Net-Zero: for the Buildings or for the Neighborhoods?

About 2 years ago I toured Miller Hull and was given a presentation on their upcoming project for the Bullit Foundation which was to be the first Living Building Challenge building in Seattle (The Bertschi School now looks to receive that honor). During the presentation I was inspired by the goals for the project but couldn’t help feeling like they were building a spaceship or Biosphere 3. The intent behind the Living Building Challenge resonates with me fully, but in practice it seemed rigid and isolationist. At the time the project was designed with a huge solar comb-over as shown in the image below. This was necessary to achieve net-zero energy onsite, but to me is looked like a grossly inefficient use of a high embodied-energy product, that compromised the daylighting for the building, and moreover stood to be a railing point for green naysayers.

Since my initial exposure to the project the Living Building Challenge has expanded its definition of net-zero to allow the use of adjacent buildings for renewable energy production. I think this is a step in the right direction, but I would like to see this expanded to water requirements as well. Living machines and grey water systems are very expensive and would benefit greatly from scale. The Bullit Foundation and the Living Building Challenge have been instrumental in changing regulations around rainwater catchment and grey water treatment, but it would have been nice to see them lay the groundwork for a neighborhood scale water treatment system.

I appreciate the Living Building Challenge as a benchmark for where we need to get to. It drives technology and policy and serves as an educational tool, but as described in the Carbon Efficient City, I think net-zero is often a concept better envisioned at a neighborhoods scale.

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