In Conversation with Jason McLennan

Talking to the man behind the greenest certification around

There is something grandfatherly about Jason McLennan (and not just because he calls Twitter “a complete waste of time”). He speaks slowly, with a certain amount of gravel in his voice, and displays an acumen that seemingly only age can bring.

Although he is hardly green building’s patriarch, McLennan is a veteran of the industry. He served as a principal at BNIM before launching the Living Building Challenge in 2006 to provide the industry with a building rating system more ambitious than any other on the market. Today, McLennan spends the majority of his time at the International Living Future Institute, the umbrella nonprofit that administers the Challenge and oversees the Cascadia Green Building Council (covering Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska). In our conversation, which appears throughout the pages of this magazine, we discuss McLennan’s latest ventures and the injustices the industry continues to ignore.

Jason McLennan is the CEO of the Cascadia Green Building Council and the creator of the Living Building Challenge, arguably the most stringent green-building standard available today. A trained architect, McLennan founded BNIM’s building science team in Kansas City, MO, and is the author of four books.
Jason McLennan is the CEO of the Cascadia Green Building Council and the creator of the Living Building Challenge, arguably the most stringent green-building standard available today. A trained architect, McLennan founded BNIM’s building science team in Kansas City, MO, and is the author of four books. Photo: Paul Dunn

gb&d: I like to start by asking people what their earliest memory is of nature, where nature became something more than just, “This is a mountain,” or “This is a tree.”

Jason McLennan: My earliest memory of nature was when I accidentally dumped a bird’s nest on my head when I was four. The eggs splattered and ran down my hair and face (laughs).

gb&d: That’s kind of a dark memory.

McLennan: Well, it was. It was very upsetting. At the same time it stuck with me, let’s put it that way. It made me think, even at that age, of the impact we can have if we’re not careful. Because I was climbing the tree to admire the bird’s nest, and instead I destroyed it by accident.

gb&d: Growing up in Ontario and living in Oregon and Kansas, what sort of stamp did those places put on you?

McLennan: I actually lived in Missouri—that side of Kansas City—though of course I spent time in Kansas too. I grew up in northern Canada, in a mining town that is one of the most polluted places on the planet. And I always wondered when I traveled outside of my hometown to very pristine wildernesses and beautiful places why our town was so degraded.

gb&d: Was there still mining going on?

McLennan: Oh yeah. It’s still mining today. It’s the largest nickel mine in the world, in Sudbury. It really shaped my understanding of things. In the ’70s, there was the launch of a giant “re-greening” campaign, to heal the landscape, and I participated in that. That was transformative as well because I saw how we could heal the places we had destroyed with the right intention and community participation.

gb&d: Your transition from working as an architect, project to project, into organizing people, activism, getting involved in policy and some of these larger changes that the Living Building Challenge is trying to affect—what’s that been like?

McLennan: Very rewarding. For ten years, I worked on many of the greenest projects in the United States and learned a lot about how to do this stuff, before very many others had learned how to do it. And yet, I felt I had a bigger obligation to disseminate that information and help my competitors and my colleagues and other firms move forward, instead of continuing to work one building at a time.

gb&d: What skills have you learned from this part of the journey versus the skills you learned in architecture school?

McLennan: Well, I think it’s a lot of the same skills that I learned in school and then refined in professional practice and just brought to bear on a different set of problems.

At the Living Future Institute, we are creating constructs or visions to help people imagine a different and more beneficial future than the one that we’re currently on the path towards. It requires looking for patterns in the field of human activity. It requires looking at trends and observing the zeitgeist of the moment and memes that are floating out from the universe and economic trends and all sorts of things. And then trying to find the right tools, policies, programs, articles to [propose] that will provide the greatest leverage for change.

That’s not necessarily unlike what you’re doing when you’re doing good journalism, if you’re thinking, “What is the story I need to tell? Who do I need to talk to? What are the ideas for the time that will make this relevant and timely and will make a difference?” It’s similar in that way.

“I grew up in northern Canada, in a mining town that is one of the most polluted places on the planet. And I always wondered when I traveled outside of my hometown to very pristine wildernesses and beautiful places why our town was so degraded.”

Jason McLennan, Living Futures Institute

gb&d: I think you’re right. And it can be an overwhelming task. At the same time, I think there are opportunities every single day, so it never feels like the one decision you’re making is the decision.

McLennan: Well, you can’t fully predict the right one anyway, so there’s no sense getting hung up about it.

gb&d: In our questionnaire (p. 146), we asked you who to follow on Twitter. Your response was, “I hate Twitter.”

McLennan: (Laughs) That is true.

gb&d: Among my friends, I’m somewhat of a Luddite and a curmudgeon when it comes to new technologies. Do you tend to romanticize a time when we had fewer technological gadgets, or do you really love some gadgets, just not Twitter? I’m curious.

McLennan: I like things that make sense. And that enrich our experience and lead us to a better future. I think the Amish got it right by asking this question, “What’s the impact that technology has on our culture?” Now [you or I] might not agree with their particular decisions, but modern society doesn’t provide a lot of scrutiny for anything; we just accept technology as a given and as progress. “Well, it’s new so therefore it must be good and we must use it.” That’s bullshit. Any time we have technologies that keep us connected 24/7 and we don’t stop and say, “Is this biologically and psychologically good for us?” we’re entering at least a hazy zone, maybe a dangerous zone relative to our well-being.

gb&d: A big difference, or at least one difference, between LEED and the Living Building Challenge is the Equity petal. LEED and other [rating systems] do sort of address the topic peripherally, sort of indirectly, but it’s put on equal importance in the Challenge. I’m curious why issues of social justice are important to you personally, and then I want to talk about how they interconnect with what people normally think of as sustainability.

McLennan: Well, we just announced a new program called JUST. It’s sort of a nutrition label for social justice. It basically is a transparency program to allow organizations to very clearly articulate how they treat their people and how they treat their community with their policies. So your organization could get a JUST label, for example, and I’d challenge you to do that once we launch it, which is soon. (JUST was launched at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York in October.)

gb&d: Can you give me a tangible example of how the Equity petal translates into a project, like the Bertschi School (p. 50)?

McLennan: The first four projects were built under the first version of the program, which didn’t have an Equity petal. We added that under 2.0. That said, there are definitely elements of social justice embedded in the Challenge even in version 1.0, in terms of the health and well-being of the communities and people around where materials are made that go into buildings.

[People think] the purpose of the “red list” is the health and well-being of the occupants of the building. That’s only a fraction of it. In many cases, the building materials that we are trying to change are fairly benign once they’re in the building. The real negative impacts are the poor people that live around the factories where these products are being made. That’s just one example.

gb&d: It’s a really good one. It’s one I don’t hear talked about very often.

McLennan: None of this stuff is!

gb&d: (Laughs)

McLennan: That’s the whole point. Equity is usually given a two-minute, or a thirty-second Twitter-sized sound bite at a green conference where someone says, “Oh yes, we have to do something about equity because we don’t really address it in green building. But meanwhile, let’s move on to energy.”

Designed by Flansburgh Architects and located in Kamuela, Hawaii, the Hawaii Preparatory Academy Energy Laboratory was certified in 2011 under Living Building Challenge version 1.3.  It is currently one of only four projects in the world certified as  a Living Building. Photo: Matthew Millman
Designed by Flansburgh Architects and located in Kamuela, Hawaii, the Hawaii Preparatory Academy Energy Laboratory was certified in 2011 under Living Building Challenge version 1.3. It is currently one of only four projects in the world certified as a Living Building. Photo: Matthew Millman

gb&d: Do you think it partially stems from the fact that these sorts of issues are trickier? That they’re more confrontational?

McLennan: Issues like this are really tough for a lot of people. It makes people uncomfortable. And most people are conflict-averse. We’re very worried either about being politically correct, or looking backwards—

gb&d: Or looking inside of ourselves too deeply.

McLennan: Yeah, exactly. And [realizing] oh, maybe I am bigoted. Or maybe I am biased. So it’s scary. It takes a certain amount of craziness or stupidity or bravery—or some combination—to tackle these issues.

gb&d: I want to talk about your research project, the Economics of Change. The stated goal of the project is to “develop a new model for real estate investment that will remove the artificial financial disincentives to deep green buildings.” Can you describe some of those disincentives?

McLennan: One way to look at this issue is that whenever we build a building or any project, we shift a lot of the burden onto others, the taxpayers, and we don’t account for them. There’s externalities at play. Those externalities not being counted often means that doing the right thing is often more expensive than doing the wrong thing. So it becomes more expensive to produce a building that doesn’t have pollution than one that is polluting. But if you actually accounted for the pollution and the health care impacts, it would of course be a lot cheaper to do the right thing.

gb&d: There was an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune maybe about a year ago proposing bike tolls. His whole argument was that there’s an increasing number of cyclists and that they should be charged for use of the roads, and I remember thinking, I don’t consider myself a saint for biking to work, but the fact is that my bike tires aren’t contributing to the degradation of the roads and not polluting the streets, versus if I was commuting by myself in a car.

McLennan: And he’s probably not lobbying for trucks to be charged the most, and cars next, and bikes third. If he wants to do that, fine! How about just a use fee based upon weight and impact to the infrastructure? Let’s add health-care impacts into that, and you’ll end up paying one penny a year to use the road as a bike, and the trucking companies will have to pay thousands and thousands of dollars. Suddenly more people will start biking.