'Living' buildings are 'true sustainability,' speaker says

"Living buildings" can and must be built that draw all their energy from the sun, that capture, use and purify the water that falls on them, and they must be built only on land that's already been developed.

That's the vision spelled out Tuesday by Jason McLennan, CEO of Cascadia Region Green Building Council, a Northwest region think tank that's trying to help builders, architects and city planners overcome fear of change and make the leap to sustainable building.

The green-building movement has gained momentum in recent years, but green gains have been offset by an increase in house and vehicle size, wiping out energy savings and leaving many people in an anxious limbo, McLennan told several dozen professionals at the Lithia Springs Hotel in Ashland. They know changes have to happen, but they don't know how to do it, he says.

"We don't have very many years left to make profound changes in the way we're building. If you're thinking about getting green, you don't tiptoe anymore. It's just as hard to make big changes as little changes. If we don't, we're going to be asking our children and grandchildren to make a leap that's unsafe for them," said McLennan, who hosts green workshops around the region.

For the last two years, Cascadia has operated a program called the Living Building Challenge. The group certifies homes and commercial buildings that are net-zero energy users, completely powered by the sun. The buildings contain only non-toxic construction materials, have on-site waste treatment systems and don't use municipal water except for drinking.

McLennan called this "true sustainability," as contrasted with present building codes whose standards he branded as "the worst allowable by law." He compares the green-building movement with other great social and technological transformations in U.S. history, such as ending slavery, increased production for World War II and moon landings.

He admits the Living Building vision is radical, but adds he's "been blown away by the response."

Key to the shift to green building and sustainable energy use is a new level of cooperation, where architects, builders and engineers all work together instead of working in "silos" and passing their plans to each other, he says.

Local architect Jason Zook, a member of the Rogue Valley branch of the Cascadia Region Green Building Council, said increased demand is bringing down the prices of photo-voltaic panels and other green-building materials — and that education is the most important part right now because a lot of people understand the seriousness of the issue but don't know what to do about it.

Darrell Boldt, an Ashland builder who attended the talk, said some builders have been practicing green building here for 20 years, and with the motivations of record gas prices and global warming, people want to build in ways that minimize waste.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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