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A UCLA class is trying to apply a strict building standard to an entire community.

Green building might be little more than a fringe hippie idea if not for certification. The medals and honors now available through rating systems have enabled a good and altruistic effort to become a highly marketable quality. LEED – Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design – is now the most well-known and well-used certification system, claiming nearly 9 billion square feet of space participating in its various certification programs globally. But it's not alone, and it's not necessarily the greenest of the green. The relatively new Living Building Challenge has been steadily gathering fans in the green building community for tougher-than-LEED standards such as net-zero energy and net-zero water.

"The Living Building Challenge has emerged as the high bar in sustainable design," says Walker Wells, director of the Green Urbanism program at the advocacy organization Global Green USA. He's had firsthand experience with both LEED and the Living Building Challenge and likes the fact that the Living Building Challenge requires many of the highest possible standards.

One house at a time, though, is a slow go. So Wells and his colleague Ted Bardacke have decided to see how well the Living Building Challenge could be applied to an entire neighborhood. They're teaching a design studio for urban planning grad students this spring at UCLA to test it out.

This is a concept that's been emerging in recent years. Since 2007, the U.S. Green Building Council has operated the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system. Global Green USA has been involved in two projects certified under the system, and while Wells says LEED-ND is a good program, he notes that some of its requirements don't go far enough.

The Living Building Challenge requires that every project meet each of its 20 strict requirements to achieve the certification. All sites, for example, have to be either greyfields or brownfields, meaning that they’ve already been developed and that they often have some environmental degradation as a result. This idea of renovating existing development to reduce its impact has huge potential in a highly developed world. And at the neighborhood scale, even more so.

"The idea is, how do we take place that’s already there, that has some development opportunities and plug in new stuff and modify what's there so that it can achieve some standard of sustainability?" says Wells. "How aggressive or radical do we need to be thinking in this effort to redesign and retrofit cities?"

To test out the concept, Wells and Bardacke are sending their students to focus on a neighborhood in Playa Del Rey, an area of Los Angeles next to the Pacific Ocean.

"There is a good density of housing. But then you could argue there's a terrible balance with jobs, and it's really underserved with retail and no public school in the area, but then great access to public space, both a beach and a lagoon," says Wells. "You look at it from that perspective and you go, wow, what an incredible place this could be. This could have a cohesive, village-like quality to it."

Making changes at a neighborhood level would include efforts like implementing complete streets, building green infrastructure, and even developing district heating and cooling. The principles behind these concepts are deeply entwined with the goals of the Living Building Challenge at the building scale. But making them happen for an entire neighborhood requires more effort: it's coordinating with city departments and public utilities rather than just pulling a building permit.

Wells says an important part of the studio will be to figure out how to do that convincing, and whether a case can be made that transitioning to something like district heating might be in the best interest of a public utility. It could very well be that they'd much rather stop having to maintain power lines and utilities and instead let neighborhoods implement their own mini grid or heating system. By testing out the applicability of the Living Building Challenge at this scale, Wells says, they may be able to find the strategies that can bring some of these ideas into reality.

"I think that narrative, at least at the conceptual level, is critical because otherwise you're coming up with a bunch of fantasy-filled ideas and it won't ever happen because nobody would be interested in doing that," Wells says. "Underlying our whole approach to this class is to say, can you actually do urban planning at a neighborhood level that would be net-positive? Or are cities inherently a suck on their regional resources?"

By the end of the school year, there may be answers to those questions.

Top image: Xavier MARCHANT / Shutterstock.com

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