Imagine that you are cooking dinner, but you are restricted to only using ingredients sourced from within a geographical radius of 500 kilometers. That’s a tad over 310 US miles. This would mean that if you use salt, you would have to certify that it was either mined within that radius, or evaporated from a nearby ocean. Any fruit or veggies would have to be either part of the current season’s harvest, dried or otherwise preserved in a sustainable manner. There would likely be a “red list” of forbidden ingredients; for example if you were serving fish, you would have to select one that was guaranteed not to be tainted by even a trace of mercury contamination. And, you would have to commit to only using certified organic and responsibly farmed ingredients. If you lived in a colder climate, you would obviously not have access to things like figs and olive oil. If you were to have some usable leftovers from another meal, you are encouraged to add that to the pot. And so on…. You get the idea. Applied to the building trade, the same reasoning goes something like this.
A seven-petaled flower is the metaphor illustrating the idea of the Living Building Challenge. Each petal symbolizes a concept; Site, Energy, Materials, Water, Health, Equity, and Beauty. Just like a flower, the building it is rooted in place, collects its needed energy and water from sun and available rain, it does not pollute its surroundings, its life cycle is a system perfectly integrated with other systems, it provides a healthy habitat for other organisms, and it’s beautiful. High density materials have to come from within a 500 km radius, medium density from 1000 km, and lighter wares can come from as far away as 2000 km. As an acknowledging nod to the fact that the US is lagging quite far behind the rest of the world in these matters, environmental technologies have a much more generous limit; 15,000 km. There is also a continuously updated “red list” of toxic substances and chemicals that are definite deal breakers. None of these can be present in order to pass the test. So far so good.
A few weeks ago, as a water related follow-up to a post I wrote about green roofs, I mentioned my involvement in a Living Building project. I’m still not ready to write the final report, but I’m getting much closer. Because the project is located in the Portland, Oregon area, there are at least four local manufacturers of tiles, a company that makes countertops out of recycled materials, and two local manufacturers of paint. I’m guessing that this makes my job endlessly much easier than if the project had been located in, say, Iowa. Not to criticize Iowa or anything, but after reading the above, you realize that the successful outcome, or more so the relative ease of successfully fulfilling a Living Building Challenge, is highly dependent on what your immediate surroundings have to offer.
Out of the parts that require my involvement, what causes the most significant headaches are the plumbing fixtures. The most obvious solution to begin with might have been a composting toilet, but the architect and the clients decided early on to direct the sewage to an already existing drainage field. This made total sense, as the only American made composting toilet I have seen is far too big and bulky to even fit comfortably into the small bathroom of this 584 square foot guest house. So, as that idea was nixed, we are searching for an American made dual flush HET (High Efficiency Toilet). Although there are a few domestic companies that make plumbing fixtures, you immediately run into problems. First of all, none of them are manufactured here. American Standard claim on their website that they recently have moved some of their production back home. Even if you were able to secure a written guarantee that one of their toilets was indeed manufactured stateside, there are still viable reservations against going with one of their products. Although you can find a dual flush toilet designed by a US company, it will still not measure up to the HET definition. One prevalent reason is probably that the current EPA standards set for “efficiency” are much more lax than in other countries – which subsequently design and manufacture much better and more efficient toilets. In the US, it’s fairly easy to qualify for the Water Sense seal of approval, so – just like with most US car manufacturers – nobody bothers to go further. Given the fact that this little house is entirely dependent on the amount of rain that falls on its roof, gambling on anything but the most efficient, is a risk you probably don’t want to take. The absolute best option for this project, in terms of water efficiency and client requirements comes from a country afflicted by lengthy droughts – Australia. Go figure… My personal opinion is that in a case like this, long term consumption would trump geographical proximity, but we’re still trying to figure that one out for sure. (And yes, the thought has crossed all of our minds… Why don’t we just move a good toilet from an existing project – which would put it in the re-claimed category – and simply replace it with a new one?)
In today’s meeting, we narrowed down our options, and decided to explore yet another way of further untangling ourselves from market-imposed shortcomings. The problem at hand is the bathroom sink. Due to a very narrow countertop, the best fitting option I have found happens to be Japanese. This is obviously not desirable. Due to the very restrictive dimensions of the bathroom cabinet, the most viable alternative is a custom cast concrete sink, so come Monday, I will be calling talented concrete crafts people to see if anyone is interested in helping us execute my design.
The kind of creativity needed to embrace the scope of this kind of challenge is exhilarating, but it can be endlessly frustrating at the same time. For example, we are using a concrete tile manufactured here in town for the shower walls. When explaining the requirements of the project to one of the company’s owners, he informed me that even though most of the components of their products are sourced locally, one of the main ingredients isn’t. A similar conundrum revealed itself when I learned that even though both the paint base and the pigments used are locally sourced, while another vital component is not. So, even though you can get most of it right, there is still a “degree of separation” that causes it to go from “perfect” to “as good as we can get it”. Oh well, we really are trying our best… I have to say I love this project, though! It is a fantastic learning experience, and despite painting a miserable picture of American manufacturing, it is fascinating to see the project evolve. And it is wonderful to see all the enthusiastic support from our local businesses. When it is all done, I will compile a kudos list of all the people and companies that helped realize my relatively small roll in making this project happen. Stand by for details…