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:

Solar Collector Panels at Desert Lookout

The Challenges of the Living Building Challenge: an Unglorious Look at Our Experience

We haven’t spent much time discussing the challenges of the Living Building Challenge, but this month certainly exemplified some of the challenges we have faced throughout the process of creating Desert Rain. August has been marked by delays, unknowns, and revisions – all of which, over time, have weighed on Tom and Barb as well as the rest of the Desert Rain Team.

Don and Bill

Don Kruse and Bill Mastous of TAC are all smiles after finishing the wood siding and soffit for Desert Lookout.

Living Building Challenges

It’s important to point out that we have been fortunate to have a team brimming with optimism and dedication from the start. Without each person’s willingness to work through problems, discover solutions, and muscle through the tough times, our project would surely not be as beautifully functioning as is it today. That said, there have been many challenges that pushed each team member near their breaking point.

Struggling with Solar Collection for the Blackwater System

Throughout the construction of Desert Rain, we have had to seek out unique materials, often struggling to find products that met the LBC requirements. We have had to trust technologies that our entire building community was unfamiliar with, and often we have gone down one path, only to realize that we needed to backtrack and try again.

The solar collection panels for our blackwater system are a prime example of revisions done on the fly. As construction of Desert Lookout was progressing, the team realized that there were unforeseen issues with the panels that will collect solar heat to help the blackwater compost and evaporate. When the team realized the originally planned placement of the panels would not allow for enough direct sunlight, we had to take a hiatus in construction. This pause in construction, though driven by the placement of the collector panels, then delayed the ducting and electrical work being done inside and some of the exterior finish work.

As the team gathered additional information, we realized that because Desert Lookout is situated directly north of the garage for Desert Rain, creating more shade in the area, and keeping the ambient air temperature considerably cooler than areas with full sun. In addition, we realized the overhang of the eve shaded the panels too much during the summer months, thus reducing the amount of heat they deliver to the evaporator system.  After recalculating solar angles and panel efficiency throughout the year, the team decided to add an additional west-facing panel and lower the panels somewhat to improve year-round efficiency.  Since the original overhanging eve would still cast shadows on the panels, we also decided that the eve will need to be trimmed back – only a few weeks after the siders finished installing the gorgeous reclaimed T&G soffit.  Sigh…a time-consuming and expensive oversight on our part.

Striving to Move Onward 

While these struggles certainly affect us, Barb and Tom and the rest of the Desert Rain Team are committed to moving forward. Challenges, after all, will make us all more suited to support future LBC projects of our own and of others.  We will continue to make progress –  the solar collector panels were installed late last week.

Solar Collector Panels at Desert Lookout

The solar collector panels on Desert Lookout will provide heat for the backwater composting/evaporating system.

If you or your team are considering undertaking a Living Building Challenge project, we whole-heartedly recommend you do so. And we are more than willing to share our experiences with you. What challenges are you most concerned with? Please feel free to contact us with your questions.