Green to Green: The Challenges and Opportunities of Sustainable Building

We reduce, reuse, and recycle in our home. Each week, my nine-year-old daughter is responsible for gathering up the plastics and paper recycling and getting it all out to the collection bin. My son—who, at 13, is a bit older and stronger—carries out the heavier assortment of glass bottles and jars. Both kids were in the inaugural class at Bend’s William E. Miller Elementary School, the first school east of the Cascades built with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold Level certification. Each grade level at Miller incorporates an environmental science unit as part of the curriculum. As such, I’ve been lectured by people half my size on shortening my shower time and turning off lights when I leave a room.

We take our reusable bags to the grocery store. We turn off the water when brushing our teeth. And as the old incandescent light bulbs burn out I replace them with more efficient compact fluorescents.

We are so green.

Or so I thought, until I started researching Desert Rain, Tom Elliott and Barbara Scott’s home-in-progress in Bend. Their LEED- and LBC-certified home uses FSC certified wood and will be free of CFCs, HCFCs, PAHs, PFCs, and PVCs, and will have minimal, if any, VOC content—and if any products do have VOC content they must meet SCAQMD 2007/2008 regulations. NAUF wood products are essential.

Got that? If you know what all those acronyms mean, then consider the following a re-cap. But for many people, the planning of this “ultra green” home can provide a broad view of the very leading edge of sustainable design, building, and living. We are now in the realm of extreme green, and I’m on the lower slope of a steep learning curve. But after spending a week with Tom and Barbara, and getting to know some of the myriad people with whom they’re working, I’ve come to understand that the design and construction of Desert Rain is a learning experience for everyone involved. While “building green” is not a new concept, taking it to the level that Tom and Barbara are is a new concept, and one that people will watch and learn from for decades to come.

Beyond LEED to Living Building

Let’s start with the acronyms, two of which form the foundation of what makes Desert Rain truly unique. Desert Rain is being built to achieve standards defined by the International Living Building Institute’s Living Building Challenge (LBC)—these standards set forth what is perhaps the most advanced measure of sustainability in the built environment possible today. It is also being built to meet LEED Platinum Level certification requirements—the highest level of LEED standards.

The LBC standards go beyond LEED’s efficiency standards to provide guidelines for a home that is truly sustainable. As a certified Living Building, Desert Rain must be net-zero energy, net-zero water, non-toxic, provide for habitat restoration, and incorporate urban agriculture. Desert Rain should be able to stand on its own for 200 years, drawing only on water collected at the home site from annual precipitation, and generating electricity solely via solar panels and, possibly, a vertical wind turbine. All waste will be processed on site through composting and bio-organic methods. It is a home built to stand on its own and to stand the test of time.

Live Local, Build Local

Just as many communities are seeing a burgeoning “live local” movement, LBC standards require that all building materials be sourced from within a certain radius of the home, with the heaviest products—such as lumber—needing to travel the shortest distance; and indeed, the fir used in the framing is coming from forests in Oregon. So you will find no environmentally friendly products imported from Switzerland or Italy or Germany here. After all, if a product must be transported halfway around the world, much of the “green” factor is lost in the huge carbon footprint left behind. When new wood is called for, Desert Rain incorporates Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified wood harvested sustainably in the northwest. Some wood features and accents will utilize materials reclaimed from a variety of places—including buildings that previously stood on the home site, as well as an old potato barn from Prineville. Because of these reclaimed materials, every room in Desert Rain will have a history even before it has been lived in.

The home is now well under way. If you were to visit the site you might think it was just any other custom home. Nothing screams “green” with a cursory glance. But hidden in that foundation is fly ash, which was collected by pollution-control equipment from the smoke stacks of coal-burning power plants. All of the wood is, of course, FSC certified. If you have spent any time on a construction site you might notice an absence: there is no dumpster here. To be LBC certified nearly all construction waste must be diverted from landfills through re-use and recycling.

Desert Rain in Progress. February 23, 2012.

The home still has a way to go; it will likely be early 2014 before it’s finished. But even when the home is complete and Tom and Barbara have moved in, they will still have a long certification process ahead of them. LBC certification is based on actual—not projected—performance. The couple must live in the home for 12 months, after which time an on-site audit will assess if the home has meet all standards. If it is LBC certified, Desert Rain will be one of the first personal residences in the world to have met the Living Building Challenge.

After a week of reading up on LEED and LBC, and working my way through a stack of library books on sustainable living (sorry Deschutes Library patrons— I’m the one hogging those books for the next two weeks), I feel like I’m finally coming up to speed. I’m excited to work with Tom and Barbara as they continue on this amazing, demanding, and ultimately rewarding adventure. In the coming weeks and months we’ll talk about all aspects of the project—from designing to building, and from sourcing materials to encountering roadblocks. It’s all on the FSC-certified table.

For more information about Living Building Challenge, visit

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