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Sustainability Videos & Lecture Series

How We’ll Live and Work in the Communities of the Future

November 7, 2016 | In this engaging presentation, Jason McLennan discussed cutting-edge trends in the building industry with examples from some of the world’s greenest buildings. Filled with case studies, stories, and examples, McLennan talked about emerging trends in energy, transportation, water, waste, and more. Instead of a dystopian vision of the future, McLennan sees the possibility of a future filled with abundance and a road map through the current ecological bottleneck. Here is the Q&A that followed Jason McLennan's lecture.

Related Events: A Living Future: How We’ll Live and Work in the Communities of the Future


This presentation is brought to you by Arizona State University's Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, and a generous investment by Julie Ann Wrigley. Wrigley Lecture Series. World-renowned thinkers and problem solvers engage the community in dialogues to address sustainability challenges.


Audience: I wanted to just start out. This is sponsored by the Stardust Center for Affordable Housing. And affordable housing, this is a question that came up earlier when our class-- Jason met with our living and building challenge class-- is the whole idea of the cost premium of doing a living building, and is it something just for the wealthy? And you showed some examples of that. But can you kind of explain a little bit why, if you take a systems approach, or take a place-based approach, how is it that it's kind of separate from a cost issue, as to whether or not you're building a regenerative building?

McLennan: Well, we started studying this issue of cost pretty early on, because the first reaction that everyone had was, yeah, this is all nice, but-- there was the but-- I'm sure it's way too expensive. It's going to be three times the cost, four times the cost. And when we didn't have any living buildings, you know, all I could rebut with was, no, I'm sure it's not, which is not a very compelling thing to say.

But I had, through my former practice with [INAUDIBLE], we had done elements of the Living Building Challenge on lots of different projects, but it had never been brought all together on one project. So I did have a sense of the cost, but it was theory more than anything else.

And early on, we started researching cost. We actually have a financial study that people would find interesting here that was published in 2009, and looked at Phoenix specifically. So looked at, what would you have to do for the water pedal in this climate? Which I think your class and others here would find interesting. So that was 2009.

And we worked with Skanska, which was not a small construction company. And they did all the pricing, and it was based on real projects, complete specifications. It was hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cost estimating studies we paid for through a foundation grant. And so a really rigorous process.

And we used it before we had the first living buildings, because it allowed us to get into great detail. And what we found, just as you're saying, is that when you begin to optimize whole systems, some things downsize, some things are eliminated.

You build a super efficient building for an office building in a cold climate, for example, and you build the envelope good enough, you get rid of the perimeter heating system, and you're reducing a whole system that comes off the bottom line. And that's just an easy example, but there's other examples like that.

Downsizing chillers, downsizing, you know, mechanical system when you're bringing the other loads down. There's, again, different examples. But there still is a premium when you're having, again, your own energy utility, you're building better.

And the more interesting thing that can happen, of course, is as we started certifying living buildings, we had actual price cost data, and that's the most compelling thing. And again, we are seeing that the cost is going down quickly, the initial upfront cost.

There was a recent study that the Integral Group and BNIM and a few others did that took recent cost data of Net Zero projects, Living Building projects, LEED Platinum and Gold projects, and the scattershot of the cost per square foot was not in alignment of what you might think. It wasn't linear. It tended to trend in that way, but there were Living Building projects that were less than some Platinum projects, that were less than some Net Zero projects. There were, of course, others that were more.

And it gets at this notion that like anything in design, it's how you do things. It's what you do, how good the team is, how knowledgeable the decisions the client made around spending money on some fancy thing versus on systems or whatever it is.

So what we now know is that we can do living buildings just a little bit more than a good building, especially a university that has a high standard. You shouldn't be doing anything else.

I mean, financially, if every CFO of every university really understood the data, they would say, well, this is the dumbest thing we're doing, building LEED Gold buildings, LEED silver buildings. It has to all be living buildings, because we're holding onto these assets. We pay for the energy cost, the water cost. We pay for everything else. So that's where it's headed. And it is exciting to see. We have real data.

Now it's not cheaper than the crap that we build in our cities all the time. It's not cheaper than the strip malls and the production houses. But those are only cheap because we've been subsidizing everything the wrong way. But we're getting closer even on that stuff.

Yeah. Well, with a university with a net zero carbon goal by 2025 in buildings and a 50% reduction in potable water by 2020, it makes a lot of sense.



And yeah. It'll get us to those goals. So help us get to those goals. So I'm going start with these questions from our 12-year-olds.

Oh, that's good.

They're the most important people in the room, and probably the wisest. So first one is, can you touch on the technology needed to have water reuse, sanitation, and storage in a living building?

Yeah. You know, and I'm doing a lot with water now, and at different scales. And normally, the challenges we face with water, just so you know, is not the technology. It's the grown ups.


So we have problems with the regulatory environment where we're challenged to do what we are promoting. It was a Living Building Challenge-- I think as you know, it was illegal in every state in the US when I launched the challenge.


So we had to help change the water laws and regulations and get pilot exemptions, and a lot of that's still ongoing. So you know, the water systems, I mean, some of it's very simple. We're promoting that people work within the water balance. We're collecting rainwater. We always make sure that human health is taken care of. We insist that there's water quality testing and that there's appropriate treatment without chemicals.

So in my own house-- you might find this interesting-- so I'm building a house right now. And in my county, it's the first-- in fact, it's one of the first anywhere-- rainwater only. I'm off the water grid completely, so I had to convince the health department, the building department in both the county and the city, had to end up writing my own ordinance to get the city council to pass to allow me to do it.

But I collect all the rainwater off my roofs, and that's 100% for all my water. Potable water, everything. I have composting toilets where we're making soil. And then I have UV lights and carbon filters and testing for making sure that the water is great quality.

And rainwater is distilled water. It's beautiful water. But when it sits in a tank, magic things happen, when you invite life back into a system. So that's why you have to make sure that it is treated before you drink it.

And it's the same system we have in the Bullitt Center. So people come in and use that water. So I'm happy to share more about any of this stuff to the class at any time, guys.

And for those of you who are not as familiar with the Living Building Challenge, it's not just a certification. It is an advocacy program as well. So there are things that when they're illegal, it requires you to go and take whatever steps you can, short of filing lawsuits, to try and appeal and get government approval to do certain things. And it also keeps you on your toes, right? Because you have to show that this stuff actually works.

And so it's neat in that it's not a rating system. It's not just a certification. It's a whole-- it's actually a sustainability solution in itself, because it takes in the social, the economic, and the design aspect of it, the environmental aspect all into one. It's a movement. So our other question from a young student group is, with an old, abandoned building, what kind of steps do you need to take to make it a living building? And thinking about-- so what you got going on right now?

Yeah. So in that particular building, we did a test of, what's in the building? Of course, we've got lots of lead paint, and we have asbestos and all sorts of magic stuff that we used to put in everything, right? So step one, after we figured out what's in there is we're going to be abating it, making sure that those materials are not in the building anymore.

And then it's a trick in terms of honor-- you know, honoring this is a national trust building, but honoring that building in terms of its architecture and how it was built. But also in bringing it up to standards, for obviously all the lighting is going to be LED lighting, and we're going to have to, when we replace the windows, replace them with better windows that meet historic profiles at the same time.

We're going to be insulating everywhere we can with the non-toxic insulation. We're going to be using radiant systems for comfort, because it's going to be harder to make it as perfect of an envelope as doing a new building. So we don't want to heat the air as much as we want to heat people and surfaces. So there's things we do, right? You can do all these things. Again, it's how you do it. It's not a prescriptive path. You've got to figure out the right solution for the given project.

OK. And whose question was that?

Good question.

All right, great. Did you get some [INAUDIBLE]?


Audience: OK, good. Good. All right. Here's a question. How do your buildings promote contact with the natural world and foster biodiversity on site? And this is actually just a little plug right now as we're running a biophilia competition right now in the issue, and there are some of the judges that are here in the room who are experts in biophilia and biomimicry.

But essentially, it's to form an interdisciplinary student team and propose a design for incorporating nature or nature's patterns into one of the fitness centers at one of the campuses or the Memorial Union. Or if you've got some other project that you really want to do, you could do that as well. So got some flyers on that outside afterwards. But biophilia and biomimicry are very integral to the Living Building Challenge and to sustainable and green building.

McLennan: Yeah, I mean, in a lecture like this, it takes several hours to really go through the Living Building Challenge. I would encourage people to download the program. It's free, again, to download the program, the Living Building Challenge. We have a Living Product Challenge. You can download that if you're into the product side. And we have a Living Community Challenge if you're interested in more of the neighborhood scale or the campus scale. And as you said, we do focus a lot on site-related issues, habitat, and also on the impacts that the natural systems have on human health and well-being.

And I've also mentioned that other programs are emerging. Obviously, the Biomimicry Institute I think is pretty active here, and they're fantastic. It's so great to see biophilia finally starting to make its way into so many different things.

But bottom line, if you're not familiar with biophilia and biomimicry, which are very different areas, is that we evolved to be around nature, right? This is not normal human habitat, what we're in. So we spent most of our time awake when the sun was out and asleep when the sun was down. We didn't evolve to have upholstery.

And so people that sit too much develop health problems, which we know. I mean, the best thing you can do for your health is to be outside, to be exercising, to be in nature, psychologically and physically. And the WELL Building Standard is a new tool that's out there that people can look at that gets at a lot of these issues. So anyway.

Audience: Great. OK. Here's a contrarian question. Why is nuclear fuel not desirable?

McLennan: Oh, man. That's a big subject. But first of all, I could say that it's completely unnecessary in terms of now what we're able to do with true renewables. I think that any technology that requires vigilance on generations not yet born for hundreds and thousands of years is an immoral gift to be given to a future generation.

Audience: That's great. So it's an inter-generational issue. Sometimes it's today's generation if you happen to be in Japan. Do you have examples of how students have been able to convince their university to build a living building?


McLennan: I think there probably are examples of that because we do have living buildings. But examples where they-- you know, I should ask some of the deans and the heads of the schools where we're seeing these. And now I'm curious whether it was their students needling them or whether their professors were needling them, or whether it was their idea.

You know, at Yale-- I mean, all the institutions where-- you know, we're doing something at Antioch College in Ohio. Were starting a Living Building project there. Very progressive little college.

The students want this stuff, right? And the schools see that as a way of attracting students that care, that want to be in a school that has these values. So in that way, at a minimum, the people that are building living buildings on campuses-- Georgia Tech, where we're doing a living building in Georgia right now. Their students want this. I would say the administration is embracing this now there, which is exciting. But yeah. Now I'm curious to poll them and to find out, where's the leadership coming from? Yeah.

So did Georgia Tech-- one is underway then.

They're in design right now.



Good. Well, and I would encourage all the students out here, just ask. You would be surprised at what happens at ASU and at any educational institution when you ask. Students are listened to. I get emails sent to me. They get filtered down from the president's office every week. They come from students or community members or staff members. All they did was ask.

You know why universities should do this too? What we're seeing, you can raise more money from wealthy donors quicker by doing something that is world class. And when you go to a donor and you say, do you want your name on this average building--


--or do you want your name on one of the world's greenest buildings that is completely healthy to be in, and students will learn better in? And wouldn't you like your brother's sister's, uncle's, father's name on that? And so it's a reason.

Yeah. It'll get you there. And we'll do one here at ASU, right? Patty? Were We're going. Do it. OK. Let's see. Has the Living Building Challenge worked in any way to directly educate the medical field? That's interesting.

You know, it's a tough nut to crack, the medical field. I mean, we've certainly-- and of course, it's a big field. We have had a lot of folks attend our seminars and our conferences that are from different aspects of the medical field. Definitely a lot of professors that teach at institutions show up. There's no Living Building hospitals that exist. There certainly is pockets of innovation in these areas that we see.

But some of the most unhealthy buildings possible are in the medical realm. Some of the most energy-intensive and wasteful facilities are in that field. And they tend to be driven by rules of thumb and standards that have not been challenged for years and years around-- and sometimes, yeah. Just sort of very stubborn folks, I would have to say. This is being recorded, this part.



How many people in the audience have known somebody you went to a hospital to get treated for one thing, and they came home with something else?


Yeah. So I know several years ago, we used to own a green building supply store, and one of the products that we carried was marmoleum. It was natural linoleum. And they were finally having some success getting into hospitals.

Yeah. Where vinyl's the standard.

Yeah. Yeah. Much healthier way to go.

I mean, the great thing is the researchers are discovering how much quicker people recover from surgery when they're in rooms with daylight, when they have views, when the air quality-- I mean, some of it's very obvious, but instead we design hospitals that are not living buildings. They're dead buildings, you know?

And I believe there was a study in Texas regarding views, daylight and views, and that patients that were given a room that had a view to a more natural setting, to some kind of green space, that they actually received their medicine correctly more often than others. That the nurses essentially had a higher rate of dispensing the wrong medication in a room with a patient that didn't have any view or daylight.

It was quite a study to hear about. So it's not just the patients themselves, but it's actually the people that work in the hospital that are impacted by the building as well, which they spend the most time there. OK. All right. Did you want to follow up on that?

Audience: Yeah, yeah. I was just wondering what it is you intend to do about it-- I hesitate to call it the necessary evil-- but for example, medical research, right? You have all the big fancy machines and all the chemicals, and all that stuff. And it takes a lot of energy, and it requires a lot of chemicals, and some of that has to be mined. Some of it's just not great to get your hands on, but you have to do it to advance certain fields of study.

Do you propose a complete, like, refocus and a shutdown of all those things? Or do you propose, like, general community buildings don't use it, but for research purposes-- how do you propose [INAUDIBLE]?

McLennan: Well, every building type can be better than it currently is, first of all. When hospitals-- I mean, we worked in laboratories, we've worked in hospitals, and there's a lot of waste that is anything but bad design, right? And if you look at the best hospitals and the best labs and compare them to the worst, they might be doing the same damn research, but might be using twice as much energy and water. So even just getting the facilities that we have up to best practices is a huge improvement.

And then you mentioned equipment that we plug in. There hasn't been much incentive for manufacturers of hospital equipment to be energy star-rated, or that kind of thing. But over time, that needs to become a push, that we need to make sure that all plug loads in a building, all equipment loads, they need to do their job. They need to provide the services we need them to. But they can be designed more efficiently.

And there just hasn't been much pressure for that for many of those industries, those areas, to be better at something like efficiency. That's not been-- we need engineers to reinvent the design of those equipments. And that will happen, and that's already happening. Refrigeration equipment is a great example where we've had innovations and huge reductions of energy in refrigeration because of other industries. That gets translated then over into the medical sector, because refrigeration in some sense, is refrigeration.

But you get onto the more specialty equipment. The first time you have a new device, the inventor's goal wasn't to make it energy efficient. The goal was just to make it bloody work, you know? So it takes time, right? And so I think there's so much room for improvement. So that's the first answer I give anyway. We could keep talking about it.

All right. And how are we doing on time?

Audience: We have about [INAUDIBLE] minutes [INAUDIBLE].

Does anybody have a question? Go ahead.

Audience: Hi, there. What do you think is the biggest hurdle to overcome as far as, like, human mentalities, human tendency, in the pursuit for a sustainable future?

McLennan: Yeah. And it is human mentality that's the biggest barrier. You know, because people used to think it was, well, we don't have the technology, right? We used to lament that we need to invent something. And we have everything we need, technologically, to have a completely different way of living on this planet. Things could be more affordable sometimes. They could maybe be more efficient sometimes. But the barriers are mostly people, you know?

I lived for 10 years in the "Show Me" state in Kansas City, Missouri. And you know, it's true. You have to show-- people have to experience something. If it's weird to them, it's not what they're familiar with, they're going to be resistant to change. If You know what I mean? If they haven't seen it work themselves, they're going to be hesitant. People are conservative around change, and it's understandable.

But the best thing you can do is to throw a better party, to build a better-- you know, that's why Tesla's getting all the interest they're getting. They built a damn good electric car, and all the people that said electric cars will have, you know, poor range, they're clunky, they're slow-- I had an electric car that I bought. This is an interesting story. It was the bleeding edge at the time. It was called a Corbin Sparrow. Anyone know the Corbin Sparrow?

And I lived in Kansas City, and I had a single-seat enclosed jelly bean-looking electric car. And people, they tried to run me off the road. They thought I was some freak. But it's true. It fell apart. It spent more time in the bloody shop than on the road. Had a terrible range. The batteries were lead acid. They were awful. And how are you going to convince people to get off gas when the alternative is in the garage all the time? Right? And I thought it was neat, but I was kind of crazy.

But at Tesla, I challenge anyone to drive for a week in a Tesla and go back to their normal car and say, well, I think the car just got obsolete the way I had it. I mean, it's faster, it's quieter, it's safer, it stores more, it has a range that's now 280 miles. I have a Tesla now. I drove to my relatives. I didn't pay a cent the entire way, because Musk has figured out a whole distribution system for supercharges. So an eight-hour journey through the mountains was free in both directions, and it took me 25 minutes to recharge it. I had a cup of coffee, went out at free, 280-mile range again.

And now in another year, there's going to be a $35,000 car that's coming out, which is the whole point, right? And Chevy's putting out their version, and others are putting out. So when you do those things, you don't have to convince people if it's better. We're never going to convince people based-- not everyone's going to be a green warrior. Not everyone is going to give a shit. We don't need them to if we do something that's better.

Living buildings are better buildings. You can take people in these buildings. They're healthier, like I said. They're more comfortable. They're economically better in the long term, and they're becoming better soon up front. When they do, we win. That's the message.

So you can't go through life thinking you'll convince everybody to your viewpoint. You never will, right? You make sure the choir has the right message, and is on message. You convince those that are open-minded. And everyone else, you throw a party and welcome them to. That's how you make change.

Audience: That's great. That's a great way to end it. So thank you very much for showing us. That's what you've done here and your work throughout your life, throughout your career.

If anybody gets a chance to tour a living building, if you're going to another city, if you ever get to see the Bullitt Center, anything like that, you can go on the web and you can look up-- that's part of the Living Building Challenge, is actually they create an educational website about the building. So go. I encourage you. They just feel better. It's just different. It is better. So like the Tesla. So thank you for showing us. We do have a dessert reception that's going to be outside. And do we have the books as well?

Yes, OK, we'll have some of Jason's latest book, which I spent the weekend reading. It's fabulous. So if you'd like to purchase a book and have Jason sign it, that's going to be outside as well. So join me in thanking Jason.


Thank you.

This presentation is brought to you by Arizona State University's Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute