The Living Future unConference Emphasizes Equity in Sustainable Design

By Erin Langner

May 10, 2019

This article was originally published here.

Living Future unConference 2019 review

The Hitchcock Center for the Environment by Boston-based designLAB architects is the latest Certified Living Building. Courtesy Hitchcock Center


“The Living Future Challenge was the first metric where I saw my culture reflected,” said designer and Arizona State University professor Wanda Dalla Costa during the Living Future unConference, a multi-industry gathering focused on sustainable design. This year’s iteration—the thirteenth—was hosted in Seattle from April 30–May 3. Dalla Costa continued, “I worked under LEED as an architect, which is all about numbers and qualitative data, but it’s not getting at the history, stories, and values that are important to people.” Her comments were made during the panel “Indigenous Placekeeping for an Equitable Future,” a relatively intimate session that attracted approximately 50 of the four-day conference’s 1,300 attendees; but it spoke volumes about the enhanced role of equity within sustainable design.

An outgrowth of the Living Building Challenge (LBC) certification program, a rigorous green building standard launched in 2006, the Living Future unConference is known for its emphasis on sustainable, biophilic design that contributes positively to its environment. However, a number of the 2019 events considered the conference theme of “Collaboration and Abundance” through the lens of equity. While equity has historically been included within the LBC’s requirements, awareness of its importance has been growing. For example, this May the International Living Future Institute’s (ILFI) announced its Core certification program, a new standard that aims to address the gap between mainstream green building programs and the LBC. Amanda Sturgeon, the CEO of the ILFI, explained in a conference keynote that “the Core Green Building certification is composed of ten best-practice green building strategies that we think define what green building is. For us, that includes equity, inclusion, beauty, and biophilia as equal requirements to energy and water standards.”

Living Future unConference 2019 review

Amanda Sturgeon, ILFI CEO Courtesy Stephen Brashear for ILFI


Concrete approaches to designing with and for equity were discussed by Mustafa Santiago Ali, senior vice president of climate, environmental justice, and community revitalization for the National Wildlife Federation. Ali highlighted the ReGenesis Community Development Corporation in his presentation, explaining how the group worked with residents of Spartanburg, South Carolina, to identify their specific needs, such as improved energy efficiency, cross-generational social space, and access to health care. Responding to those social demands, 500 affordable, energy-efficient homes and a community center were built, accompanied by environmental cleanup initiatives, revitalized local businesses, and improved community health. “There’s a difference between partnerships and authentic, collaborative partnerships,” Ali emphasized, noting how ReGenesis’s inclusive and responsive method could be applied to communities with similar needs across the country.

Living Future unConference 2019 review

Mustafa Santiago Ali, senior vice president of climate, environmental justice, & community revitalization for the National Wildlife Federation Courtesy Stephen Brashear for ILFI


A panel, titled “Indigenous Placekeeping for an Equitable Future,” unpacked the collaborative processes behind the Gila River Indian Community Sustainable Housing Initiative, a partnership between indigenous community members, Arizona State University, and the Sonoran Studio Foundation to design prototypes that will inform LBC-certified housing for the community. Methods undertaken by Wanda Dalla Costa and students included setting up a studio on the reservation so that designs could be realized in real-time as community members provided feedback and insight. The team also participated in a traditional adobe block–making demonstration and hosted meals during working meetings—an atypical approach, to be sure, but one that the architects say was essential to the collaboration’s success. Reflecting on the biophilic design embedded in indigenous building traditions, Doug McCord, principal at Architectural Research Team and board member of the Sonoran Studio Foundation, said, “To me, this is a culture that was living the LBC before we screwed it up, so now we’re coming full circle, figuring out how to bring comfort, health, and well-being to this community through the tool of the LBC.”

Despite these emphases, another part of the session reiterated that underrepresented voices continue to be absent from vital discussions. Among the 50 or so seated in the panel’s audience, only two identified as indigenous in a show of hands, seeming to lend credence to a statement that came up during a number of presentations: We still have a lot of work to do.

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