Living Buildings for a Living Planet

Jason F. McLennan

I have long felt that the environmental crisis is also a crisis of faith and a deep manifestation of how society has lost touch with ways of living equitably and justly in community on this planet. For many years now, society’s message on the environment has been that we need to change our ways in order to “save the planet” and “save future generations” from the excesses of our lifestyles and technological pursuits. Both framings have induced complacency, an unhealthy distance from the issues. The climate crisis was always something out there, just far off enough in the future to excuse us from immediate action – an abstract, distant threat competing with seemingly more urgent issues closer by.

But the global climactic disruptions we now see are so indisputable, backed by such unprecedented agreement of science, and so widespread in its threat, that further inaction is no longer morally permissible. The extreme weather effects of climate change are descending on all of us living today, not some future generation or far off cohort. The rates of decline of global habitat and species counts are more than disturbing trends. Alarmingly, they are of immediate consequence to our entire food chain.

As an architect and urban planner, I have long grappled with the fact that it is our buildings and city designs that have the largest single impact on issues of climate, material extraction, and resource use broadly. Humanity’s largest artifacts create significant negative upstream and downstream impacts, and yet, with just a few exceptions, we continue to build in the same ways we have for decades, with only modest, incremental improvements due to better codes and technologies. A green building movement has worked hard to minimize damage yet ultimately amounts to little more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Many of the biggest environmental laggards have been our churches and other religious institutions, owners of real estate worldwide. Why? Certainly, many lack funds to address issues like energy use, or they struggle to grasp the built environment’s true impacts on people and health. But perhaps there also exists a real disconnect – an unhealthy separation of the expression of spiritual values from living in ways authentically aligned with them. Without addressing our real impacts within the realms we directly control, our faith might at best look ineffectual and ungrounded, at worst hypocritical and dishonest.

When I launched the Living Building Challenge in 2006, it asked a simple yet profound question – “What does good look like?” How do we do good in the world while meeting our needs for shelter?

Surely this is a question of relevance for any faith tradition. The generally accepted idea that we just need to build buildings that are a little less bad than conventional – using less fossil fuel and recycling materials – is wholly inadequate to the grave global challenges facing us.

It is not acceptable to pollute more slowly, give cancer to just a smaller population and warm the planet just a little less, even though millions of people’s lives are at stake. Yet this is the best that most “green buildings” achieve.

Living Buildings take a different approach, requiring buildings to have a net positive impact on an ecosystem, with no harmful emissions released through operations, and adapt themselves to place and climate just like trees and plants surrounding them. Given what we’re facing, “good” can be defined as nothing less than all of humanity playing the active role of healer, looking for every opportunity for the regeneration of our planet.

Yale Divinity School has embraced these ideas as central to a 21st-century eco-theology and taken a position of leadership so that future students who live and learn at YDS are exposed to a new relationship with the planet marked by a stewardship ethic. These students will experience first-hand how it is possible to align values with architecture and inspire change as they go out into the world to lead congregations or pursue other callings and ministries.

With planning underway now, the Yale Living Village will replace aging residential facilities at YDS with affordable dorms and community spaces that are powered completely by renewable energy, use only rainwater for all water needs, and treat all water and waste onsite before recharging the aquifer. The village will be built with non-toxic materials and will showcase healthy interiors filled with daylight. Designed to last more than a century, possibly two, the village will signal a new hopeful era, demonstrating to the world how faith institutions can use their values to inform the architecture they own and manage.

Jason F. McLennan, a world leader in the green building movement, is CEO of McLennan Design and founder of the Living Building Challenge. Winner of the Buckminster Fuller Prize, he is the author of Transformational Thought: Radical Ideas to Remake the Built Environment (Ecotone, 2012) and other books.