With his "Living Building" competition, architect Jason McLennan of Seattle is challenging the world to create the ultimate in green structures. As the passionate CEO of the Cascadia Region Green Building Council, he's aiming to raise design standards to new levels.

Share story

STRIPPED OF TREES, lakes deadly to fish, rocks stained black by gunk that spewed from the tallest smokestack in the world. That was the landscape Jason McLennan knew growing up in Sudbury, Ontario, a nickel-mining town that by 1970 was the largest single source of acid rain in North America. A place so moonscape-bleak that NASA deemed it ideal for astronaut training.

But by the time McLennan was in middle school, Sudbury had begun to turn things around in drastic ways. He and other youngsters fanned out during regular field trips and summer weekends to join adult volunteers hauling bags of lime up barren hills to pour on acidic soils, planting trees and grass. Eventually the town even won a United Nations commendation.

For the earnest McLennan, who by then was already inventing utopian lands and composing songs lamenting overfishing, the lesson was profound: “We have an amazing capacity to damage the habitat of all living things while building our own, but we also have an ability to heal it.”

Then boom times came and spawned McMall sprawl; a hill he helped regreen with new trees was flattened “for a strip mall with stupid stores.” Anger, and epiphany, followed: Why rescue the town only to see it trashed again — this time by cookie-cutter development that was tone deaf to Sudbury’s unique place and culture?

What he experienced and came to understand in his hometown has everything to do, McLennan says now, with who he became and how he decided on his life’s mission.

Determination to change things led him to Oregon to study architecture among a small core of professors devoted to building green. Then to Kansas City to work for the man who would be called the professor Dumbledore of the dawning green-building movement. And ultimately to Seattle, where he’s launched a race among more than 60 teams from across North America to try to build the first “Living Building.” One that — from where it is and what it’s made of to how it serves the humans in it — is greener than anything ever built.

His goal is, first, to prove that it can be done.

But really, his plan is nothing short of radically transforming the way the world builds.

TWO WORDS explain why McLennan’s movement, which might have appeared hopelessly naive only a few short years ago, has increasing buy-in from movers and shakers: Global warming.

“It’s the architecture, stupid,” explains Rob Peña, an associate professor of architecture at the University of Washington who’s also an adviser on a proposed mixed-use Living Building on Capitol Hill for the Bullitt Foundation.”It’s easy to point fingers at Hummers, cars,” Peña says, “but our buildings contribute half the carbon we put into the atmosphere, if you count the energy it takes to construct and operate them and the embodied energy in their materials.”

But much like President Obama is taking the financial crisis as an opportunity to remake society in a progressive mold, McLennan’s Living Building standard pushes beyond energy conservation to more broadly address the long-term well-being of people and the environment.

Taking as its metaphor the flower, a Living Building must address six “petals,” including: generate its own energy with renewable resources; use only water falling on site; be free of “red list” toxic materials; be designed with an eye to beauty, suited to regional characteristics, and not on virgin land; maximize people’s access to fresh air and daylight.

And it’s all or nothing — meet every single standard and prove it over a year. This is way harder to achieve than even the highest (platinum) level of LEED, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, an increasingly popular rating system that gives buildings points for various green features.

It’s probably doable if, as Peña puts it, “you pull every rabbit out of the hat,” from smartest design to all available technology. But it’s another thing to make these projects pencil out in today’s capitalistic system that favors quick payback over long-term returns.

Making people face that uncomfortable truth is part of the Living Building Challenge’s provocative strategy.

“It’s asking people to rethink what they value,” McLennan says. Consider, he says, that for the average $60,000 to $80,000 spent on a new Seattle house for what’s considered the de rigeur two-car garage and bonus room, you could install energy-generating systems such as solar panels “and never have an energy bill.”

Of course, when you tried to sell the house without that garage and bonus room, “appraisers and lenders would punish you,” he says. But “instead of valuing size, shouldn’t we value quality?”

YOU COULD call McLennan’s vision hubris. If so, it’s a Canadian brand: tough but not shrill; polite. “Poetic,” in the word of a B.C. filmmaker working on a documentary about him. It’s the way McLennan’s been since he was a kid.

McLennan’s family recalls that his head was always in a book, when he wasn’t camping on his aunt’s wilderness island or winning the Canadian racewalking junior championship. (His dad says Jason never liked anything where anybody got hurt.)

At 19, McLennan headed to the greenest architecture program he could find. The go-go ’90s “were not a good decade to be green, by any stretch,” he says, but the University of Oregon had a small cadre of profs “still holding up the flame” lit by the “original solar rollers” of the energy-crisis ’70s. He studied alternative construction techniques such as making walls with straw bales, codirected the student-run solar center, began designing green houses to pay his college bills.

Peña, one of McLennan’s teachers, recalls “his wide-eyed ‘why-not?ism’ . . . that served him really well.”

When in 1996 Kansas City architect Bob Berkebile of BNIM sought a young University of Oregon grad for the firm’s new green initiative, he took the highly unusual step of hiring McLennan over the phone. Berkebile says he sensed “a change agent.”

BOB BERKEBILE had gone through his own hell-and-back epiphany that eventually led him to be labeled “the Dumbledore of green building.” He’d been a lead architect on the Hyatt Regency that collapsed in Kansas City in 1981, leading to more than 100 deaths and 200 injuries. He was haunted with the thought, “Did I kill all these people?”

While ultimately blame was pinned on structural engineers, Berkebile’s soul-searching led him to an Iroquois leader who taught him “to listen to the spirit within.”

Berkebile listened and heard this question: “What is the real impact of your designs on the people you intend to serve?”

Which led him to become founding chairman of the American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment, which led to creation of the U.S. Green Building Council in 1993 and its LEED system.

But when McLennan hired on, BNIM was just on the cusp of a huge leap. Berkebile had gotten a federal grant to figure out how green a building could possibly be, by constructing a prototype lab at Montana State University in Bozeman. Though the prototype was never built (probably for political reasons), McLennan says he got a virtual Ph.D. in “deep green research,” along with the genesis of the Living Building Challenge.

It also cemented his relationship with Berkebile, who tells how McLennan — tasked with booking their team’s Montana arrangements — worked it so he and Berkebile were housed separately from the others, then kept Berkebile up all night talking ideas.

Berkebile rewarded McLennan by making him a partner — at 30, the youngest in the firm. When McLennan started a publishing arm (featuring hisbook that’s widely used in colleges, “The Philosophy of Sustainable Design”), Berkebile invested. McLennan, he says, was “like one of my own sons.”

But kids do grow up and leave home.

BY 2006, Cascadia Region Green Building Council, the Northwest chapter of the education and advocacy organization, was seeking an aggressive new CEO. Clark Brockman, a Portland architect on the search committee, says they badly wanted McLennan: “He was a rock star.”

“Urgency,” is why McLennan says he accepted, despite a substantial pay cut. By then he’d translated Living Building into a performance-based design standard and was ready for it to change the world. He thought a nonprofit should launch it, or “people would be suspicious it was just a marketing tool.”

Cascadia’s board was game.

So McLennan and his wife, Tracy, an art historian by training, moved to Bainbridge Island, where they settled down with their blended family of four kids into a very green lifestyle.

They bought a five-level skinny house built almost entirely of salvaged wood. McLennan realizes he’s lucky to be on Bainbridge, “one of the few places you can live in nature but not in suburban sprawl” with an easy bus-ferry-walk commute to his Pioneer Square office so he doesn’t use their old van or Smart Car. He wanted that closeness to nature for Julian, 13, Declan, 6, Aidan, 3, and Rowan, 1, who love the trails that wind through the hills behind the house, the beach that’s steps away.

Seated in an old church pew, he works at home two days a week, a schedule that makes it easier for him to cook and bake from scratch. “Food is a big deal in our family,” he says, patting his stomach.

They keep chickens for eggs, grow some vegetables and eat almost exclusively local, organic, seasonal, sustainably fished and free-range. No red meat.

As he writes in “Zugenruhe,” a book he’s finishing about how to make an internal transformation to green (the title’s a term referring to birds’ restlessness before preparing for migration), you needn’t be “an eco-saint before you begin your own migration.”

To wit: While being photographed for this story, he buys some uninterrupted time from his kids by letting them watch a video. He’d fought against TVs, he says, with their constant drumbeat of buy-buy. But he lost. The family has three; one, at least, isn’t working.

ON A RAINY spring morning at Safeco Field, McLennan is speaking to several hundred people attending a sustainability trade show for the building-cleaning industry, surrounded by display tables for biobased degreasers, green floor strippers and the like.

He tells of his hometown, climate change and the miserable economy. Then segues to the promise of Living Buildings. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful,” he says, “if they were approaching the level of intelligence of a flower?”

A large cost study, he says, just compared nine buildings in four climate types and showed that, for the majority, cost over typical construction is 10 to 20 percent, with best-case scenarios 5 to 10 percent. “This, for buildings that will never have an energy or water bill.” Only nine years ago that extra cost was likely to be 40 to 50 percent, he says.

You might not think cleaning-industry reps would be on board with talk of intelligent flowers and remaking societies. But afterward, several say that green’s the future and a competitive advantage. One suddenly adds, as he gestures around Safeco Field: “Think about the difference waterless toilets would make in a place like this.”

AT 36, MCLENNAN is still as full of why-not fervor as he was in school. And despite the enormity of the change he’s seeking, he sees some encouraging signs. Cascadia’s staff and budget have grown to 17 and $3 million, its workshops and certification programs are full. A growing number of cities and states are adopting tougher codes and incentive plans (in Seattle, LEED silver is required for all publicly funded buildings), and the city of Portland is poised to include the Living Building standard as the top “stretch goal” above LEED Platinum.

McLennan’s hope is that pioneering projects will iron out design problems and lower cost barriers. Among them are: the Bullitt Foundation building, to start construction next summer with developer Chris Rogers of Olympic Sculpture Park fame and architects from the acclaimed Miller-Hull Partnership; an $80 million building in partnership with Portland’s redevelopment agency; and a holistic center in New York State by Berkebile’s firm — likely to be first across the finish line as a Living Building.

Given the pace of climate change, though, Berkebile says it’s high time for the national Green Building Council to put its muscle behind the new standard, something in negotiation. McLennan’s written his own timeline:

By 2015, he predicts, 10 to 12 percent of new buildings will be green. By 2050, population will peak, kept in check by a shortage of resources, disease and war.

Maybe 50 to 75 years hence, “despite hardships not seen since the Middle Ages,” people “will realize once and for all that their place in the world is no higher, or no lower, than any creatures on the planet, and that all are part of the same act of creation.”

He believes.

Carey Quan Gelernter is a Seattle Times staff editor and writer; cgelernter@seattletimes.com. John Lok is a Times staff photographer.