Portlanders pride themselves on their cutting-edge green buildings.
In the early 2000s, the U.S. Green Building Council rated several Portland buildings Platinum — the highest level certification in the council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, or LEED.
The city scored many “firsts” in the U.S. for Platinum ratings: the first condominium in the Henry in the Pearl; the first historic renovation in the Gerding Theater; and the first med-science facility in OHSU’s Center for Health and Healing, to name just a few.
But there’s a much more stringent rating system known as the Living Building Challenge. It goes way beyond LEED by mandating buildings produce more power than they consume, harvest all their water needs from the rain, process all their waste water on site, and prove that all of the materials used are healthy, among other goals.
A handful of buildings across the world have earned the rating — most of them office, research or educational buildings. But last month, a Bend couple succeeded in earning the country’s first Living Building certification for a single-family home. They call the project Desert Rain.
On a pile of basalt overlooking the Deschutes River, just a few blocks from downtown Bend, Tom Elliott and Barbara Scott have built a cluster of structures that comprise the greenest home in Oregon. You can pull into a driveway, or you can walk up a trail through a recycled old gate.
Elliott, Scott and their designer Al Tozer together built four structures: a house, an accessory dwelling unit or ADU, and two garages, one with a studio on top — all surrounding a courtyard. The structures comprise about 5,500 square feet in all. To the east is an underground, constructed wetland.
It’s all a carefully orchestrated system.
Elliott worked on his grandfather’s ranch in Montana where he bred cattle and pioneered many green ranching practices. Scott is a former special-ed teacher and entrepreneur. They are both dreamers.They met after other marriages in Montana and moved to Bend to build their dream home. They began designing it, then heard the founder of the Living Building Challenge (LBC) — UO grad and Bainbridge Island-based architect, Jason McClennan — on a TED Talk.
McClennan started the Living Building challenge in 2006 “to help encourage the building industry become as green as humanly possible,” he said. “The Living Building Challenge is the world’s most stringent and progressive green building program.”
LBC asks projects to achieve the highest level of performance possible in energy, water, materials and a host of other categories. It’s different than LEED certification in that they two programs are different tools.
“LEED is really trying to get the mass market to move a few steps forward in the right direction and move the industry in the right direction,” McClennan said. “Living Building Challenge is about trying to bring clarity to where the endgame is. How do we need to build to really address the pressing environmental problems that we’re facing and prove out a big leap forward?”
Whereas LEED is pushing from below, McClennan said, LBC pushes from above. “They work nicely together in that way,” he added.
The challenge presents its criteria under “Petals”: Site, Water, Energy, Health, Materials, Equity and Beauty.
But don’t let the hippie-power image fool you. The challenge’s criteria are rigorous and technical. For instance, with materials, a Living Building can’t have any materials made from the so-called “red list” of 813 toxic building compounds. There are obvious ones like asbestos and chlorofluorocarbons. But there’s also polyvinyl chloride, an ingredient you’ll find in almost all plastic pipes and in otherwise energy efficient vinyl windows. Or hexavalent chromium, used in welding.
Meantime, most of the wholesome materials have to come from within 1,500 miles — one-third of them from within 300 miles. That means you have to get a pass for fancy, green European stuff (who are way ahead of us in green buildings). And all that’s in addition to stringent water and energy requirements and the softer standards of beauty, equity and connecting with nature.
Lots of projects have earned a “Petal-rating” — a notch down from full certification.
“The projects that get petal certification are typically still going further than LEED Platinum,” McClennan said. “Just to put it in perspective. Usually the reason they don’t get full certification is they’re having trouble with just sort of one category in the challenge for various reasons.”
But they’re net-zero energy and net-zero water buildings in exemplary projects. In other cases, they might have run into road blocks on the Water Petal, failing to earn it because of some sort of regulatory hurdle.
Indeed, Elliott and Scott faced plenty of hurdles. Scott remembers the first time they presented the idea of “underground constructed wetland” — a system that cleanses water on-site without chemicals — to process all their gray water — the water from dishwashers and showers.
“I remember one of the early comments was, ‘You want to put a cesspool in the the city of Bend?’” Elliott said. “I don’t want to step on any city toes, here, but there was a very, very difficult process with a huge amount of effort from engineers and the state plumbing board and various people involved.”
The team persevered. Besides being the first certified LBC house in the U.S., the project has a rare potable rainwater system and a Class II Graywater System. Desert Rain earned a pass on the mileage requirement for its Norwegian vacuum flush toilet, which is the first in a U.S. house.
In the first two years, Elliott and Scott used nothing but the rain collected in their 30,000-gallon cistern and the house generated nearly 14,000 kilowatt hours of power — about enough to power an average house for a whole year.
A big goal of the challenge is to change building regulations, so that new green practices can become normal. But the old saying applies: Those who go first get the arrows in their back.
“I don’t think we had any concept how challenging that would be,” Elliott said. “Or how time-consuming and how expensive that would be. It was part of the process and it took a lot of iterations, a lot of patience to work our way through some of those regulatory issues.”
A Living Building also has to be about beauty, equity and nature. A curved wall — inspired by Tozer’s travels in Spain — unites inside and out. It’s covered in a lime plaster instead of stucco, which has red list ingredients.
“The people that did the stucco work said, ‘Well, you know, we could use this or the ancient Roman technique and we could build it almost 100 percent out of Bend, Oregon, materials,’ which is basically straw and clay and sand and lime,” Elliott said.
For the rafters and many details in the house, the team reused wood from a Prineville potato barn. For some trim details, they used rusted, corrugated metal that they steamrolled flat. Their landscaping feeds deer and yellow-bellied marmots.
And Scott, in particular, seems proudest of their reuse of a 201-year old Ponderosa pine on the site that they had to take down to photovoltaics that passively heat their living room. The slice has a place of honor in the home’s entryway.
“We honor this tree in a really special way,” Scott said. She organized a work crew and planted 201 pines in a local park. “I also counted how old the tree was and had a contest with all the people working here.”
She carved a ladle out of part of the tree, and the person who guessed right won the utensil.
Desert Rain was expensive. Typically, homeowners don’t talk about money. But the Bend Bulletin talked the couple into a series of articles detailing the entire process of construction and required costs be part of the story. And their openness helped earn them the Equity Petal in the LBC.
After six years of research and design (including one complete do-over) Scott and Elliott moved in in 2015. The finished product came in at $3.48 million, about $638 per square foot.
“I know it’s true that people look at this project and have judgment about the expenditure and just the elaborateness of all we implemented,” Scott said, “but I think if I were to do it again, I would do it in a way where people would look at it and say, ‘Wow, maybe I can do this.’”
“Just about anybody building something could bring something from this project into their process,” Elliott said. “Many of the systems here are not that expensive. It’s more that they — working through the regulatory issues, the design issues and the everyday process that took — in many cases that doubled the cost of some of these systems.”
Elliott hopes the couple has paved way for some people to follow in a way that it won’t cost them as much.
LBC originator Jason McClennan said it takes a certain type of person to do something so different from the status quo.
“The Living Building project owners have all been remarkable people [with] a willingness to take on more risk and a bigger mission,” he said. Elliott and Scott, he said, were two of the few that were trying to do the single-family home to the entire LBC standard.
“Then of course, being on the dry side of the mountain presented different challenges for water,” Mclennan said. “They educate[d] not only their sort of primary team members, like the architect and the builder, and everyone on the project down to sub-trades. They really lived this thing.”