The 2013 Living Future conference was held recently in Seattle, Paladino’s home city. After three days of hearing from visionary speakers, attending informative workshops, and meeting passionate green champions, I was left with one thought: it’s not about the buildings.

Living Future is hosted by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), a non-profit organization that administers the Living Building Challenge program. Billed as “the world’s most stringent performance standard” for buildings, Living Building projects challenge owners to seek the highest standards of resource, habitat, and cultural balance.

The Living Future conference attracts the industry’s most rigorous technical thinkers and leading green building visionaries. However, many more of the discussions at Living Future were focused on social transformation rather than building innovation.

It’s About the People

As stated in an earlier post, people-focused solutions create lasting change for sustainability. That was the clear message at the conference.

Keynote speaker David Suzuki summed up both the struggles and opportunities that our green building industry faces. He spoke of his life’s work in advocating for practical solutions to climate change, including protesting damaging resource extraction projects and speaking out against weak political will.

What is his regret? To have spent too little time helping people find their connection with the world that supports them. He made this simple observation: every human shares the basic need for clean air, water, and food. However, so little of our built environment acknowledges this.

Buildings are routinely constructed based on human-conceived metrics such as monetary value or energy performance. However, this process creates a mental disconnect with how we manage the natural resources that support our survival.

We have lost touch with why we build. So working to change human mindsets around building to fulfill our basic priorities — to support the life of our own species — will make a profound difference in the way we interact with the natural world, structure our economies, and build our communities.

Sharing Experiences at the Local Level

Prior to the conference, members of the Cascadia Green Building Council, comprised of 15 branches under the auspices of ILFI, met to share their experiences with affecting change at the local level.

During this Branch Summit, few spoke about their built projects or physical accomplishments. Robert Phinney shared that his DC branch became much more active and developed richer solutions when they connected with people outside the building industry — educators, city government, community leaders, and local workers.

Similarly, Priya Premchandran, with the Portland branch, insisted that their Living Building Challenge advocacy had greater impact because their leadership was intentionally selected from diverse backgrounds. Their work was more about reaching a wider community than solving technical problems for building project teams.

The Just Initiative

On the last day of the conference ILFI announced its newest initiative, called Just. This voluntary disclosure program calls for companies to be transparent about how they address social justice issues, ranging from gender equality in pay to worker health and fair treatment.

You might wonder what business a green building organization has in attempting to regulate corporate responsibility, but this was precisely the message at Living Future. The Living Building Challenge is not about constructing better buildings — it’s about making lasting change in people that will help to create a better world.

Creating Change as a Green Builder

The speakers and discussions at the conference made me think about what it means to be a green builder, because so much of our work at Paladino centers around organizational change and helping our clients identify what is truly valuable.

We know it is no longer enough to simply be the technical expert on the team. Changing buildings is the easier part – there are specialized solutions to solve almost any energy, water, or material imbalance. We have much greater impact when we assume the role of advocate, storyteller, educator, and collaborator.

Our charge is to convey the context of sustainability goals that are both practical and personal. By influencing the people who design, build and live in our community, we will create change that lasts much longer than any building.

Andrew Lee is a Green Building Consultant, LEED® AP BD+C in Paladino’s Seattle office.

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