for a full year of owner occupancy. None of the building materials used to construct the buildings are on the Challenge’s “Red List,” which singles out substances and chemicals in products that the Institute believes are antithetical to sustainable building.

Right now, 39 of the 90 projects that are registered to be certified (all are in different stages of development and/or construction) are residential, although nearly all are custom homes.

Affordable Green Template
The certification criteria would seem daunting for most production builders. But the Institute's Brad Liljequist sees the Living Building Challenge as a template for affordable new-home construction. “We’re at a very exciting time, right at the front end of a huge wave,” which he describes as “a leader niche market.”

Liljequist joined the seven-year-old Institute in June as technical director of the Living Building Challenge to “push that market out and grow production building” under the Challenge’s standards.

Liljequist had been Capital Projects manager for the city of Issaquah, Wash., which in 2006 donated 0.4 acres of land in Issaquah Highlands for a 10-townhouse development that was the first (and so far only) residential project built to the Challenge’s performance requirements.

“Issaquah wanted to put its thumbprint on what it wanted the city of the future to be,” recalls Liljequist.

These “zHomes,” as they’re known, were the first U.S. multifamily development to earn the EPA's WaterSense for New Homes label. They are completely electric, and come with water and energy use monitors, geothermal systems, super-insulated envelopes, solar panels, and rainwater reuse systems. They received Challenge certification in May.

The project took five years to complete, but that included an extended hiatus due to the housing recession. The 800-, 1,350-, and 1,700-square-foot units—built by Ichijo, a Japan-based company that specializes in panelized construction—were priced from $275,000 to $495,000. That might not sound so inexpensive, but Liljequist believes that zHomes would become more affordable as more of them get built, particularly within a production environment.

Before the zHomes were sold, Issaquah used the development as a demonstration site that was visited by 10,000 people, many of whom were guided on tours that lasted more than an hour. And the buyer profile “was not what we expected,” says Liljequist. “It wasn’t just extreme green folks.”

Liljequist sees net zero energy as the “gateway” for more builders to eventually achieve Challenge certification. And when it comes to lowering HERs scores to zero “we’re pretty laissez-faire about how builders do that.” — John Caulfield