Jason McLennan
Ashoka Fellow since 2012   |   United States

Jason McLennan

International Living Future Institute
Jason McLennan is creating incentives and new practices so that the built environment improves health and well-being, while increasing our access to a diverse and productive natural world.
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International Living Building Institute

This description of Jason McLennan's work was prepared when Jason McLennan was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2012.


Jason McLennan is creating incentives and new practices so that the built environment improves health and well-being, while increasing our access to a diverse and productive natural world.

The New Idea

Recognizing the limitations of current approaches to the built environment, Jason has created a framework and platform that catalyzes systemic change through regulatory reform, market pressures, and design innovation. Whereas green building practices focus on reducing negative impacts of building, Jason orients the building industry to pursue a new end point: To create “living buildings,” structures that are self-sustaining and contribute to virtuous natural cycles, like plants. Recently, Jason has expanded his focus from individual buildings to “living communities” that follow the same set of principles. This allows Jason and his team to leverage efficiencies based on different levels of scale, recognizing that the optimal scale will vary across ecosystems. For example, in some places, net zero water may be more appropriate across a neighborhood rather than an individual house. The principles he sets out are relevant far beyond buildings and apply to anything that is built from furniture to bridges to parks and roads. The mindset shift he advances, codified in a novel certification approach, considers the interconnections among and between indoor air, energy, water, walkability, local food systems, and other factors that shape how humans interact with buildings across their lifetime. The result of Jason’s approach is that builders and designers conceptualize buildings or neighborhoods as a whole, and therefore avoid shifting burdens from one environmental or social objective to another—for example, creating a building that compromises water usage for the sake of walkability. Considerations of beauty, nature, and social equity are central to Jason’s approach not for moral and aesthetic reasons but because they energize practitioners to assume roles as innovators, taking action as it is needed to modify local building codes, detoxify building supply chains, liaise with local planning committees, and problem-solve the myriad of other challenges—practical, ideological, and economic—that arise. Through a robust communications strategy and ambassador program, Jason is shaping a talent force across the industry that will continuously and iteratively evolve new approaches as challenges arise.

The Problem

In 2011, we used 135 percent of resources that the earth can generate in a year. By 2025 two-thirds of the world’s population will live in water-stressed countries, and by 2030, world energy demand will rise by 50 percent, and two-thirds of this demand will come from developing countries. Despite these statistics, over the last decade in the U.S., the average house size has increased, per capita energy and water consumption has increased and atmospheric carbon levels have risen significantly. While buildings and built infrastructure provide great benefits to society, they also have significant environmental and human costs. The choices we make about our built environment contribute greatly to our water and energy consumption, carbon emissions, waste products, our health, biodiversity, and even who is able to fully participate in society. As a society, we are currently choosing to build buildings and other infrastructure in ways that are not sustainable, equitable or enriching.

In the U.S., buildings consume more energy than any other sector, including transportation and industry, with fossil fuels providing 76 percent of the building sector energy consumption. By 2035, approximately 75 percent of the built environment will be either new or renovated, which means 75 percent of the built environment could continue to increase the negative impacts on health and well-being. The alternative, which Jason is pushing forward, is for the built environment to contribute to a world that is socially just, culturally rich, and ecologically restorative.

The physical structures and infrastructure of communities plays a significant role in shaping our health through our exposure to contaminated air, water, and soil. The manufacturers of many building materials are not aware of the raw components that make up their materials, but many are made of known toxins and carcinogens. Decisions about land use, zoning, and community design affect access to healthy foods, the natural environment and physical activities such as walking and biking. The designated use, layout, and design of a community’s physical structures—including its housing, businesses, transportation systems, and recreational resources—affect behaviors and patterns of living that in turn influence health.

In response to this data, the green building movement has grown significantly in recent years. Many citizen organizations have tackled specific issues such as indoor air quality, energy efficiency, or creating walkable communities. More recently, the private sector has seen opportunities to generate profit while reducing environmental impact, primarily in the area of energy efficiency. As this movement has grown, there are increasing numbers of institutions that market themselves as reducing environmental impacts though in reality are doing very little (“greenwashing”). For the most part, these groups take a piecemeal, incremental approach based on what is possible within the current systems of design and regulatory environment. Most fail to tackle the interconnections among environment, food security, energy, and health, and as a result often end up shifting the burden of one issue onto another.

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (with contributions from Jason) is currently the most prevalent and meaningful rating system and has contributed greatly to reducing the impact of the building industry on primarily water and energy. However, builders tend to adhere to minimum requirements to become certified. In addition, LEED is based on the principle that the building industry can and should do less harm and is not designed to create sustainable or regenerative buildings or neighborhoods.

Jason sees an opportunity for historic change. The early phase of the green building movement has gathered early supporters and there is growing awareness of these issues by the general U.S. population.

The Strategy

In 2006 Jason launched the Living Building Challenge (LBC) as a certification (based on ideas he created in the 1990s) system that sets up incentives for systemic change and enables building industry stakeholders to re-imagine their roles. LBC is similar enough to existing frameworks to be familiar to a market that now understands green building certifications and ratings, while at the same time provides an alternative vision and inspiration for what the future can be, if the industry orients itself to a different building paradigm. The LBC is based on twenty imperatives organized into seven areas of site, water, energy, health, materials, equity, and beauty. Some of the unique elements of the LBC include: that all water and energy must be generated or harvested on site (net zero water and energy), buildings must include light, patterns and shapes found in nature (biophilia), and the support of regional economies through local sourcing and equitable access to nature. LBC has also tackled the issue of toxins in materials and Jason is launching Declare, a nutritional label for building materials. Unlike LEED, there are no prescriptive requirements about how each imperative is met, thus stimulating industry players to more freely innovate in a myriad of creative ways to meet the performance-based criteria. A building can be certified as a Living Building after a minimum of one year of performance data has been gathered, not projected energy and water use—this is not a theoretical approach, but one that focuses on getting ideas to action and results, and charting outcomes and progress.

Jason recognizes that as an individual running a small organization, he could never achieve this vision alone. He is a true network entrepreneur who fosters innovations and collaboration across the industry. His strategy to make Living Buildings the new norm for the built environment includes (i) building compelling demonstration sites across the U.S.—at least one per state—that offer practical training and learning opportunities for designers and builders (ii) cultivating a diverse network of stakeholders who are aligned and contribute to the LBC and (iii) showcasing and amplifying local experiences and innovations through a robust communications strategy.

Jason works with local champions to build certified living buildings. The LBC offers adaptable incentives to change the prevailing framework. In some contexts, it is not possible to meet a particular imperative based on local zoning or building codes or availability of certain materials. In these cases, the project team must demonstrate their efforts to change the local regulations or push their suppliers to get non-toxic materials, which pushes the team to develop their own skills in regulatory reform. In the case of materials, Jason and his team have found that many suppliers do not know what raw ingredients are in their products. Through Declare and local market pressures, LBC practitioners propel changes in this system. In Washington and Oregon, the LBC has stimulated advocates to change numerous local ordinances. Each certified building demonstrates that this type of construction is possible and feasible with today’s technology and policy environment, and offers a platform for visibly sharing successes. With each pilot project, designing and building in this way becomes more ‘normal,’ easier to achieve and less expensive to construct. For example, the Tyson Living Learning Center in Missouri involved the project team working closely with county officials to develop alternative compliance plans that allowed for rainwater collection and composting toilets. Jason and his team offer technical assistance to project teams interested in becoming certified. Currently, there are four Certified Living Buildings based on twelve months of performance data post-occupancy. There are 100 projects (including two tall ships) that have registered to become certified. By 2017, the goal is to have 50 certified buildings with 500 projects registered and—importantly—shared.

The 2.0 version of LBC is just beginning at the community scale. Jason has sponsored a competition where entrants develop visual presentations of a living community or neighborhood. The entries illustrated the diversity of what living communities might look like in very different ecosystems. The first pilot at a community level is beginning in Bend, Oregon.

Jason is cultivating a network of practitioners and supporters to share innovations, strategies for exerting regulatory or market pressures, and to support each other. Beginning with all the people involved in registered projects, there are online communities that allow discussion of intricate details and challenges in the creation of living buildings. For example, participants exchange strategies to local regulatory reform and sources for toxin-free materials. Jason has also created an Ambassador program. There are currently 300 Ambassadors from all sectors of the building industry—architects, engineers, developers, builders, and academics—who are trained to advocate for Living Buildings. Jason and his team host an annual gathering often cited as the leading platform and conference for moving the green building movement. Last year, a Google executive attended and decided to remove all the toxic materials, “Red List”, out of their supply chain. One of the biggest challenges to expansion is the complex technical translation required of the LBC standard and associated materials. The materials currently exist in Spanish and Jason has prioritized translation of the materials into ten additional languages. Jason is deeply concerned with affordable housing and currently partners with low-income service providers to integrate conservation practices into affordable housing. He is currently partnering with the Aleutian Housing Authority to solicit designs for a home on the Aleutian Islands that will achieve the LBC at or below current market rate within native villages.

Through communication strategies, Jason provides inspiration, practical experience, and cohesion to propel the expanding network to continuous and iterative action. To reach professionals early in their training, when their orientation to their role is most malleable, Jason wrote The Philosophy of Sustainable Design. Considered to be the definitive introduction to the field, it has been taught in over seventy universities and colleges throughout North America and distributed widely throughout Europe and North America. Jason founded Ecotone Publishing, the only dedicated green building publisher focusing on the intersection between the built and natural environments. Over 20,000 people subscribe to the main publication, Trim Tab.

The Person

Jason’s deep passion and commitment for a better environment stems from his childhood growing up in Sudbury, Ontario, one of the most polluted places on the planet, a former “moonscape.” Sudbury is home to the world’s tallest smokestack, which releases tons of pollutants high into the atmosphere and was once the single largest point source of acid rain on the earth. As a toddler, Jason lost the hearing in his left ear from the pollution in a lake he had swum in and continues to suffer from chronic allergies and occasional asthma as a result of the environment. In grade school and periodically throughout childhood, Jason participated in community re-greening campaigns to heal his city from its industrial past. This work eventually won the city a United Nations Commendation for Sudbury, Ontario. Jason’s participation in this effort and its success taught him that he and people more broadly have the capacity to heal the planet.

Jason trained as an architect and joined the firm of BNIM Architects and worked closely with Bob Berkebile, a pioneer of the sustainable design movement. Jason became the youngest Principal there, and worked on many of the leading high performance projects in the country, including LEED Platinum, LEED Gold and carbon neutral (zero energy) projects. At BNIM he created the building science team known as Elements, which set new standards for energy and resource efficiency on many of its projects in various building types. Jason’s projects are winners of numerous design awards at the local, state, and national level.

Jason is founder and CEO of the International Living Future Institute, an umbrella organization that includes the LBC, Cascadia Green Building Council, The Natural Step USA, and Ecotone Publishing. With a budget of approximately $2.8 million in 2012 and a staff of twenty people, Jason has been able to maintain his budget size during the global crisis that has made investors increasingly risk-adverse. His partners include a range of corporations (e.g. Turner and Boeing) and foundations (e.g. Bullitt and Kresge).

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