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Jason F. McLennan brings buildings to life

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Paul Dunn for YES! Magazine

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

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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.

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.

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