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Change Agent

Jason F. McLennan brings buildings to life

By designing 'living buildings' that go beyond LEED certification, Jason F. McLennan is challenging architects to take 'green' building a step farther.

By Kim EckartYES! Magazine / January 4, 2012

Architect Jason F. McLennan is designing 'living buildings' that consume as few resources as possible while still being beautiful and functional.

Paul Dunn for YES! Magazine


Against the century-old church next door, the modest, modern building that houses the science lab of Seattle’s private Bertschi School could seem out of place. Its metal roof glints in the daylight, a surrounding garden of native grasses rustles in the breeze, and in-ground windows offer a view of the water that flows beneath.

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Jason F. McLennan remembers when the owners cut the ribbon on this 1,400-square-foot addition.

Then, he recalls, the children started chanting. Not “Bertschi!” but “Liv-ing build-ing! Liv-ing build-ing!” Those elementary-schoolers knew what stood before them – a structure built to have minimal environmental impact, to exist in an almost symbiotic relationship with its surroundings, operating more like an ecosystem, less like a consumer.

McLennan has led the charge on this approach to building design and in 2006 kicked off the Living Building Challenge, a call to architects to take “green” a giant step forward.

And in winter 2011, children cheered an architectural feat. “It was humbling,” McLennan says, months later, gazing at the Bertschi building on an unseasonably cool summer morning.

The man who has been called a “change agent” in the world of sustainable architecture is in fact a humble one. Immersed in an expensive profession, promoting a cause that some might call trendy, McLennan is direct and decisive, a down-to-earth neighbor who can talk composting toilets or philosophy.

His gentle demeanor masks a hotshot in his field. McLennan, chief executive of the Cascadia Green Building Council and of the more recently formed International Living Future Institute (ILFI), wants to revamp the concept of “green,” which, he points out, still involves the consumption of nonrenewable resources – just fewer of them.

To be certified “living,” a building (or a park, or a street, or a remodel) must meet criteria within seven categories: site, water, energy, health, materials, equity, and beauty. “Health” includes attention to air quality, for example, while “equity” considers issues such as fair trade.

Three projects, in such disparate places as Hawaii, Missouri, and New York, have achieved living status, while about 100 others, including Bertschi, are in various stages of certification; ILFI aims to have living buildings in all 50 states, each Canadian province, and every country in the world.

A transformation to living buildings won’t happen overnight, McLennan said, but it’s a start.

“Each building, each project creates a ripple effect around it. It changes the way people think. When there are enough of these examples, then a sudden and large-scale shift will be possible. We can’t control the timing of major shifts in civilization, but we can increase the likelihood that a shift will occur.”

A lifelong learner

McLennan, now 38, grew up in the factory city of Sudbury, Ontario, where he planted trees as part of a community effort to clean up industrial areas. Then McLennan saw the city redeveloped into commercial sprawl; bulldozers leveled some of the very areas he and his fellow community members had worked to restore. It spurred McLennan – who as a child sketched houses, castles, and ships before progressing to drafting classes – to chart a career in architecture.

He attended the University of Oregon, which had a reputation for its progressive program, then joined the Kansas City-based firm of BNIM Architects. As he expanded his knowledge of and experience in green building, he began pushing the concept even further.

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