Eight years ago, Tom Elliott and Barbara Scott took a fortuitous road trip. The couple was driving from Bend to Southern Utah to go backpacking when they heard an interesting broadcast on public radio. The program featured Seattle architect Jason McLennan discussing the creation of his new green building standards, called the Living Building Challenge (LBC). His challenge was for people to craft buildings as self-sustaining as plants. At the time, Elliott and Scott were planning their own “uber-green home” in Bend, but McLennan’s message inspired them to go further. “We just looked at each other and said, ‘That’s exactly what we want to do,’” Elliott said.
The couple met in Montana, where Elliott was a sustainable cattle rancher and Scott was a school administrator. They bonded over a shared love of the outdoors and together enjoy backpacking, hiking, cycling and skiing. Since Scott had previously raised her daughter in Tumalo, she knew Bend would suit them, and they relocated in 2006. While searching for a new home, they felt strongly it should be sustainable. Then Scott made a lucky find while riding her bike. She found adjacent lots for sale within walking distance of the Old Mill District.
Buying them made building an “extreme green dream home” possible.
They just weren’t sure how extreme or green they would go until they heard McLennan’s challenge. “I’ve always been an adventurer,” Scott said. “And this topped the list of adventures.”
The Living Building Challenge asks a simple question: “What if every act of design and construction made the world a better place?” Projects that pursue certification must meet rigorous performance standards that follow regenerative design principles. For example, a living building produces more energy than it consumes, captures and treats the water on-site, and is constructed of materials that pose no harm to the environment, economy or social fabric. Yet these benchmarks are only part of the program’s framework.
What differentiates the Living Building Challenge (LBC) from other green building paradigms is its holistic approach. The LBC has seven areas of focus, called petals. In addition to energy, water and materials, there are categories for health, beauty, site and equity. Each petal has its own criteria, from car-free living in the site petal to clean indoor air in the health petal to ADA-compatible design in the equity petal. “The actual process of meeting those imperatives is quite challenging,” Elliott said. “So challenging that very few buildings in the world have been able to meet them yet.” According to the International Living Future Institute, which administers the LBC, as of May 2016 there were eleven buildings in the United States that had achieved full certification.
Scott and Elliott wanted their double lot to support a compound, including a modest main residence, two detached garages, and two apartments for guests or to rent. In order to tackle the LBC’s comprehensive approach, they assembled a diverse team. “There’s just not one aspect of the building that isn’t considered or referenced in the Living Building Challenge,” Al Tozer, the project’s designer, said. “It’s a very integrated process.” As such, the project required extensive coordination between Tozer’s studio, Timberline Construction and an array of experts, including a water systems engineering team, energy analysts, a sustainability consultant and landscapers from Hart Springs Landscape Design. “It was really a team approach,” Tozer said.
True to the program’s name, living buildings pose multiple challenges to traditional construction practices, most significantly, the team discovered, in the areas of water and materials. For instance, while the LBC stipulates all water for use must be captured on site, the team’s concern was harvesting enough. “Water became such a huge focus in the project because we are in the High Desert,” Elliott said. The intensive brainstorming to resolve the issue spawned the project’s name, Desert Rain.
After extensive research and modeling, the solution was the implementation of a steel roof catchment system, complete with seamless gutters that funnel rain and snowmelt through a gravel filtration system, to be stored in a 35,000-gallon underground cistern, where water receives additional carbon filtration and ultraviolet disinfection before use. Water-saving appliances and fixtures help maintain ideal storage levels over the long haul, while an on-site constructed wetland bioreactor treats the graywater from sinks, showers and clothes washers for all outdoor irrigation.
Regarding waste management, vacuum flush toilets—“ship’s toilets,” Elliott explained—work with a composting system. Of course, the team needed approval at state and local levels to permit systems that don’t rely on conventional supply and sewer connections. This would ultimately take four years of negotiations, but the results are triumphant. “Nothing has gone into the sewer from our three residences for two years, and we’re 100 percent rainwater and snow-melt driven,” Elliott said. “No water comes from the city.”
For construction, every single material had to be vetted to prioritize local sources, reduce carbon footprints, promote ethical production and exclude toxic chemicals. With more than 500 materials used for the project and many manufacturers resistant to transparency, this review and documentation was no small undertaking for sustainability consultant M.L. Vidas. “It proved to be harder than we thought going in,” Timberline Construction owner James Fagan said. Necessity breeds creativity. The plaster contractor formulated a lime-based exterior stucco from mostly Central Oregon ingredients. Interior finishes include clay plaster walls, reclaimed wood ceilings, tiles composed of recycled window glass and concrete floors prepared with the basalt excavated from the ground beneath them. “It was amazing how the different people involved embraced [the LBC],” Elliott said of the collaborative effort the project inspired. Scott agreed: “There was really a sense of pride for everyone.”
Since moving into their home in 2013, Elliott and Scott have reason to celebrate. After completing a one-year performance audit, they learned Desert Rain is the first private residence in the world to receive full Living Building certification. Moreover, they relish the daily reminders that their home embodies the interconnectedness of people and the planet, whether listening to the sound of rain dripping through the gutters en route to collection or stepping on floors made of Myrtlewood from the Oregon Coast. “We have a real sense of connection to everything here. Every material and every person who installed those materials,” Elliott said. “It’s a more interactive way of living.”