For years, sustainability has been more than just a buzzword in the construction industry – and with good reason. As stewards of a planet with limited natural resources, isn’t it in our own interest to build projects that consume less energy?

Here on the West Coast, and in Los Angeles in particular, we’re no stranger to building sustainably. Earlier this year, California once again found itself on the U.S. Green Building Council’s list of Top 10 States for LEED-certified buildings. The bulk of the new structures throughout downtown Los Angeles are highly efficient with many achieving a high level of LEED certification, but we can help take our green building approach even further.

Two years ago, as California wilted in drought, we were not fully equipped to maximize water re-use when we needed it. Last year, as the rains returned, we had the inverse problem: water running off to the ocean before being put to good use. Communities were quick to restrict lawn watering in the former instance, but there was no dash to create community- level rainwater collection systems in the latter. The City of Los Angeles is already looking forward with design requirements that incorporate gray water recover systems in anticipation of technologies that will become available to recover and recycle this resource. Imagine if we had self sustaining buildings capable of operating “off the grid” without relying on an already taxed system.

Now we are entering the era of the Living Building, the industry’s most rigorous performance standard to date. According to the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), Living Buildings operate as cleanly, beautifully and efficiently as nature’s architecture. Living Building Challenge construction – buildings that use net-zero water and energy among other environmental benefits – are enabling new technologies to be integrated into conventional buildings more than ever and can provide a next level approach to sustainable building that our City needs.

Implementation of new ideas is usually easier said than done. The Living Building Challenge has rigorous performance requirements for buildings, and can seem daunting to project teams already pressed for time and budget. However, the long term impacts for an owner to make this bold choice are significant, both to their local community and the campus, and will “pencil out” over the life of the project.

Those familiar with green certification systems may wonder how Living Buildings compare financially to a close neighbor, LEED Platinum. A High Performance Building Cost Effectiveness Study we did for the City of Santa Monica in 2015, showed that total project costs for a Living Building were approximately 13 percent higher than LEED Platinum and that the simple payback (not including cost of money, etc.) is 29 years for a Living Building compared to 17 years of a LEED Platinum building. In the future we believe that costs for systems used to achieve LBC will decrease over time. We did not attempt to quantify the health, wellness, productivity and societal benefits realized from the Living Buildings as part of the study.

Skanska’s vision to “build for a better society” pushes us to think for the future and focus on sustainable practices in everything we do. Skanska completed the West Coast’s first and the world’s fourth certified Living Building with the Bertschi School Classroom Addition in 2011 (certified in 2013), and has moved on to build two other Living Buildings, as well as several Net Zero Energy facilities. There are currently only 22 fully certified Living Buildings in existence, and only 400 registered Living Building Challenge projects in 23 countries around the world. There are only 50 certified Net Zero Energy structures.

As we look at the projected population and economic growth anticipated in our Los Angeles communities, we must reimagine the relationship between our built environment and the natural resources it takes to build and operate our buildings. We need to acknowledge that in order to push green design forward, sometimes it is necessary to take on new construction challenges like Living Building. The more we push ourselves to build as sustainably as possible, the easier it will be to achieve the green city of the not-too-distant future.

Dan Haas is Preconstruction Director for the Greater Los Angeles Area for Skanska USA Building Inc. Learn more at USA.Skanska.com.

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