Desert Rain House Earns First Residential Living Building Certification

Desert Rain House located in Bend, Oregon, has become the first residential compound to earn Living Building certification, the most ambitious and optimistic international standard of sustainability in the world. Developed by the International Living Future Institute, the Living Building Challenge certification requires actual, rather than modeled or anticipated, performance across environmental, social and community impact. Therefore, projects must be operational for at least twelve consecutive months prior to evaluation.

“Barbara, Tom and the entire project team made a serious commitment to becoming what is now a powerful demonstration for regenerative design,” said Amanda Sturgeon, CEO of the International Living Future Institute. “They have also provided a beautiful and compelling blueprint for others to be inspired by and to follow. Certification of the Desert Rain marks a defining moment in the Living Building Challenge – a fully certified, multi-family residential project that is beautiful, just, and has a net zero impact on the environment.”

Six years in the making, Desert Rain earned certification by demonstrating that its five buildings produce more electricity than residents use each year and that 100% of water requirements are met by captured rainwater. In addition, toxic chemicals were screened from all building materials and all wood was reclaimed or Forest Stewardship Council certified. Human waste from the three residences is composted on site and all greywater is processed and reused for irrigation.

“Barbara and I built Desert Rain as a demonstration project and personal residence. If a residence and two apartments like this can be built in downtown Bend, Oregon, they can be built in any municipality,” said Tom Elliott, co-owner with Barbara Scott. “We hope the project will inspire others to reflect on the possibilities in their own built environment.”

Desert Rain has produced more energy than it used in each of the past three years due to its highly efficient design incorporating passive solar and a very tight building envelope.

“We can’t continue thinking we are building a better world by making a “less bad” version of the world we have created,” said Elliott. “The Living Building Challenge forces us to think in terms of a new paradigm.”

Barbara Scott, co-owner of Desert Rain, said, “It’s important to remember, Desert Rain is the loving and hard-earned result of a multi-year collaborative project between owners, designer, contractors, sub-contractors and the community at large. Bend is now home to one of the greenest buildings in the world.”

James Fagan, one of the owners of the general contractor Timberline Construction said, “Desert Rain was at least as much process as project. The technical challenges were many and some quite daunting. Together we managed to find our way to a fulfilling and beautiful outcome. As a general contractor on our first Living Building project, it was inspiring to be able work through this challenge with such an amazing team.”

“Dozens of design, engineering, and construction team members embraced the highly integrated design/build format vital to making the Desert Rain dream a reality,” said Al Tozer of Tozer Design, LLC.  “A pioneering residential effort, Desert Rain showcases what the world needs now more than ever – commitment to a clearly stated goal, collaboration of all stakeholders, open minds and creative thinking – to solve our planet’s most pressing environmental challenges.”

“Plants take longer to grow in the desert, but when there is a bloom it is stunning. The Desert Rain House is the product of years of thoughtful planning, design and perseverance led by two courageous owners,” said Jason F. McLennan, Board Chair of the International Living Future Institute and Founder of the Living Building Challenge. “What they have achieved is an example for us all: a better way of living and perhaps more importantly for all people touched by the project, a new way of thinking that will seed further blooms of change.”

About the Desert Rain House

Desert Rain is a residential compound consisting of three residential units and related out-buildings encompassing a total of 4810 square feet. The first residential compound in the world to be fully certified under the stringent Living Building Challenge, Desert Rain is also LEED Platinum certified and Earth Advantage Platinum certified.

Built as a demonstration project, Desert Rain is one couple’s exploration of the question, “How do we remake our human-made systems to align positively with what we know creates sustainable and resilient communities?”

Learn more about Desert Rain through our extensive case study:

Desert Rain House: Resilient Building, Sustainable Living in the High Desert  by Ecotone Publishing

About the International Living Future InstituteDesert Rain House-Resilient Living

The International Living Future Institute is a hub for visionary programs. The Institute offers global strategies for lasting sustainability, partnering with local communities to create grounded and relevant solutions, including green building and infrastructure solutions on scales ranging from single room renovations to neighborhoods or whole cities. The Institute administers the Living Building Challenge, the environment’s most rigorous and ambitious performance standard. It is the parent organization for Cascadia Green Building Council, a chapter of both the United States and Canada Green Building Councils that serves Alaska, British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. It is also home to Ecotone Publishing, a unique publishing house dedicated to telling the story of the green building movement’s pioneering thinkers and practitioners.

Desert Rain Earns LEED Platinum

Desert Rain been certified LEED Platinum. LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) is a green home certification system for homes that are designed and built to be energy- and resource-efficient and healthy for occupants. Platinum is the highest level awarded by the USGBC and is considered one of the world’s most authoritative benchmarks for high-performance green buildings.

Desert Rain is a residential compound that is the result of years of planning, hard work, and a dedicated team. Homeowners Tom and Barb set out to build a home, to share what they learned with the community, and to educate future homeowners, construction professionals, and municipalities.

“While LEED Platinum was not our primary objective in building Desert Rain, we felt it was important to participate in both the LEED program and the Living Building Challenge.  This allowed us to compare and contrast the two premier certification standards.” said Tom Elliott, co-owner with Barbara Scott of Desert Rain.


Beauty on Site

Living with Nature – Beauty and Challenge

Beauty on Site

Beauty on Site


A hummingbird stopped by while Barb and I chatted in the courtyard.

An important part of the Site Petal in the Living Building Challenge is the restoration of a healthy co-existence with nature. The team has worked diligently to create spaces onsite that support native flora and fauna, making Desert Rain a space shared with the area’s wildlife. Living with nature can offer great beauty and pose interesting challenges.

Well within Bend’s urban area, delicate and drought tolerant plants attract migrating hummingbirds. Native shrubs and grasses provide shelter and food for resident deer. Carefully chosen plants prevent the spread of invasive species while simultaneously contributing to the overall health of the soil. Mature trees protected through the construction process provide shade, food sources, and homes for small animals like squirrels. It’s a beautiful place to be for every being.


The Challenges of Living Together

Deer Rubs on Saplings

A typical deer rub on one the Desert Rain saplings early this Fall.

While every creature is welcomed at Desert Rain, some pose a challenge. Take our resident deer herd, for example. Male deer rub their antlers on tree stems and trunks in the early fall. Bucks do this to remove the velvet that has been growing on their antlers throughout the summer. They prefer small trees, usually one to three inches in diameter – like our very newly planted serviceberries. The vertical scrapes and shredded bark are problematic for our saplings because the bark (the xylem and cambium layers) makes up the tree’s system for carrying food from the leaves to the roots. If the rubbing is too severe and the bark is removed all the way around the tree, the flow off food is cut off and the tree will die.

Tubes to protect trees from deer rubs

These tubes protect small trees from deer rubs.

Can we live with nature while maintaining our carefully landscaped spaces? A quick web search for deer rubs results in many ways to keep deer out of a yard. But Barb and Tom are not trying to keep the deer away. Instead, they have turned their attention to protecting their newly planted trees in a way that doesn’t push the animals away. Simple tubes passively protect the young saplings, while the deer still happily bed down in the nearby grasses. It’s a wining compromise.

Living with Nature



The Kitchen Sink Faucet

Living On Rain: Water Collection and Conservation

Water collection, conservation, and treatment is a part of daily life at Desert Rain. it plays a profound role at Desert Rain- influencing not only the design of the home, but the site development as well. Tom and Barb have prepared and practiced mindful water usage for some time – even before moving in to Desert Rain. And now they want to share and inspire that same thoughtful conservation.

The Kitchen Sink Faucet

The faucet in the Desert Rain kitchen pours delicious rainwater.

The Living Building Challenge Water Petal

Earning the LBC Water Petal poses a very real challenge for Barb and Tom. It requires that they use only water that has fallen as precipitation on the property, and that the site retain all of the water collected and used. Doing so requires large cisterns and onsite water treatment facilities for gray water and black water. The limited nature of this resource is especially apparent and easily measurable for Tom and Barb. Living on rain means the couple and their guests will have all of their water needs met by the 11.2 inches of precipitation that falls each year in Bend.

A Shared Acumen: Water is a Precious Resource

Desert Rain Bathtub

Taking a bath is a very special treat.

All of the appliances and fixtures at Desert Rain have been selected for their water efficiency, yet the most important component of water conservation is the person with their hand on the tap. From rinsing dishes in the sink and running the tap to get the desired temp, to brushing teeth and taking a shower, each of us is ultimately in control over the water we use.

As welcoming hosts, Barb and Tom want to share their mindfulness about water conservation with their guests. And their guests are very enthusiastic about learning more and doing their part. But how do we waste water and what does personal water conservation truly look like?

How much water does is take for a person to live a healthy and prosperous life? The answers vary widely. The Average American uses 400 gallons of water per day, while the average African uses 5 gallons of water per day. Some US municipalities have set goals of 140-170 gallons per person, per day. Barb and Tom have set a goal of 30 gallons per person, per day.

Typical Home Water Usage

By living within this goal, Desert Rain will collect and recycle enough water for Tom and Barb and their guests to be graciously hydrated, clean, and surrounded by beautiful vegetation.

Life on the Blue Planet

We live on a planet made of water. Why bother? Because all the water that will ever be is, right now.

While the thought of all the water in the world is unfathomable, water is an intensely precious resource. Three quarters of the Earth’s surface is covered with water, 98% of that is salt water and not fit for human consumption.  What’s more, of the 2% that is fresh water, about 70 percent is locked in glacial ice and 30 percent in soil, leaving under 1% readily accessible for human use. Each drop is irreplaceable.

We invite you to read more about Water on the Desert Rain compound.

Additional Water facts via:

The Scratch Coat of Stucco

October – Progress in Pictures

It’s hard to believe October has ended, but a look back at the work done at Desert Lookout proves it has been a busy month. Inside and out, dramatic progress is visible. Stucco and tile, trim and stairs… we’re all getting very excited by the signs that we are nearing the end of construction.

The Scratch Coat of Stucco

Elite Plaster applied the base – or “Scratch Coat” – of stucco early this October.

Scratch Coat

The grooves of the base layer of stucco will be hidden by the finish layer.

We’re making leaps and bounds with our water treatment system.

Desert Lookout Composting Toilet

The toilet in Desert Lookout is a traditional composting toilet – going directly to the Phoenix unit on the main floor.

Dishwasher connection

Not just a hole – this area has been dug up to disconnect the dishwasher from the sewer. It is now going to the composter/evaporator unit in Desert Lookout.

Surface finishes like tile are being installed.

Jason is installing tile some if is left over from Desert Rain and some has been collected as remnants from other construction projects in Bend.

Jason is installing tile. Some of it is left over from Desert Rain and some has been collected as remnants from other construction projects in Bend.

Finish work is well underway. Window and door trim is in, stair treads have been installed, and beautiful details are being added.

Steve is working with Versatile Carpentry to install the finish work at Desert Lookout.

Steve is working with Versatile Carpentry to install the finish work at Desert Lookout.

Tamarack Stair Treads

Pieces of Tamarack ready to be made into stair treads for Desert Lookout.

Tom and Bill

Tom and Bill from Versatile Carpentry find time for a little silliness while installing the finish trim to Desert lookout.

Finish Carpentry

Rather than source the wood needed to create a specific style of finish work, we are using remnants from Desert Rain and customizing the finish work to meet the supplies we already have.


From Trees – Honoring the Wood We Use

Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.  ― Franklin D. Roosevelt


A beautiful, healthy Tamarack still looks over the Desert Rain Compound.

Similar to understanding where our food comes from, understanding where the wood we use comes from is important to the entire Desert Rain process.  From the very beginning of this project, Barb and Tom have given a great deal of thought to the trees on the property, those recently harvested elsewhere (FSC only), and those harvested long ago who still offer immense value.  From the reclaimed lumber of previously existing houses on site and the memorial ponderosa, to the tamarack now being milled for Desert Lookout, Barb and Tom are mindful about the trees involved.

Memorial Ponderosa Plaque

The Memorial Ponderosa Plaque welcomes guests in the entry of Desert Rain.

When the large , 201 year old ponderosa on the property had to be taken down, Barb, Tom, friends, and volunteers planted 201 ponderosa saplings in Shevlin Park on the westside of Bend. They further memorialized the beautiful tree with a memorial plaque, created by Bill Sturm of Oregon Timberworks, and with a new tree planted inside the old ponderosa’s stump.

The nation behaves well if it treats its natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value. ― Theodore Roosevelt

Tamarack Stair Treads

Pieces of Tamarack ready to be made into stair treads for Desert Lookout.

And now, wood from another, smaller Tamarack is being milled for use on site.  The tree had to be taken down, but rather than having it chopped it up for firewood or having it hauled off like yard debris, the beautifully grained wood will continue to be a part of the Desert Rain compound.  The team from Versatile Carpentry has just finished installing the Tamarack stair treads in Desert Lookout. They will be an elegant connection to this place for many, many years to come.

lime based stucco that they used for the exterior on Desert Rain. But Elite Plaster isn’t using old world technologies just because they result in a beautiful end-product that requires the honed skills of classic tradesmen. This stucco also has a lower impact on the environment and results in a healthier home.

Scratching the Exterior of Desert Lookout: the Benefits of Lime Based Stucco

The ‘scratch,’ or base, coat of stucco is up at Desert Lookout and the team from Elite Plaster will be using the same, lime based stucco that they used for the exterior on Desert Rain. But Elite Plaster isn’t using old world technologies just because they result in a beautiful end-product that requires the honed skills of classic tradesmen. This stucco also has a lower impact on the environment and results in a healthier home.

 lime based stucco that they used for the exterior on Desert Rain. But Elite Plaster isn’t using old world technologies just because they result in a beautiful end-product that requires the honed skills of classic tradesmen. This stucco also has a lower impact on the environment and results in a healthier home.

Lower Environmental Impact

Most stuccos are made with Portland Cement which has many downsides:

Manufacturing cement takes a lot of energy.  For every ton of cement manufactured, about 6.5 million BTUs of energy are consumed.  In the production of each ton of cement, about one ton of carbon dioxide is released.  Experts estimate that cement production contributes to about 7 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from human sources.  For every ton of cement that is replaced by an alternative substance, we save enough electricity to power the average American home for 24 days, and reduce carbon dioxide emissions equal to two months use of an automobile.

Lime for stucco

The product applied to Desert Lookout is a mixture of sand, straw, bentonite, and lime – instead of cement.  Though not as commonly used today, lime has many advantages over cement.  It is a nearly carbon neutral material.

A Healthier Home

After construction is complete, the use of lime will have the additional benefit of making the stucco breathable – meaning it allows air-borne moisture to travel freely through, instead of being trapped inside the wall systems.

It stands to reason that moisture collection inside the walls would be bad for the Desert Lookout structure.  It’s also bad for the people inside. Moisture leads to fungal growth and there are a growing number of studies that link allergies, immuno-depression, and illness to the amount and type of fungal growth in a building.

Desert Lookout Stucco Process Stucco brings us one step closer to finishing up the exterior of Desert Lookout. Though the weather in Bend has been quite warm, we’re anxious to get as much of the exterior complete before the snow starts to fly.


Stonework on Desert Lookout

September: Progress in Pictures

September came in fits and starts for us with the construction of Desert Lookout – the newest part of our Living Building Challenge Project. We took huge steps forward, followed by small sticking points, and then more big lurches forward. This is nothing new for a building outside of the traditional box and we continue to keep our enthusiasm for moving forward.   Installing the Phoenix composting system was a huge mile stone for us. You can read more about how this component will  compost and treat our blackwater here.

Tom and Advanced Composting Systems

Tom and Glenn Nelson from Advanced Composting Systems in front of the newly installed black water composter.

Blackwater Composter

Our new Phoenix will compost our black water – a very important part of the LBC water petal.

The Phoenix Composting ToiletWe’re very pleased to be including biophilia into our landscaping:

New plants for Desert Rain

New plants for Desert Rain from Winter Creek Restoration are ready for planting.

Desert Lookout will have a hybrid insulation system which helps us manage expenses while maintaining a high level of insulation.

Blow in with spray foam hybrid insulation

A hybrid insulation system is helping us manage expenses during construction while providing long-term benefits.

We moved beyond another challenge of building a LBC project, getting the eve trimmed back.

Trimming the eve

We had to trim back the original eve to allow for the solar collector.

drying out the cistern

The leak in our grey water cistern had to be repaired. A large fan was used to dry it out before applying a new layer of waterproofing.

Bob Buckmann with TVM

Bob Buckmann with TVM was in the grey water cistern, checking on a new layer of waterproofing.

Richard from Clausen Drywall.

Richard from Clausen Drywall has been drywalling since he was a teenager, working for his dad.

Hand texture for the drywall is complete

Hand texture for the drywall is complete.

Jared and Scott from American Painting and Prefinish .

Jared and Scott from American Painting and Prefinish are staining the wood siding.

ready for stonework

While we get ready for stonework, Winter Creek Restoration has been planting.

Ready for stonework

We’re ready for stonework.


Stonework on Desert Lookout

Stonework on Desert Lookout.

Another month down. And we’re ready for October!

3 Keys to Understanding Biophilia in Landscaping

I recently sat down with Rick Martinson, owner of Winter Creek Restoration, to discuss Biophilia as it relates to landscaping.  Biophilia is a philosophy based on the bond between human beings and other living systems and while it has gained some traction in the architectural industry, it only just beginning to be explored as a methodology for landscaping.

Tom and Barb have certainly embraced the principals of biophilia for the entire Desert Rain project.  To someone unfamiliar with the concept, its application in landscaping is a great starting point.

Whether you have had a chance to chat with Rick and his team from Winter Creek at Desert Rain, or you have run into him at your favorite local coffee shop, it only takes a moment to understand that Rick is intensely passionate about the relationships between plants and people.  But when pushed to winnow the philosophy down to a few key points, he happily offered these 3.

New plants for Desert Rain

3 Keys to Understanding Biophilia in Landscaping

It’s not the current norm to give considerable thought to how each created landscape functions as an ecological and integrated system. Most frequently, we see landscapes that have been designed solely as an aesthetic component of a built environment. But if we look at the landscapes of our homes, businesses, and municipal spaces with a perspective based in biophilia, we can see that landscapes are functional systems.

Rick offers the analogy of a traditional zoo.  Until recently, zoos were a collection of exotic creatures living essentially together, but never really interacting. When we plant trees and shrubs merely for their aesthetic value, it is easy to neglect to understand how they will interact together.

#1 Landscapes are Working Systems

A landscape that is designed as a dynamic system considers not only the broad climate of site, but also the effects of the system on wildlife habitat, soil condition, water and air quality, and human health (mental and physical). Using a biophilia methodology requires that we consider how the plants selected will interact with each other, how they will be affected by the space itself, and what they will contribute to this created environment. Plants, soil bacteria, and fungi work together to create shade, conserve water, access nutrients, to ward off disease, pests, and even survive natural disturbances like droughts and floods.

You can read more about the relationships between plants in a previous post explaining “resource islands.” 

#2 Plant Richness and Plant Density Create a Self-sustaining System

Landscaping elements can be divided into functional groups (trees, mosses, grasses, shrubs, fungi, etc), each occupying a specific environmental niche. Each group is made up of a huge variety of species. When you increase the number of functional groups as well as the number of species within groups, you do something amazing for your landscape or created environment.

Plant group and species diversity with plant density increase nutrient cycling at a microbial level. This means the landscape system is able to feed itself without the use of added fertilizers.  Biodiversity increases ability of the landscape to survive pests invasions. Because most insects and diseases are plant specific, an infestation will only affect one or two species within a diverse plant palette. A rich plant pallet will attract a greater variety of birds, mammals, and insects. This, in turn, helps spread native plants that will contribute to and thrive within the landscape system.

While this richness may seem novel, it also creates a landscape that can take care of itself. A thoughtfully created environment becomes one that changes and adapts to disturbances and contributes to all beings’ welfare (including humans) rather than being a tax upon others.

#3 Landscapes Require Plants that are Appropriate to Each Location

You may look around your hometown and note that many of the plants you see are the same – surmising that these plants do well in this climate and therefore are the best choice for your landscape. That may lead down the wrong path. Often, landscape designers and installation companies work with the same small plant palette. In fact, across the country, a similar, narrow plant palette is used regardless of the landscape location.

You may also look around the wild or undisturbed areas near you and see very similar plants. A wild space near Madras, Oregon may look a lot like a wild space near Brothers, Oregon – a sage field with juniper.  What you don’t see are the differences in the understory. For example, the understory of both of these locations include buckwheats, but they are actually different sub species specific to the slightly different rainfall and soil types of the areas.

Choosing the right plant for the environmental conditions in that site is crucial to creating a healthy functioning landscape system. Choosing the right species and sub species reduces the resources needed to get them to work as a system and increases the success rate of the landscape.  Even a carefully created landscape will need some support (water, mulch, etc) when it’s first installed. After about 3 years, the system will have created small micro climates, established networks between the fungal communities in the soil and the plants, and will be able to take care of itself.

Understand Where You Live

Whether you are considering a new landscape or are just interested in learning more, you can conduct your own research project that will give you a richer understanding of where you live.

Identify your eco region and identify the plant associations within your specific eco region.

First, find your eco region (level 4*) by using this map. This is very different than the USDA growing regions that you may be familiar with. 
*level 4 indicates the level of specificity

Next, you’ll need to identify native plant associations. You can start by looking for a reference community – an undisturbed space within your eco region that shares similar features (rocks, shade, exposure to sun, etc). You can use online resources like native plant societies in your region, survey maps from the 1800’s, and GLO maps.

You’ll soon realize that this is not an easy or quick project, but it will be one that is quite informative.  Let us know what you discover or reach out with questions.

Tom and Advanced Systems Composting

Installing the Composter for Composting Toilets

Last week, Glenn Nelson from Advanced Compositing Systems (ACS), made the trek from Whitefish, Montana to Bend, Oregon to deliver and install our blackwater composter. Earning the LBC Water Petal requires that all of the water on the Desert Rain property is collected as well as treated for use again and again. Having a system of composting toilets means that all of the backwater onsite will be treated, making it safe to reuse for landscape irrigation. (see graywater and blackwater permitting)


Tom and Advanced Systems Composting

The Phoenix Composting Toilet

ACS manufactures the Phoenix Composting Toilet out of rotationally molded polyethylene. The polyethylene used in the interior baffles is post-industrial recycled. The Phoenix Composting Toilet

How does the Composter work?

At first, the composting chamber is “charged” with wood shavings, peat moss, and water to provide an environment that will be conducive to biological decomposition. Waste, brought from the residences toilets to the composter via a vacuum system, will gradually build up in the tank and decomposes through the action of aerobic bacteria. The Desert Rain system will include vermicomposting – adding worms to aid the process. Within in the composting unit, there is shaft with tines that is rotated to mix the decomposing waste and ensuring adequate oxygenation.

Blackwater Composter

Closing the Loop

In the immediate future, the traditional water toilets will be replaced with vacuum toilets. We’re looking forward to seeing the first installed in the ADU so we can conduct some initial testing on the system. Then, it’ll be all systems go!