Four years after launching as an independent organization, the International Living Building Institute (ILBI) has awarded Living Building Challenge certification to the first two projects that meet its rigorous standards of design, construction, and performance. It also has given special recognition to one outstanding residential project.

The sustainable building rating system helps design teams establish a balance between the natural world and the built environment by requiring participating projects to generate all of their own energy through renewable sources; to harvest, treat, and recycle all their own water through ecologically sound strategies; to incorporate responsibly produced, nontoxic materials; to operate efficiently; and to be beautiful.

After verifying the buildings' energy and water performance over a 12-month period, the ILBI granted "Living" status to:

  • The Omega Center for Sustainable Living in Rhinebeck, N.Y., a wastewater processing plant, classroom, and yoga studio designed by BNIM Architects of Kansas City, Mo., for the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies; and
  • The Tyson Research Center, Washington University's environmental research and education facility, designed by Hellmuth + Bicknese Architects of Maplewood, Mo.

The ILBI's first partial certification has been granted to the Eco-Sense home, a cob-constructed private residence in Victoria, B.C., built by its owners. According to Eden Brukman, ILBI's vice president, partial certification—called "Petal Recognition"—will be awarded to projects that meet at least three of the Living Building Challenge's seven performance areas. When combined, these "petals"—site, water, energy, health, materials, equity, and beauty—encompass 20 prerequisites for certification. (The original version of the challenge had only six petals; equity was added for version 2.0.) 

Completed in 2008, the Eco-Sense home achieved four of the six original performance petals: site, water, health, and beauty. Ann and Gord Baird, the owners, decided to implement the challenge after having started construction on their home because it aligned so closely with their own philosophy. Even so, they weren't able to fully integrate the Living Building Challenge's performance areas into their plans, although Brukman notes that they made a strong effort toward both energy performance and using sustainable, nontoxic materials.

Eco-Sense is a healthy, affordable, multigenerational home that provides separate living spaces for the Baird's nuclear family and for two grandparents, linked through their individual kitchens. Combining their own labor with the assistance of hired contractors and an engineer, the Bairds built their 2,500-square-foot, five-bedroom, two-bathroom, and two-kitchen house over the course of 20 months at a cost of about $148 per square foot.

The passive solar-designed, lime plaster-clad earthen house incorporates three types of insulation: locally mined pumice in the walls, giving R-20 insulation; R-40 formaldehyde-free fiberglass under the roof; and R-12.5 rigid Styrofoam under the floors. Humidity is controlled naturally within the home through its walls, without the use of vapor barriers

A grid-tied 2 kW photovoltaics system helped the home achieve net-zero electrical performance during its yearlong monitoring period, assisted by its low-demand LED lighting, high-efficiency appliances, and the family's limited use of electronics. Solar evacuated tubes provide hot water for the family and for the radiant heating system, while an 85 percent efficient wood gasification stove provides additional warmth in the winter. 

The house is surrounded by food gardens that are irrigated by its rainwater catchment system, which is able to harvest up to 10,000 gallons of water. It draws on its own well for domestic water uses. Graywater is recovered from domestic uses and recycled for irrigation, and instead of flush toilets the house uses composting toilets. A vegetated roof increases the roof's R-value and helps manage storm water runoff.

Although it is far from the mainstream, the Eco-Sense house offers an interesting case study for the level of personalization, sustainability, and affordability that can be accomplished with the right strategies and attention to detail.