The Living Building Challenge- Winner of the 2012 Buckminster-Fuller Challenge

Green building and eco-sensitive design is currently at the forefront of our modern ethos.   What this means for the green builders, contractors and architects of NY, and the world, is a period of dramatic change and challenge is ahead if not already begun. A change in the way we think about new buildings and construction, in how we consider “used” materials and how we use and interact with space.

As Scholar David Orr stated-

“We are coming to an era the likes of which we’ve never seen before, we’re in the white waters of human history. We don’t know what lies ahead. Bucky Fuller’s ideas on design are at the core of any set of solutions that will take us to calmer waters.”


One of the most prominent voices in sustainability and responsible design since the 1960’s is R. Buckminster Fuller.  Fuller pioneered in fields from architecture, and mathematics, to engineering and automobile design and only patented 12 designs allowing the vast majority of his work to be open-sourced and free to the public.

His life’s mission and philosophy was simple, “to make the world work for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or disadvantage of anyone.”

Even today, years after Fuller’s death his name is still the vanguard of the sustainable design community. The largest testament to his legacy is the R. Buckminster Fuller Institute and their annual international competition the Buckminster Fuller Design Challenge.

According to the institution’s website $100,000 is given “…to support the development and implementation of a strategy that has significant potential to solve humanity’s most pressing problems. Named “Socially-Responsible Design’s Highest Award” by Metropolis Magazine, it attracts bold, visionary, tangible initiatives focused on a well-defined need of critical importance. Winning solutions are regionally specific yet globally applicable and present a truly comprehensive, anticipatory, integrated approach to solving the world’s complex problems.”

In 2012 at an awards ceremony held here in NYC at Cooper Union The International Living Future Institute was awarded first prize for their “Living Building Challenge” initiative.  According to the institute’s website the Living building Challenge is:

-a PHILOSOPHY, ADVOCACY PLATFORM AND CERTIFICATION PROGRAM. Because it defines priorities on both a technical level and as a set of core values, it is engaging the broader building industry in the deep conversations required to truly understand how to solve problems rather than shift them.

-an EVOCATIVE GUIDE. By identifying an ideal and positioning that ideal as the indicator of success, the Challenge inspires project teams to reach decisions based on restorative principles instead of searching for ‘least common denominator’ solutions. This approach brings project teams closer to the objectives we are collectively working to achieve.

-a BEACON. With a goal to increase awareness, it is tackling critical environmental, social and economic problems, such as: the rise of persistent toxic chemicals; climate change; habitat loss; the collapse of domestic manufacturing; global trade imbalances; urban sprawl; and the lack of community distinctiveness.

-a ‘UNIFIED TOOL’. Addressing development at all scales, it can be equally applied to landscape and infrastructure projects; partial renovations and complete building renewals; new building construction; and neighborhood, campus and community design.

-a PERFORMANCE-BASED STANDARD. Decidedly not a checklist of best practices, the Challenge leads teams to embrace regional solutions and respond to a number of variables, including climate factors and cultural characteristics.


The challenge seeks to encourage designers to bridge the gap between the built environment and the surrounding ecosystems thus reinventing the typical developers’ business model and transforming the role of the building occupant from passive to more of an involved partnership with the earth and her resources.

For all manner of development the Living Building Principles are applicable, whether, “… a single building, a park, a college campus or even a complete neighborhood community, Living Building Challenge provides a framework for design, construction and the symbiotic relationship between people and all aspects of the built environment.”

You can download a complete document that outlines the specific requirements and benchmarks that must be met to receive certification HERE.

With its radical and rigorous requirements, this is more than “green washing”.  This is an excerpt from a statement released by The Fuller Institute after the award ceremony;

“The Living Building Challenge (LBC) is setting the standard for how to build in the 21st century by establishing the highest bar yet for environmental performance and ecological responsibility within the built environment … by “building a new model” and establishing new benchmarks for non-­‐toxic, net-­‐zero structures… The Living Building Challenge goes far beyond current best practices, reframing the relationship between the built and natural environments. LBC seeks to lead the charge toward a holistic standard that could yield an entirely new level of integration between building systems, transportation, technology, natural resources, and community. If widely adopted, this approach would significantly enhance the level of broad-­‐based social collaboration throughout the design and building process and beyond, dramatically reducing the destructiveness of current construction, boost the livability, health, and resilience of communities … the International Future Living Institute is charting a new and critically needed course in an industry that arguably remains one of the most consumptive … The LBC’s model of regenerative design in the built environment could provide a critical leverage point in the roadmap to a sustainable future and is an exemplary trim tab in its potential to catalyze innovation in such a high impact, high consumption industry…”

This is a valuable new asset and tool for the green building and green contracting community in NYC nd abroad in the fight for a greener and livable tomorrow.  -living building challenge website  -Buckminster-fuller institute website

Financing Cut

When we went into contract for the property that is currently being built as a green show house it was during the “normal” financial times of March 2006.

No storms were on the horizon and everyone was still giddy from the constant rise of funding and property prices.

Our plan was to do what we had always done when buying property: buy it with 10% down. We had great credit and a great track record of always paying our mortgages on time. We were in the real estate business.

Once in contract, though, the clouds started to gather, and we could not find any bank willing to lend for 10% down. The months went by and we scraped more money together. But no takers at 15% either. Nor 20%. Or 25%. Finally we found one bank willing to lend with 30% down and we closed on the property March 2007, one year later.

But it was not all dire. Everyone agreed, including the bank and mortgage broker, that once we closed we could refinance the house and pull some of that money out for renovations. After all, we all said, 30% was crazy.

But then the mortgage agent got laid off and the bank went into a tailspin. The storm had hit. There was no way they would give a home equity line of credit.

Luckily we had a home equity line of credit from another property. So we transferred that money to ou bank account and started renovations. Each week on Friday I would go to the bank and take money out to pay the workers.

But one week I went to the bank and there was no more money in the account. The bank had pulled the money from our account. No notice. No reasons. Basically they withdrew the loan.

Now we are funding the renovation from our businesses. Needless to say the budget is really, really tight.

The good news is that we are learning how to build green at well below what it would cost to build a “normal” structure. This is good for the long term.

Insulation Has Arrived!

Insulation from Eco Brooklyn Inc with Gennaro Brooks-Church

Insulation from Eco Brooklyn Inc with Gennaro Brooks-Church

Green Building is like life: it is all about energy. How you control it, who has it, where it is flowing, and where it isn’t flowing. You control the energy and you have a great house (possibly a great life too).

So obviously insulation plays a huge part ini green building. Green building typically insulates a lot more than normal building. We’d rather spend more up front and less later in utility bills. Utility bills are wasteful and in imperfection. Ideally we will get to the point that houses are built so well that you don’t have any utility bills.

In terms of insulation there are many choices. Of course fiberglass batts are out. They have a lot of embodied energy, most off gas formaldehyde and they don’t even insulate well.

Icenyne spray foam is touted as green and although it seals well it is so not green. That is the biggest scam in the green building industry. All spray foam is made from petro chemicals, even the so called soy based foam that has at most 30% soy and 70% petrolium. The main ingredient for all of them is isocyanate, which is only made by four multy billion dollar companies and it is basically oil.

The greenest insulation is cellulose. Recycled paper. Recycled is always the greenest way to go.

BUT all insulation, foam, fiberglass and cellulose only gets around an R4 per inch and in space starved Brooklyn I wanted more. I found a company that sells once used (READ RECYCLED) foam board called POLYISO. Read this to see how great it is. At only 1.5 inches thick it packs at least an R9 and is by far the best R value out there.

And because it is once used it has already off gassed any small amounts of VOC’s it might have had.

I need about 2000 square feet of it. I’m going to put 4 layers in the roof plus a radiant barrier to make a whopping R36 and this does not include the green roof on top. Insulating the roof is so important.

Then I’m going to put one layer in the external walls. With the one foot of brick that will be an R21.

I also have to put it around the border of the building on every floor between the joists to keep the radiant heat in my house.

I also need 1600 square feet of Extruded Polystyrine, which is waterproof, to put under the green roof and under the radiant heated concrete slab in the cellar.

So I need about 3600 square feet. I bought 12,500 square feet of insulation!!!! I couldn’t help it! I got a good deal and I really feel the greenest thing is for me to pay one big truck to bring the stuff to Brooklyn and redistribute it to others instead of everyone getting small trucks (which as it turns out isn’t cost effective anyway).

So bottom line: I have insulation for sale. Lots of it. CHEAP, at least half price. Be green and get some! Contact me for details.

unloading the insulation from the 53 foot 18 wheeler

unloading the insulation from the 53 foot 18 wheeler

making space

making space

starting to pack the insulation

starting to pack the insulation

getting full

getting full

taking over the yard

taking over the yard

Some cool links for Mortgages and other stuff


Residential Energy Services Network’s (RESNET)
(For trained and certified home energy raters in your service are.)


Mortgage Industry National Home Energy Rating System Accreditation Standard
(For operating home energy rating systems, by state.)


U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
Energy-Efficient Mortgages Program
(For a searchable list of approved energy-efficient mortgage lenders.)


Energy Star®


Built Green®

Financial Importance of Greening a Home

Here is a great case study showing how a couple used green financing to increase the green of their home. Their mortgage did go up but their monthly energy savings were greater. So they end up saving money.

First-time home buyers purchased their home in New York. It was built in 1950, and sold for $260,000. They got an FHA loan for 90% of the value of the property. The lender arranged for them to improve on their investment and recommended an energy-efficient mortgage.

A HERS Rating on the home recommended $3,500 in energy improvements including a new energy star boiler and furnace duct insulation, plus a better thermostat. The lender set aside an extra $3,500 for the improvements, bringing the total loan amount from $234,000 to $237,500. The loan closed, the home buyers moved in, and the improvements were installed. The monthly mortgage payment increased by $22, but they are saving $67 each month through lower utility bills.

Value-Based Analysis For Green Financing

There is special financing available if a house fits certain green criteria. This could be an energy star boiler or the type of insulation. There is also financing available to make a house greener.

The following list are guidelines when discussing eco friendly financing with mortgage lenders. It is a Value-Based Analysis (VBA) for Green Financing.

VBA is a decision table that relates the needs of the customer with the specific resources available in the market place. VBA asks a series of critical qualifying questions to determine what is needed and what resources are available to meet those needs.

Property-Specific Questions:

Is this property a good candidate for energy upgrades?
Does this property have a history of green certification?
Does this property have a current energy rating?
What is the probable amount of the loan? (Above or below $417K?)
What is the list of upgrades or retrofits that your clients would like to accomplish?

Lender-Specific Questions:

Have you done any green financing?
How many green financing loans have you closed this year?
How many green financing loans do you expect to close in the next one, two, three, and four Quarters?
Which specific green financing products have you closed?
What is the range of loan sizes you have closed with green financing?
What is the average length of time each of these has taken?
How did you work through any challenges that arose during any of these deals?
Do you have specific energy rater relationships?
Is there a specific green financing product in which you specialize?

Use these questions first to characterize your current resources and to determine how well certain green financing products and/or certain lenders will be able to meet the needs of your buyers and sellers.

AmeriQuest Mortgage – Good example of NOT being green

I came across these really funny commercials by Ameriquest Mortgage Company. They are worth checking out because they’ll give you a laugh.

But the real joke is the tag line: “Don’t judge too quickly. We won’t.”

It turns out their lack of judgment swindled all sorts of people into getting mortgages they couldn’t afford. I dealt with mortgage brokers over the past seven years and they pretty much were all the same, though. They had to be in order to compete.

They would all hold your hand through the process and help fudge the numbers to get the mortgage you wanted. If you asked for it, they made it happen. The only difference was that some lied to the customer about the terms of the mortgage and some didn’t.

But in terms of lying to the bank I think they all did it. But who cared! House prices were going up and up, and the economy was doing fine. Everyone was getting what they wanted.

We were in on it.
The customer lied to the mortgage broker who turned a blind eye.
And the mortgage broker lied to the bank who turned a blind eye.
I think everyone is to blame for the current mess.

BUT, and there is a big BUT, the bank and mortgage broker have a professional responsibility whereas the customer does not. The customer may have no idea what they are doing.

I think in this case ignorance IS an excuse, something the banks and mortgage brokers can not claim to have. It is the responsibility of the professionals to educate and look after the customer, something they did not do.

So even though everyone is to blame I think the banks and mortgage brokers should carry the brunt of the mess, not the customers.

Below is a overview of how the outcome should NOT be. It shows how Roland Arnall, owner of AmeriQuest, is largely unscathed by the mortgage crisis.

To tie this in with ecological building, in my eyes professional ethics are a HUGE part of being green. It is no longer about the buck but a holistic view of the world. Just like green building, ethical business is also healthier for the environment.

If you get a scam of a loan to build a wonderful green house, your life will still be toxic. Green extends to all interactions. Likewise, as a green builder it is my job to look after the welfare of my less knowledgeable customers.

There is a big rush now to build green. Customers may come to me all excited to make their home green. Like in the mortgage frenzy, it could be tempting for me to take advantage of the customer’s enthusiasm and sell them all sorts of wonderful green products.

Is this good for the world? Not if they don’t need the products! Green business needs to be holistic, which means the benefit is for the whole and not just a few parts. Me, the customers, the world, all the elements need to benefit from the transaction. That is green.

Otherwise I may be selling lots of green products but I’m not a green builder.