The Living Building Challenge is a bold, new certification program that tests green buildings against the most rigorous performance standards in the world. A building cannot receive full certification until it has operated at demanding levels for at least one year. Much attention has been directed to the energy, water and materials criteria of the Challenge; these are objective characteristics that can be measured and counted. However, I want to focus on an equally critical part of the LBC test – “beauty” – and the central role it plays in green building design.

Form Follows Function

In 1896, Louis Sullivan, the architectural titan, was the first to write the words: “form…follows function.” Rather than follow precedent, or generate random graceful swoops, the form of a building, according to Sullivan, should flow organically from its purpose.

While that might seem self-evident – one would not want a cathedral that looked like a prison – this basic dictum was received as a bombshell at the time. And it started modern architecture down a curious path.

In 1908, the Austrian architect Adolf Loos took a further step, denouncing architectural ornamentation as “criminal.” The Bauhaus school, led by such giants as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, embraced this vision and sought to eliminate all superfluous grace notes from the built environment.

One branch of this modernist school ultimately produced housing developments so “soviet” in their utilitarianism that they evoke gulags. Today’s “big box” retail outlets – essentially featureless – are also part of this tradition.

A different modernist derivative led to exposed plumbing, heating ducts and structural elements (whose beauty had not previously been widely appreciated). Brightly painted plumbing is considered ornamental-but-not-superfluous. This approach reached its presumed zenith at the Pompidou Centre, a collaboration of Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano.

Trophy Buildings

Movements invariably produce counter-movements. Today’s most celebrated architectural prizes are frequently awarded to buildings that are nearly pure ornament. In these concoctions, form often bears no significant relationship to function. Like sculptors, star architects produce objects that bear their own unmistakable signatures. Shown photos of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao, Marqués de Riscal and Disney Hall, the man on the street could easily guess that they are all by the same architect, but he would have no clue as to which is the museum, the hotel or the concert hall.

There is no denying that today’s prize-winning buildings have panache. The sculptural elements of the Disney Center, the National Assembly of Wales, CCTV headquarters, the Burj Khalifa and virtually everything by the astonishingly versatile Zaha Hadid inspire emotional reactions of the same sort as Rodin, Henry Moore or Brancusi. Developments in materials science, computer topography and CAD-CAM have now made imaginable buildings that could not have been built 10 years ago. It is hard to find anyone who isn’t affected – whether delighted or shocked – by these trophy structures.

What many of these visual icons don’t do very well, however, is serve the actual needs of their tenants without unduly burdening the planet. Comfort, convenience, productivity, acoustics, views from inside-out and even healthy indoor air are reduced to second-order concerns. The sculptural elegance of the structure, when viewed from outside, trumps all other considerations.

Sculptor Richard Serra famously dismisses architecture as mere “plumbing.” Although intended as arch sarcasm by the artist of the artisan, his comment operates effectively at another level.

Learning from Nature

In dramatic contrast, the Living Building Challenge insists that a building be designed from the ground up to be useful and healthy. A living building must be designed to radically minimize its impacts on the earth. And a living building’s design must be beautiful.

Beauty was no mere afterthought to the Challenge’s authors. Jason F. McLennan and Eden Bruckman had seen plenty of ugly structures that met very high environmental performance standards, and they knew that unsightly design would not inspire a successful movement.

The LBC authors also knew that “beauty” could not simply be mandated. Beyond a series of generalized principles, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

In conjunction with the other elements of the Living Building Challenge, the authors appear to be affirming that architects should never have to choose among aesthetics, functionality and performance. If faced with such a trade-off, architects need to probe more deeply into their designs to solve for all three ends simultaneously. In particular, stumped architects should explore how nature has solved analogous problems during the last couple billion years of beta testing.

Most of what we know about our perceptions of beauty is based upon the human response to natural patterns. Fibonacci numbers, the golden ratio, Fermat’s spiral and scores of other algebraic mainstays that define beauty are commonplace in nature and were discovered there by humans.

And nature, over time, always favors designs that are functional and make the most efficient use of scarce resources. That is the essence of natural selection. Buildings that seamlessly blend beauty, efficiency and functionality are almost always inspired by something Mother Nature invented millions of years ago. (While natural selection produces superb blends of functionality and efficiency, humans don’t always appreciate their beauty. That is particularly true of some that can cause us harm. Snakes, crocodiles and sharks, for example, are superbly tailored to succeed in their environments.)

Location + Efficiency

The Challenge also emphasizes the role of place. It acknowledges the beauty (as well as the efficacy) of thick adobe walls of the American Southwest and breezy verandas in the Southeast; of A-frames above the snow line and stilt houses on most of the world’s bayous. Living building architecture is, of necessity, regional architecture. It takes advantage of sun, rain and wind instead of fighting to overcome them.

In important ways, the LBC’s beauty is a celebration of the same elegant simplicity found in Apple’s iPad and Air. Aesthetics were not compromised in these devices in pursuit of superb functionality. Rather, a sleek, elegant beauty emerged as the consequence of an uncompromising search for the best possible user experience achieved as efficiently as possible. Like living buildings, these devices minimize the use of materials and energy.

The Bullitt Center, the Greenest Commercial Building in the world

Anyone asked to describe the Bullitt Center is likely to begin with its large, visually arresting roof. To capture enough solar energy to power a six-story building in cloudy Seattle, an expansive roof is essential. The roof is also a collecting basin to capture rainwater to store seasonally in a huge cistern. This functional design provides a striking architectural signature for the building—it is as regionally appropriate in its own way as adobe or stilts.

The Bullitt Center has unusually high ceilings: The developers (Point32) included one fewer floor than would have been possible under Seattle’s regulations in order to ensure that every tenant has direct access to daylight and fresh air. The architects (Miller Hull) specified ample use of gorgeous FSC-certified wood from nearby forests for the walls and ceilings. The owner (Bullitt Foundation) demanded an external, glass-enclosed staircase with great views to lure tenants away from the elevator, saving electricity while promoting health through exercise.

The end result is an elegant, simple, modern structure. Its features are the product of creative efforts to fulfill its purpose as an office building in ways that serve the tenants’ needs as efficiently as possible in a Seattle environment.

The Living Building Challenge is premised on a belief that the 21st century will require a rapid, worldwide movement to ultra-high performance buildings. But for this movement to realize its full potential, these buildings must also be a source of beauty, joy, well-being and inspiration. They will marry Sullivan’s “form follows function” precept with the highest levels of efficiency currently achievable. Learning from nature’s preoccupation with maximizing return from scarce resources, they will also be beautifully functional.