Innovative ideas have helped bring us some of the most incredible technological advances the world has seen. These ideas have ranged from the practical—“classic” inventions like the telephone—to the out-of-this-world. Who would have believed 15 years ago that today, in 2009, we are literally on the cusp of space tourism. As incredible as the thinking was behind those innovations, there is another element that affects whether or not inventions catch on in a meaningful way. As remarkable as many inventions are, we know that it takes more than innovation to bring big ideas into reality—it takes a deep understanding of what things cost, and of the value that objects or ideas will deliver over time.
We all have a telephone, but few of us will ever ride into space. And the reason behind this is simple: cost. Some mobile phone companies will give you a phone for “ free” if you purchase an ongoing service plan and, by contrast, a ride on Virgin Galactic is likely to cost more than your home. Big, expensive, stretch goals benefit from challenges like the X Prize—the original competition that asked private entities to put someone into space and bring him or her home safely. This contest in particular, helped establish the baseline costs of private space flight.
Without costs, we cannot plan. We all might say we would pay for the opportunity to go to space, but without a tangible cost of doing so, we cannot possibly be sure, or sincere. Only when a cost has been estimated, can we budget and begin to make solid plans.
Unlike rocketing off into the ether, green building offers a bottom line return on investment. Green builders have already put together documented evidence of how quickly the upfront costs of building green can be recouped due to energy and resource savings—savings that have propelled the adoption of LEED standards for new construction by both public agencies and private real estate owners. But even a LEED Platinum building, as cutting edge as it is in today’s market, still has a significant carbon footprint.
Enter the concept of a “Living Building,” a facility that generates as much energy as it consumes and only uses as much water as falls on its site in a year. This has seemed to many to be an idea that is still quite far off. Assumed to be far too expensive to execute, Living Buildings have been considered “bleeding edge,” if not altogether impossible, mostly because of misperceptions around first cost.
Without knowing what Living Buildings might truly cost and what return on investment they might provide, Living Buildings may have remained an after-dinner conversation topic rather than a discussion for the boardroom.
The task of changing cultural and social paradigms like these falls to those who are willing to disprove what is perceived as impossible. In the three years since the Living Building Challenge was announced—the green building industry’s “X Prize”—there has been phenomenal interest from clients and design firms attracted by the elegance and simplicity of the concept and an appreciation for the new milestone it defines on the path toward a restorative future.
Often, the questions that arise after building owners begin to comprehend the magnitude of the Living Building Challenge are “What is the cost premium?” and “What might the payback be?” A study commissioned by the Cascadia Green Building Council, a chapter of both the U.S. and Canadian Green Building Councils, takes direct aim at those very questions, and the results are enlightening and encouraging.