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What does sustainable construction look like in Utah?

On Behalf of | May 27, 2022 | Construction Law, Land Use & Zoning |

Every few years, there is a new trend or fad in construction. Often, cities will have a collection of new buildings that are clearly built during the same period that have the same characteristics.

Rather than specific colors or trendy materials, commercial construction is starting to look at sustainable solutions and “living buildings” that can support a better future. A recent project in Salt Lake City embraced the Living Building Challenge. It became an exciting example of what sustainable construction can look like.

Here’s what you should know about sustainable construction and how it can support an environmentally conscious future for Utah.

Understanding the Living Building Challenge

Creating a living building is not ideal for every construction project. Still, when your goal is completing the project and being as environmentally friendly as possible, it can be a valuable place to start. A building that successfully falls within the Living Building Challenge will have characteristics within a matrix in the following seven categories, or “petals”:

  • Place
  • Water
  • Energy
  • Health + Happiness
  • Material
  • Equity
  • Beauty

The traits within these categories help create a building that contributes to the environment both in its construction and how the community accesses it. For example, in addition to responsible water use, the Living Building Challenge includes a goal of universal access and inclusion for those who will use the building.

Promoting positive environmental impact

Typically, new buildings are associated with expensive materials, waste, and environmental challenges. While city codes may promote some positive practices, their emphasis tends to have more to do with access and safety than creating a sustainable building project.

Some builders have recently looked for ways to create “green” buildings. These efforts can be helpful by reducing a building’s negative impact. However, these buildings do not cross the threshold into a truly sustainable building project, even in ideal scenarios.

The Living Building Challenge encourages projects where the structure is truly sustainable by capturing several aspects of sustainability and creating high standards for meeting these traits. For example, people accepting this challenge go beyond vague ideas of responsible water usage and add the standard of not using potable water for irrigation.

All seven petals of the Living Building Challenge create standards for both new and existing construction so that any project can potentially meet these sustainability goals. There are also goals for projects that focus only on the interior or the landscaping of a building. By including options for different types of projects, an existing structure can make changes gradually rather than

A recent addition in Salt Lake City

Architectural firm Architectural Nexus recently took on the Living Building Challenge with their Salt Lake City office building. The structure that had been home to many businesses over the decades received a next-level transformation pushing past sustainability and into an environmentally-positive design.

Before this remodel, designers had added features like two courtyards to improve the building’s impact on the environment. However, this renovation promised to do something more.

Initially, designers planned several phases that would take about five years to complete. Instead, circumstances allowed the renovations to take place all at once.

With the Living Building Challenge as a guide, designers began to disassemble the parts of the building they intended to renovate so that they could inspect what materials they could reuse to increase the sustainability of the project. The process included sorting materials by what could be reused, rebuilt or recycled. While some materials inevitably ended up in the landfill, there was a significant amount they could use or transform.

Responsible materials

In addition to carefully using or refurbishing materials from the original structure, the team also needed new materials. The Living Building Challenge has rules for new materials, too.

When it was time to source new materials, designers needed to “shop local” and look for options close to the worksite. Additionally, they needed to follow the rules regarding restricted materials on the “Red List.” Red-listed materials are the “worst in class” chemicals and compounds that threaten human health or the ecosystem.

The future of Utah construction

While the Living Building Challenge is not feasible for every project, the guidelines can give some guidance for those who want their building to have a more positive impact on the environment.

Whether you are looking to incorporate some or all of the pieces of the Living Building Challenge, it is essential to get guidance on what is permissible in your area. There are rules regarding building projects and renovations in some cases, such as materials and accessibility. You should talk to someone with experience both in your area and with your goals to formulate a plan for your project.