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Credit: Karen Moskowitz

When he was a teenager growing up in Ontario, Canada, Jason F. McLennan decided he wanted to become a green architect. With this in mind, he carefully crafted an environmentally conscious career path. Several decades later, he is CEO of the Cascadia Green Building Council and the International Living Building Institute; the author and founder of the Living Building Challenge; co-creator of the Pharos Project, a building-material rating system; and founder and CEO of Ecotone Publishing. He has written four books, including The Philosophy of Sustainable Design. recently spoke with McLennan about his journey so far and the path ahead.

Tell us a bit about your new book, Zugunruhe: The Inner Migration to Profound Environmental Change, and how that concept plays into sustainability.

Zugunruhe is a German word that biologists use to describe a phenomenon that exists in many animals that migrate. It means migratory restlessness. Before geese migrate, they go through this process called zugunruhe where their behaviors change as they prepare themselves for this great journey. I’m using that as a metaphor to talk about how the green building movement is our own zugunruhe. We’re preparing for a great journey, a great change in the way we as a species live on this planet.

The heart of the book is a series of lessons for someone experiencing his own zugunruhe and realizing that he wants to be part of the change. These people want to get into green building and the movement, but no one has taught them how to be a change agent or how to be effective. In that sense, the book is self-help meets green building. It’s about the inner change that you have to begin with before you can create outer change.

What sparked your own interest in sustainability?

I grew up in a northern Canadian mining community, which was one of the most ecologically devastated landscapes in the world. Sudbury, Ontario, was kind of a moonscape, especially when I was growing up. I remember wondering why other places looked very different and much healthier.

Growing up I had a chance to participate in Sudbury’s greening campaign, which continues to this day and has won a United Nations commendation for environmental restoration. I got to plant a lot of trees and help heal the soil in my community. I saw trees I planted grow up in front of my eyes and the landscape change from this barren moonscape to a much greener place. I saw bodies of water rebounding and being restocked with fish. We didn’t use the word sustainability back then, but environmentalism was pretty strong in me from an early age.

As the CEO of the Cascadia Green Building Council and the International Living Building Institute, as well as the author of the Living Building Challenge, how would you define a sustainable building?

It’s certainly not defined by a single issue. In my first book, The Philosophy of Sustainable Design, I talk about sustainable design as a design philosophy … where we’re seeking to minimize or eliminate negative environmental impact while maximizing benefits for humanity. It’s about creating a great habitat for our species while also protecting and restoring habitat for all species.

It is about people, too. The whole point of building a sustainable building is to create an artifact for our use. It has to be successful in that area as wellit has to be a beautiful design that works. But while trying to do a beautiful building that works, we’re also trying to minimize or eliminate negative environmental impact.

In terms of the environmental impact of buildings, what do you consider to be the most pressing concern facing architects and allied professionals?

Unfortunately, there’s not just one most pressing concern. Sometimes people focus on just a single issue that they’re passionate about, such as climate change, but the problems we face are so interconnected and so great that we can’t afford to have a singular response. We have to try to solve multiple problems with the same solution. We need to be concerned about climate change, but we also need to be concerned about the rise of toxic chemicals in the environment, water scarcity and quality, habitat and species loss, and air pollution. We also need to be concerned about things that weren’t traditionally in the environmental camp such as social justice and equity.

In a sense, the pressing concern is that our professions have to be incredibly educated about a lot of different things and then try to understand how to navigate through these issues in terms of decisions such as: What materials should I choose, how should I design this building?

What was the impetus behind crafting the Living Building Challenge?

There were several reasons to launch the Challenge. One is that we need a greater sense of urgency in the movement. We need to accelerate the rate of positive change. Sometimes we have a tendency to rest on our laurels or get proud of how far the green building movement has come in the last few years. It has made big strides, but given the rate of environmental change on a global scale, our response has been inadequate. The Challenge conveys a sense of urgency on how far we need to push ourselves. We aren’t going to be successful with light green solutions.

The next piece was that we felt our movement didn’t have a very clear sense of what the end game looks like, and without a clear sense of destination, you can’t properly chart a course. Once people have a sense of where they should head, it’s amazing how fast they will figure out how to get there, even if it’s a really challenging destination. Until we put out the Challenge, there weren’t buildings that were both net-zero-energy and net-zero-water. The standard gave them somewhere to go.

How did you decide how far to push the targets in that first iteration?

We tried to be as holistic as possible in terms of the areas of impact, and we also wanted it to be achievable. I wrote it knowing that everything in the Challenge had been reached individually, but they had not been reached together.

This past fall, the first Living Building certifications were issued. What’s next?

Our ultimate end goal is to change the way we build. We need to rethink our cities and our buildings and everything in our communities so that we can stick around on this planet. More pragmatically, in the short term we want to see examples of this kind of performance in communities everywhere. We need living buildings in every building type in every community.

What do you think most sets the Challenge apart from other green building systems such as LEED? One main difference, of course, is requiring a minimum of 12 months of operational data.

That’s one of the biggest things: that we deal with actual measured performance. We think that’s really important. Interesting enough, we also deal with subjective issues that no other program deals with. For example, we’re the only program that also says beauty is important to performance, and we look at things like food and transportation in version 2.0 of the Challenge. Another difference is we have one unified standard that crosses building scales and applies to all projects. You can do a living building park, a living building remodel, a living building house, or a neighborhood-scale project, and they all follow the same standard. What you do to achieve the requirements changes dramatically and it’s up to the design team to figure out how to do that in each context. So the responses are infinite, but the system is simple.

How do you judge those more subjective elements?

It depends very much on each element. The beauty petal is the one people often are most interested in. The criteria in that petal are softer than when related to energy, which you can specifically measure. Our purpose in examining beauty is not to be beauty judges. What we’re trying to find is intention and whether the project teams are designing with the intention of creating a place of beauty. In our standard, the owner, the occupant, and the architect have to submit essays as to why the building was designed for human delight and why it will be a great building. If the occupants hate the building and the architect thinks it’s great, there’s a good chance they won’t get that petal.

It isn’t based on what I think is beautiful. It’s more about perspective and intention. Is it going to be a building that people will take care of? When you don’t take care of something, it doesn’t operate efficiently and is more quickly torn down or not properly maintained. Beauty is important to performance.

For more information on the Living Building Challenge, visit ilbi.org.