Inspiring Takeaways from the Living Future 18 unConference

Innovation was in full bloom at the recent International Living Future Institute unConference. Julie Sinistore, WSP sustainability and energy project director, shares her impressions on what can be done for building systems and products to meet net positive goals.

The International Living Future Institute (ILFI) is most well known for its Living Building Challenge, which uses the metaphor of a flower to describe the seven performance areas or petals. In order to meet the full living building challenge, the building must meet all 20 imperatives including net positive water and energy.

At ILFI’s 2018 Living Future “unConference,” the speakers urged attendees to consider their roles in shaping building systems and products to meet net positive goals and to be optimistic about the sustainability of our future. A core principle of ILFI is to shift focus from our impact on the environment (i.e., footprints or net negatives) to the benefit of our activities on the environment (i.e., handprints or net positives).

This thread was woven into several major themes including discussion of materials and materials transparency, a focus on the solutions posed in the book Drawdown related to how buildings and products play a role in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the announcement of the living food challenge. Below is a summary of my key takeaways.

1. Healthy Materials and Products

There was a strong focus on healthy materials and product transparency through sessions on the Living Product Challenge. Living products are defined by 20 imperatives with requirements that they be red list free and net positive for water, energy and material health key performance indicators.

Product manufacturers that pursue the Living Product Challenge often have environmental product declarations, health product declarations, and/or a declare label. Life cycle assessment (LCA) plays a key role in these labels and declarations and the living product challenge as it provides a scientific method to quantify energy use, GHG emissions and water consumption to achieve net zero impact and reveal product materials throughout the supply chain.

Similarly, the materials petal of the Living Building Challenge requires all materials within the scope have LCA to calculate carbon emissions so they can be offset. The parallels between the Living Future conference and the American Center for Life Cycle Assessment (ACLCA) conference was apparent in the discussions of sustainable materials and products.

Greg Norris, ILFI’s chief scientist, spoke at the 2017 ACLCA conference about shifting from footprints to handprints and the net positive focus of ILFI as it relates to LCA, and the definition of sustainable living products.

2. Drawdown

Many of the keynote and session speakers noted the impact and motivation of the book Drawdown, edited by Paul Hawken. The book provides a ranking of the 100 solutions to global warming by the total gigatons of carbon dioxide they could remove from the atmosphere or prevent from being emitted.

A substantial section of the book is devoted to buildings and how they can help draw down the carbon in the atmosphere within the next 30 years. These solutions include net zero buildings (ranked #54 in Drawdown), green roofs (#73), LED lighting (#33 household and #44 commercial), heat pumps (#42), smart thermostats (#57), insolation (#31) and building automation (#45).

Many of these solutions are key to the Living Building Challenge already, but some are more nascent. For example, the most impactful solution in terms of its ability to reduce GHG emissions to the atmosphere is refrigerants. Many refrigerants are powerful GHGs with warming potentials 100 to 10,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide. These refrigerants are commonly employed in building heating and cooling systems, which can leak over their lifetime, require recharge and must be properly disposed of at end-of-life.

A session on GHG emissions accounting at the conference highlighted the important role that building designers and engineers play in selecting systems that use refrigerants with lower global warming potentials and are less likely to leak over their lifetimes.

3. Living Food Challenge

The impact of the food system on climate was a major focus of Drawdown. A presenter for one of the sessions calculated from Drawdown that the total potential to reduce GHG emissions or sequester carbon from food is 321 gigatons, while the cumulative potential for both buildings and energy combined is 300 gigatons.

Like the Living Product Challenge, the Living Food Challenge aims to address the impacts of food products from cradle-to-plate. Among this challenge’s 20 imperatives, there are the same net positive water and energy requirements and a material red list (in terms of packaging materials) as there is for the living building challenge.

Added to this are imperatives for nutritional red list ingredients, soil health, zero waste and methane management. The net zero water imperative specifically requires a product water footprint through LCA. Over the next year, the institute will be conducting pilot testing of this new challenge with a select group of stakeholders.

I left the unConference feeling inspired by the speakers and equipped with new ideas for regenerative and sustainable solutions to implement that will help enable clients to realize ILFI’s ambitious goal. Our team is looking forward to encouraging society to reach a sustainable future by creating thriving communities, inspiring products and foods that give more than they take and providing healthy workplaces that engender collaboration.

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