Imagine my good fortune: While attending the annual Living Future conference in Vancouver, Canada, last week (the annual conference of the Cascadia Green Buidling Council; my first time in attendance), I arrived just a few minutes late to the first afternoon session. Quickly working my way into the full meeting room, I snagged the first open chair I saw, at a round table near the back corner of the room. The session was entitled “The Red List and Beyond: Engaging to Find Healthy Materials & Transform the Industry,” and the panel participants represented a well-rounded group of practitioners. Among them was Anthony Ravitz, a member of the real estate and workplace services team for Google (which, I found out, opens roughly 40,000 square feet of new office space per week); Tom Lent, policy director of the Healthy Building Network; Robin Guenther, FAIA, principal in the New York office of Perkins+Will; Kirsten Ritchie, principal and director of sustainable design for the Asia/Pacific region of Gensler; and Nadav Malin, president of Building Green.

But the talent wasn’t limited to the front of the room. As I settled in, I glanced around and found myself surrounded by a wonderful mix. Directly in front of me sat Bill Walsh, founder and executive director of the Healthy Building Network. To my left were Chris Hellstern and Stacy Smedley, two designers from KMD Architects’ Seattle office who had co-founded the Restorative Design Collective, a group of Seattle practitioners who joined together, donated their time and talents, and recently completed the first Living Building in Washington state for the Bertschi School. To my right was a fellow from the Athena Institute, and directly behind me sat Pliny Fisk, founder of the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, which is celebrating its 35th year in 2011. And this was just at my table alone, nevermind the 10 or so other tables in the room.

I had expected my time in Vancouver to be inspiring, challenging, and rewarding, but after years of attending monstrous shows like Greenbuild, I never thought I’d have the chance to so closely connect with such a wide range of professionals on a one-on-one basis. Here is what I learned:

It’s essential to walk the walk.
On the first day in town, I first swung by the offices of Busby Perkins+Will (now Perkins+Will Canada) for a quick hello and tour. As faithful readers will recall, the firm’s leader, Peter Busby, Intl. Assoc. AIA, was our 2010 Evergreen Award winner in our Perspective column (re-read our Q&A here) and its team members are busy working on several Living Buildings in the Vancouver area (as detailed in a piece by Kathy Wardle, here). Walking through the firm’s light-filled three-story space, I was happy to find that when it comes to sustainability, the practice openly practices what it preaches. Its space is a repurposed warehouse that once had several small floors of offices in the front and a cavernous rear. Now, it’s an open plan office that centers on a three-story atrium, which is capped by operable skylights. The space is not air-conditioned and it is designed so that hot air rises up and out of the skylights naturally.

Earlier this year, I spoke with Jason McLennan, Assoc. AIA, the CEO of the International Living Futures Institute and one of the things we spoke about was his new book, Zugunruhe. The term refers to a restlessness that is seen in species before a big migration. His thesis is that the green building movement is our own zugunruhe, preparation for a great change in the way we live on the planet. (Re-read our January/February Perspective column here.) In participating in the green building movement, he asserts in the book, it’s essential to take stock of your own behavior and walk the walk.

Pay attention to the details
That afternoon, I attended a preconference tour of UniverCity, a Living Building under development at Simon Fraser University, where the design team, including the contractors, gave us a few helpful hints on the process of designing a Living Building. What are some must-dos? Include local authorities in the design process as soon as possible as they have jurisdiction that can affect decisions early on. Ensure that all the various departments working on a project are collaborating from the get-go and that they remain cognizant of the requirements of each department. Pay close attention to all materials coming on site, including those needed during construction, such as fencing around the job site. Finally, it’s also essential to embrace the learning process and accept that striving for something like a Living Building will inherently bring challenges—ones that should be embraced. (As McLennan noted in our chat, it’s called the Living Building Challenge for a reason.)

Use common sense
Back at that materials panel I first mentioned, the discussion’s main focus was red lists of do-not-use materials that is a notoriously tricky part of the Living Building Challenge. It’s a very complicated part of the challenge, filled with many gray areas and missing pieces of information. Yet, when you get down to its essence, the main tool in tackling this component is using common sense.

With this in mind, the session offered up the following 12 rules for evaluating material choices:
1. Avoid materials that are pretending to be something they’re not.
2. Consult your nose. If it stinks, don’t use it.
3. If they won’t tell you what’s in it, you probably don’t want to know what’s in it.
4. Just because almost anything can kill you doesn’t mean building products should.
5. If it starts as hazardous waste, you probably don’t want it in your house.
6. Use materials made from substances you can imagine in their raw or natural state.
7. Use carbohydrate-based materials when you can.
8. Question materials that make health claims.
9. Pay more, use less.
10. Regard “space-age” materials with skepticism.
11. If it’s cheap, it probably has hidden (externalized) costs.
12. Question the generation of hazardous waste instead of where to use it in your building.

Think big
Of all the points covered during the four days of keynotes, sessions, and tours, the concept of thinking big was a big focus of the conference. We were hosted by the city of Vancouver, whose mayor, Gregor Robertson, has vowed to make Vancouver the greenest city in the world by 2020. (The theme was also large: "Our Children’s Cities.") In his opening address on Thursday morning, McLennan urged the audience to think beyond the numbers. “It’s not about the number of Living Buildings or LEED buildings, but about the change in conversation,” he said. “Cities should be socially just, culturally rich, and ecologically restorative.” He encouraged people to think beyond individual buildings. “We have lost touch with what is essential, which is life,” he said. “Our job is to help people get back in touch with what is essential.” Other tidbits of advice: “Beware any technology that will save us. Technology can’t replace morality and ethics.”

But the phrase that most stuck with me was this: “The biggest challenges we face are human-imposed,” McLennan said. “They are the assumptions of what we can and cannot do.”

Since returning from Living Future, I’ve been mulling over my own limiting assumptions for myself and for ECO-STRUCTURE as a brand, and feel reinvigorated and energized to push ahead and dispel them. With this in mind, I suggest taking a moment or two, after browsing through the news, projects, and products presented in this month’s newsletter, to think about your own day-to-day challenges, assumptions and behaviors. If you are an ambassador of green, how are you fulfilling your title?