Will Cuts to the EPA Diminish the Sustainability Movement?

With recent threats of a 31% budget cut to the EPA, many of my colleagues have been asking me how I think these policy changes are going to affect the sustainability movement and the planet as a whole. I understand that these changes will directly affect many beneficial programs and private companies that rely heavily on EPA funding. Though the reality is that things aren’t just going to fall apart and turn back fifty years overnight, we’re going to have to adapt. We are a resilient species and the majority of us realize there is a lot at stake here. There is no denying that the white house’s position on the environment and many other issues for that matter, are not in the direction most of us want things to go. But, with all the chaos currently happening, it is bringing to light a lot which we’ve been lacking on. For years we’ve sat back and expected the government to do most of the work, but in light of these recent changes, it’s becoming increasingly clear that in order to make real change, we need to step up and do the heavy lifting ourselves.

While some are set on the doom and gloom of it all, (thinking that this is the end to all environmental protection and carbon reduction programs) there is a lot more happening that isn’t front-page news. Many are worried that with major cuts to the EPA, losing programs like Energy Star and environmental clean up initiatives, will be the end of environmental protection and climate change progress, as we know it, and perhaps it is. It’s easy to think that with this impending loss of the EPA headed our way, perhaps the sustainability movement and environmental conservation is on it’s way out entirely. The truth is, that this negative pressure from the federal government, will actually push us towards greater innovation in the commercial industry as well as force states to create new and perhaps more effective programs. This isn’t to say that cuts to the EPA are a good thing, just that we’re going to adapt and do what is necessary to fill in the gaps and continue the progress.

Initially the transition may prove difficult and re-adjusting could take some time. The current EPA plan looks to lay “off 25% of its employees and eliminate 56 programs including pesticide safety, water runoff control and environmental cooperation with Mexico and Canada under NAFTA.”[1] If and when these changes to the EPA take place, it would be a significant setback for conservation and sustainability initiatives, and it will require a transition period to re-establish programs in their new form.

So, what can be done to push things forward while so much seems to be moving in giant leaps backwards? Where the initial push for carbon reduction and energy efficiency came from EPA programs, the next phase of sustainability is going to have to be lead by industry leaders in the commercial markets, states and local governments. The fact is, the ball of sustainability has far too much momentum at this point to be turned around. Look at Tesla, for instance investors are starting to see the potential in electric vehicles and renewable energy and when people are making money, innovation in these technologies will only increase. Another point to note, is that in recent years, many companies have hired Corporate Sustainability Officers and created Sustainability Action Plans and Annual Sustainability Reports to directly address climate change, reduce energy costs as well as track and set limits on the company’s carbon footprint. States are stepping up as well, as many are upgrading energy codes to the more stringent standards and local towns are setting policies on pesticide use, plastic bag use and energy efficient building codes.

The general consensus is clear. Climate Change is happening and we need to take whatever steps we can to reduce carbon and free ourselves of fossil fuel use. Corporations, developers, financiers, local and state governments will now need to stand up and continue the progress forward. These changes to the federal budget can be seen as “the forced passing of the torch” that spur the next rise in sustainability leaders across all industries. As consumers, employees and corporations come to expect energy efficiency, LEED Certified buildings, organic products and environmentally preferable as the norm, businesses adept in sustainability will emerge as industry leaders in the years to come. The success of the initial sustainability leaders will indicate to others across all industries that pushing for sustainable products and services is not only a smart decision for people and the planet, but also a wise financial decision.

Look at just some of the changes happening in the last few years:

Poll: Energy Efficiency is America’s No.1 Housing Concern

How big companies are reducing emissions-and making money

California Is Proof That Energy Efficiency Works

Other States are updating energy codes for significant savings in both energy costs and carbon:

  • “Energy cost savings for New York resulting from the state updating its commercial and residential building energy codes … are significant, estimated to be on the order of nearly $250 million annually by 2030.”[2]
  • “Energy cost savings for Massachusetts resulting from the state updating its commercial and residential building energy codes … are significant, estimated to be on the order of nearly $144 million annually by 2030.”[3]

As seen in the graph below, California has long been a leader in energy efficiency and continues to rely heavily on state funding to push these initiatives forward.


In closing, we are at the point of a many make or break moments. The protests at Standing Rock are a clear indicator of what we are up against and what we need to do to push forward to protect this great planet. We have the ability to change the world for future generations, either for the better, or for the worse. It is up to us. It is clear we can’t rely on government to do the work for us and we need to each do our part. With the right focus, we can continue the momentum forward and push to make the necessary changes for a better tomorrow.


Things you can do right now to help the cause:

  1. Call your city and state representatives and voice your opinion on the issues. I recently called my reps and I actually spoke with someone in the office, your voice counts. What policies could be created to improve local programs?
  2. Vote with your dollars. When you make purchases think about what environmental impact you are making and how you might be able to purchase a more sustainable product or service.
  3. Get Active: Get out and speak to others in your community and at work about environmental protection and sustainability. What can you do at home or in the office to improve?
  4. Be Aware: What is going on locally? What environmental programs does your state already have? Where are things lacking?
  5. Sign your name: Here: This letter supports Energy Star, Water Sense & Safer Choice programs run by the EPA.


[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/03/31/new-epa-documents-reveal-even-deeper-proposed-cuts-to-staff-and-programs/?utm_term=.75dc3ab336f4
[2] https://www.energycodes.gov/adoption/states/new-york
[3] https://www.energycodes.gov/adoption/states/massachusetts

How Composting Toilets Improve Water Quality, Reduce Municipal Overhead and Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid of Them

Reasons for Saving Water:

As climate change continues to impact weather norms, many areas of the world are already experiencing extreme droughts. In 2016 alone, much of the United States experienced abnormally dry weather with many areas dealing with severe to exceptional drought conditions. Check out this great resource on drought data here: http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/ In the coming years, weather extremes will continue to be an issue, and gone are the days of predictable weather. It is this weather variability, along with many other factors that we cannot continue to use potable water as conveyance for our waste.

Improved Water Quality and Reduced Water Treatment Costs:

Composting toilets are a simple technology that can instantly reduce water usage in drought stricken areas, as well as create a more sustainable and regenerative type of waste disposal around the globe. In addition to saving water, composting toilets can actually improve existing water quality. Composting toilets benefits go far beyond just the building where they are installed. By reducing waste that is input into the waste stream, less material needs to be filtered out, which eases the burden on private and municipal wastewater treatment facilities. Instead of using leach fields, that have potential for groundwater contamination, composting toilets keep the waste contained until it has been broken down to a stable and safe material.

In addition to improved water quality, the reduction in volume to municipal systems, has the potential to save municipalities millions. As they operate now, municipal wastewater systems are tasked with cleaning water from every building in the local area. Depending on the age and size of the wastewater system and the location, the system will eventually need to be increased in size to handle growing populations or repaired. If even a portion of standard toilets could be changed over to composting toilet systems, cities and towns around the world could reduce their wastewater budgets and perhaps use that money for beneficial social equity projects.  Composting toilets  are a simple technology that can reduce the strain on municipal water treatment systems, reduce groundwater contamination and leave more water for drinking.

Fact: If you are thinking about pursuing the Living Building Challenge, composting toilets are one of the easiest  and least expensive ways to achieve net positive water to meet the requirements of the program.


Do Composting Toilets Smell?

You might be saying “Yes, I know that composting toilets reduce water use, but they gross me out and I don’t want a port-a-john in my home or office.” Right, there’s a stigma associated with composting toilets that we need to overcome in order to fully utilize the technology, but I assure you, it’s far from a portable toilet or outhouse, and if installed correctly, doesn’t smell any worse than your flush toilet. In fact, some composting toilet customers report less bathroom odor than they had with their flush toilets, due to the venting systems in the compost systems. Bear in mind that composting toilets have undergone over thirty years of research and development. The systems on the market today are a far cry from those of yesteryear and this isn’t just a hole in the ground.

When considering composting toilets, you’ll want to speak someone knowledgeable, and not just anyone. Some installers and so-called experts will only recommend one brand of composting toilet, however that system might have known flaws, or, just not be right for your application. You’ll want to be sure to consult with an industry professional who understands your local plumbing codes, design constraints and budget to provide you with the best options for composting  technology.

How Do Composting Toilets Work?

So how does a composting toilet actually work? It’s honestly quite simple. Instead of your typical toilet, which uses water to flush waste to a septic or city sewer system, a composting toilet uses gravity and a storage unit located in a basement or facilities area. Over time, solids, liquids, and toilet paper that are collected in the unit begin to break down into compost. Wood shavings are added as a carbon source and bulking material to control moisture, eliminate odor, and help keep the compost aerated. Some systems also have mixing levels which allow for better ventilation and quicker breakdown of solids. Most systems are also installed with ventilation fans which aid in aerating the compost, evaporating moisture, and removing any potential for odor. Some systems also separate urine (called urine diversion) which further reduces moisture and smells.

Once the compost has matured within the unit, the material can be harvested and either returned to the soil, added to an outdoor compost pile, or removed from the site for use elsewhere.  Typically, compost is harvested once a year to once every several years, depending on the type of unit and usage. When harvested, the waste has been reduced by up to 85 percent of its original volume. In addition, once fully processed, the material is stable, odorless  and resembles ordinary gardening compost. Not to mention, we loose precious topsoil every year, creating compost can help build back that soil.

Right now, wastewater treatment costs continue to rise as many cities and towns are building new facilities to keep up with increasing demand, or, they are paying to maintain old and failing infrastructure. Excess nutrients discharged through sewer systems and septic systems continues to be a major threat to water resources. The biggest contributor of nutrients in wastewater is what we put down the toilet. Composting toilets are an excellent way we can help to protect the environment, capture nutrients, and reduce infrastructure costs.


Why Should I Install Composting Toilets?

  1. Greatly reduce potable water use
  2. Recycle nutrients
  3. Build Soil
  4. Reduce private and municipal wastewater costs
  5. Keep rivers, lakes, and oceans clean and healthy
  6. Can get your project to Net Positive Water for the Living Building Challenge


If you are thinking about composting toilets, contact us or speak with our friends at Nutrient Networks. Nutrient Networks  are an incredibly well informed and helpful group who have been installing composting toilets longer than most. Nutrient Networks have installed a variety of composting systems and are often called in to fix systems that were incorrectly installed or not properly maintained. Check out their website and give them a call, they’d be happy to speak with you. www.nutrientnetworks.com
Please contact us with any questions or comments – ian@signaturesustainability.com

Feature image origin: http://inhabitat.com/6-totally-insane-ways-people-have-repurposed-toilets/crazy-toilet-planter4

Healthy Building Materials Research

Building Products Material Vetting: Looking at product health, hazards and sustainability.

With today’s options for building materials, picking the right product can prove difficult, even if you know what you are looking for. This article will examine the changes happening in the building materials industry and provide guidance on selecting products that will meet the goals of your project.

In recent years, the increased awareness in sustainable design has broadened industry wide concerns with the health hazardous of building materials. As with past products contained harmful chemicals such as asbestos, PCBs and formaldehyde, building designers understand that not all products are created equal, and many products are not fully vetted for human and environmental health effects until years after they have been installed in millions of buildings. So as health concerns continue, understanding what chemicals are in our building products is moving up on the priority list and becoming just as important as knowing what is in the food we eat. Many programs and certifications have evolved to evaluate products for chemical composition, environmental and human health which are helping to allow professionals to cross compare products.

In the last ten to twenty years, the Passive House (Passivehaus) standard and energy efficient design strategies have made airtightness a greater priority to achieve higher levels of energy efficiency. However, with a tighter building envelope, there is less natural air leakage and less fresh outside air coming in. We need tight envelopes to maintain comfortable temperatures, while minimizing heating and cooling output. Though one of the problems with building tighter is that many of the products we put into our buildings, are full of harmful chemicals. Once installed, many chemicals off-gas into the building and contaminate the indoor air. Where older leaky buildings allowed for these chemicals to flow out of the house, newer buildings must now integrate efficient mechanical air ventilation strategies in order to reduce chemicals and improve indoor air quality while still maintaining interior temperatures. In addition to building energy efficiency, increased concerns for overall human health and wellness are playing a big part in moving the building materials industry into a realm of greater transparency and concern for what exactly goes into each product. So if we can easily select products that don’t contain known chemicals of concern, or maximize the use of natural ingredients, less concern needs to be paid to what might be in the air of our home or office.

With millions of building products on the market today, it’s often difficult to know where to start. For do-it yourself-ers and smaller builders, what’s available at Home Depot and Lowes typically determines which products get used, with little regard for material health or sustainability. For commercial and larger scale projects, the search for the perfect product can seem almost infinite. Every day more products become available, and there is a overabundance of differnt claims of sustainable and healthier products: PVC free, NAUF, GreenGuard Certified, recycled content %, FSC, FloorScore, low VOC, etc. . There are literally thousands different criteria which get applied to products, which continue to make product comparisons more difficult. Material selection has never been a quick and easy process, but with all the additional requirements, certifications and health concerns it is quickly becoming an almost impossible task for architects and developers to be sure they are selecting the best of the best. It seems at this point, understanding building product hazards and sustainability criteria could be a university major all in itself, so the items below will simplify the process a bit to give you a better understanding of the factors at play, so you’ll be able to set realistic goals for your project.

Material Health vs. Sustainability:

Signature Sustainability has recently been providing full material product vetting for a developer in New York City. The scope of the project consisted of a full review of material sections of the specifications. Focus was given to products that have direct interaction with building occupants, such as flooring materials, counter tops, wall and ceiling materials in addition to several other more indirect products like caulking, shop applied coatings, flame retardants and adhesives. The main goal of the client was to provide a building that was considerably “healthier” than that of a standard building. Through the careful vetting of product health and sustainability criteria, we assisted the client with reviewing materials and recommending the products with the least hazardous chemicals and greatest environmental certifications or manufacturing processes.

Although we looked at both health and sustainability, the client wanted health criteria to be priority over sustainability. When attempting to select the best product in a material category, there were times when we needed to consider health criteria over sustainability in order to meet the client’s goals. When reviewing gypsum board, we knew that there is typically a large amount of recycled content, which met the project’s sustainability goals. The unfortunate discovery, is that the recycled content in gypsum board is far more hazardous than natural gypsum. (A side note: most gypsum wallboard on the east coast uses FGD (Fuel Gas Desulfurization) as replacement filler for natural gypsum. FGD is a process used to remove sulfur dioxide from fossil fuel power plants, and the material collected in the scrubbers now makes up a large portion of the recycled content in much of the east coast gypsum board. Gypsum from the west coast however, is typically natural gypsum and thus free of any FGD material.) Some research suggests that synthetic gypsum is not harmful, while other reports state that mercury and other metals are present in the product. So, in order to align with the client’s goals of improved building health, we needed to select a product with as little recycled content as possible. In this case, a product with no recycled content was actually the preferable choice. The hope is that the industry progresses, manufacturer’s will provide products meeting both health and sustainability criteria, rather than having to forgo one or the other.


Material Hazards:

In order to help to weed out products with harmful chemicals and push manufacturer’s to meet higher thresholds of material health and sustainability, many certifications and standards have evolved to make identifying products easier. The problem with so many certifications is that it can often be an overwhelming task to determine what programs apply to the material and which certifications are most effective at ensuring material health.

There are now hundreds of material health attributes to consider, some of the more popular are:

  1. VOC content (grams per liter g/l) – Standard in evaluating paints, coatings, sealants, adhesives. Volatile Organic Compounds are chemicals which easily become vapor and “off-gas” chemicals into the air.
  1. Building Product Certifications:

a. FloorScore – Flooring Products, adhesives and underlayments

b. Declare Label – Living Futures Institute Certification (all product types)

c. GreenGuard Gold – Many Material Categories

d. Green Screen – Chemical Hazard Assessment

e. CRI Green Label & Green Label Plus+ – Carpet, Carpet Pad, adhesives

f. Cradle To Cradle – Environmental Life Cycle Analysis

g. Cradle To Cradle – Material Health Evaluations

h. SCS Indoor Advantage – Building Products, Furniture

  1. Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs): documents that provide additional environmental product life cycle analysis information and global warming potential information.
  1. Health Product Declarations (HPDs): documents, which indicate the percentage and type of chemicals used in production along with associated hazards. (expanded beyond what is covered in MSDS or SDS)
  1. SDS & MSDS (Safety Data Sheets & Material Safety Data Sheets) – standard building product health criteria and emergency information.
  1. Typical Chemicals of Concern:
    1. Mercury
    2. Lead
    3. Flame Retardants (Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs))
    4. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
    5. Chlorinated Pesticides
    6. Phthalates (PVC)
    7. Formaldehyde
    8. Anti-microbials
    9. Fly-ash or FGD
    10. The Red List (Living Futures Institute and Declare Labels) this list includes a preselected list of chemicals of concern. These chemicals are banned from use on Living Building Challenge projects.
  1. Indoor air standards: CDPH 01350 – California Department of Public Health sets standards for environmental and public health considerations. Some key elements focus on indoor air criteria used by GreenGuard and other certification programs as a baseline for improved indoor air quality standards.
  1. Database: Pharos Project – “combines manufacturer transparency and independent research to provide in-depth health and environmental information about a wide range of building products.”

Material Sustainability:

With so many levels of health and sustainability criteria to consider, selecting the right product can seem daunting. How do you ensure you select the most sustainable product for environmental health, in addition to making sure you don’t select a product that might contain known carcinogens, while also ensuring the product will earn you credit towards LEED, WELL or Living Building Challenge or meet your general project goals? You may want to dive in and do the research yourself, but be sure to take that time into consideration. Hundreds, if not thousands of hours can be spent researching products in order to determine what is available and what meets your project’s requirements. Signature Sustainability well versed in building materials vetting and understand the importance of selecting the least hazardous and most sustainable products. It may be wise to make a list of the products you are most concerned with and start there.

When looking at the environmental sustainability of products, the best products tend to be from manufacturers that provide transparency about what goes into their manufacturing process. If there are no harmful chemicals in a product a manufacturer shouldn’t’ be worried about disclosing what is in the product on a Health Product Declaration (HPD). If the manufacturing process limits transportation, uses recycled or rapidly renewable products the Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) will indicate as such.

Some of the current standard sustainability criteria of products:

  1. FSC WOOD – (Forest Stewardship Council): sustainably harvested wood, invoices should indicate a Chain of Custody number (COC).
  1. Recycled Content – varies from pre-consumer (post industrial) and post-consumer (pre-industrial). Ask your manufacturer what makes up the reused material.
  1. Biobased content – many products are manufactured using waste from the agriculture industry. Materials that are derived from biomass resources. (Organic materials such as crop residues, wood residues, grasses and aquatic plants.) The USDA has created standards for “BioPrefered” products. More information in the link.
  1. Rapidly Renewable – products which are able to regenerate in less than 10 years
  1. Product Transparency: HPDs and EPDs – these documents provide product disclosure for health and environmental criteria provided by manufacturer’s and third party testing agencies.
  1. Local Products – products manufactured as close to the project site are beneficial in that they support the local economy as well as reduce distances required for transportation, cutting down on total life cycle carbon emissions.
  2. Energy Star – Energy Efficient Appliances

In closing, there are always choices to be made with regards to a specific project goals and needs. Currently, the industry is undergoing a important shift towards improved wellbeing and sustainable criteria. As the demand for products that meet enhanced levels of health and environmental standards increase, manufacturers will continue to shift their focus to modifying their products to follow suit. It is important to call your manufacturer representatives and speak with them about what your project is looking to do and what type of documentation and criteria you are looking for. Many of our conversations with manufacturers have been beneficial to educating them on changes in the industry and allows them the choice to pursue new methods of product creation and chemistry. Communication is key toward getting the product supply to catch up with the demand for better building products. Material vetting may always be an overwhelming task, but product databases like Pharos, certifications and transparency should help to make it easier in the years to come.


If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out: ian@signaturesustainability.com


Permaculture – not just another “buzz” word.

In today’s fast paced world, with new ideas and technologies constantly evolving, it seems as though we just move from one buzzword to the next, hoping to find a saving grace in the next best thing…. “going green”, “sustainability”, “passive house”, “net zero”, “net positive”, “resiliency”, “regenerative”… Especially in the green building world, it always seems as though there is something better, something a little newer, just around the corner. There will always be room for improvement and new ideas, but maybe much of that knowledge we seek, is right in front of us, and we’re just too busy looking for the next big thing..

People get excited about a new strategy or idea and I think that’s why certain words stick, like sustainability. Although the dictionary definition of sustainability doesn’t fully encompass all the changes that need to be made, and really only focuses on “sustaining” but not “repairing”, “thriving” or “regenerating”, it’s clear that the current movement has taken to use the word to encompass all of this and more. The Sustainability Movement is in motion encompassing all industries worldwide. It’s clear that this movement is beyond just a buzz word.

So, if you are like many, who enjoy a good “buzz” word, one of my favorites is Permaculture. Permaculture is a term used to describe a design methodology, which can help create a more “permanent” form of “culture”. The term was coined by an Australian by the name of Bill Mollison in the 1970’s. Bill and his colleague, David Holmgren worked together to create a design philosophy which pulled from native cultures, time tested strategies, current technology as well as many other brilliant ideas. One of these brilliant ideas is to gain a full understanding of the system you are working with, from inside and out. For instance, when creating inputs in a system’s design, you would want each input to have more than just one use, or yield. This idea is known in the permaculture world as “stacking functions”. So, any one input, would always provide two or more outputs. A simple example might be that you have a problem in the garden with pests, instead of spraying toxic chemicals, you decide to get some ducks instead, since ducks love to eat bugs. The ducks then eat the bugs and solve your pest problem. But, ducks also provide fertilizer through their waste, and they produce eggs for food. So as many of us in the permaculture world like to say… “The problem is the solution”. Instead of spraying a pesticide to kill the pests, you took time to observe the system, and gain a better understanding of what input might make the system function more smoothly. This idea of careful observation and other strategies were pulled together by David Holmgren. Holmgren came up with twelve key design principles for Permaculture, which we can use to address many issues currently found in society in order to design a more resilient, regenerative and permanent way of life.

The twelve principals are:

  1. Observe and Interact
  2. Catch and Store Energy
  3. Obtain a Yield
  4. Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback
  5. Use and Value Renewable Sources and Services
  6. Produce No Waste
  7. Design From Patterns to Details
  8. Integrate Rather Than Segregate
  9. Use Small and Slow Solutions
  10. Use and Value Diversity
  11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal
  12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change

This video is from David Holmgren’s permaculture principals site. More on these can be found here: https://permacultureprinciples.com/

So why do we need Permaculture?

Permaculture includes tools to address food, buildings, society, culture, the environment and more. Currently, the majority of our food is produced through the use of large scale agriculture processes which require huge amounts of chemical pesticides, toxic fertilizers and tons of oil in order to maintain production. The agriculture practice known as “mono-culture”, is where one crop is grown in vast quantities over hundreds or thousands of acres of farmland. The one crop “mono-culture” not only strips the soil of nutrients, but is highly susceptible to disease and pests because there aren’t any buffers or edges to stop the spread of a disease or insect. You essential have one microclimate for miles and miles with no diversity. This makes for a very weak system. In addition, the agriculture industry is one of the largest contributors to climate change, pollution and destruction of natural ecosystems. Modern agriculture is not resilient, and when inputs run out, the system falls apart. Have you ever thought of what might happen if oil wasn’t readily available? Your local grocery store wouldn’t be restocked because the delivery trucks rely on oil. The warehouses where they pack and ship the food rely on oil, and almost all of the farmers growing the food rely on oil. You have one input responsible for all the outputs. The current reliance on oil is far from resilient and quite disturbing when you think of the true fragility of the system. Permaculture allows us to address the current flaws with the food system and make it more resilient and far less reliant on oil.

What if there was a way to eliminate the need for constant inputs and create regenerative systems that (with minimal inputs) could sustain themselves and improve the soil? Prevent the need for pesticides? Or could be done on a level that reduced or eliminated the need for fossil fuels altogether? Permaculture can help us design for resiliency and it doesn’t only apply to growing food, and like I said before, it can also be applied to buildings, people, communities and regions. Through permaculture, we can bridge the gap between the needs of humans and the environment and design with intent to minimize negative impacts and maximize yields.

Within Permaculture, buildings, nature, landscapes and communities can be seen as one. Permaculture brings a sense of wholistic design, which incorporates elements of sustainability, biomimicry, biophilia, renewable energy and regenerative design to in order to mimic natural systems, maximize yields and create a truly resilient living environment. By looking beyond just the four walls, ceiling and floor, buildings can clean water, harness sunlight, grow food, provide habitat and adapt to changes in the environment. Instead of growing lawns, we can grow food. All your hard work in the yard on the weekend could end in more food on the table, lower grocery bills, less spent on gas for the lawn mower and happier people! Did you know studies have shown that those who garden are typically happier? (See article here)  Imagine neighborhoods where grocery stores were much smaller and only reserved for specialty items? What if the vast majority of food came right from the land in your neighborhood. The idea of Permaculture isn’t just a utopian dream. It’s happening. People all over the world are studying Permaculture and transforming their homes and neighborhoods one plot at a time.

As the push to “buy local” grows, and people’s awareness of the need increases, it makes more sense to grow food close by, and move towards resilient food sources. Much of the food we eat here in the United States is grown in the mid-west and California, so if you live in on the east coast, the majority of your food is traveling thousands of miles to get to you. So, if food is local and plentiful, there is less reliance on shipping food from far away places and the food system becomes more resilient. This same concept can apply to buildings as well.

Buildings can now be designed to produce more energy than they demand, so they essential can become energy providers to buildings close by. What if all roofs captured and filtered rainwater and were covered in solar panels? It is possible to design human environments that work with nature and are truly resilient. It helps to determine how to “stack functions” during the design process. In addition to protection from the elements, roofs can capture water, grow plants, provide a space of relaxation, produce energy, etc.  In order to get to true resiliency and a regenerative culture, we will need to change our idea of what is beautiful and what is important, as permaculture designs won’t typically look like the straight lined buildings and English style gardens we are used to. As we push to design more resilient buildings, we’ll find ourselves slowly changing our design priorities and I believe designs will maintain beauty, but become much more practical.

We are just now realizing the potential for permaculture and other strategies in the grand scheme of addressing climate change and the many other problems with our society’s current operation. As we push to improve our current system, there is much to be learned and a long road ahead. The key to making change, is education and knowledge sharing. When possible, keep your findings open source and let others learn from your mistakes so they can move over those hurdles and discover new obstacles. If information is made available to everyone, we will have the tools we need to create a future that works with natural systems, instead of against them. Our schools at all levels need to start offering classes on permaculture, gardening and to get children excited about growing their own food and understanding how to create resilient and regenerative systems. The systems exist to create a better future, we just need to spread the knowledge and use it.

Signature Sustainability provides Permaculture designs, discussions and presentations. If interested, contact us today: ian@signaturesustainability.com or 201-788-7963.

The Living Building Challenge – Beyond Sustainable and into Regenerative Design

living-building-challengeThe Living Building Challenge (LBC) is a rating system similar to LEED as it uses a holistic approach to green building and it covers many different aspects of the built environment. However, LBC is much more rigorous as the requirements go far beyond standard green building and high performance design. The program requires each project to achieve net positive energy as well as net positive water, there is also a specific “red list” of chemicals/materials that can’t be used at all. So even in a basic Living Building Challenge project, which may be an oxymoron, the building needs to produce more energy than the building consumes, all water consumed by the building needs to be sourced on-site, and all grey and black water must be treated onsite (both of which are possible and push the limits of what current sustainable design looks like). The program goes far beyond the current “standards” for green building and moves into what is known as “Regenerative Design”.

The Living Building Challenge is broken up into seven credit areas called “petals” focused on areas which go beyond just the standard site, energy, water, materials, indoor air quality and look at place, beauty, equity, and health and happiness as well.

Petal Categories:

  • Place
  • Water
  • Energy
  • Health & Happiness
  • Materials
  • Equity
  • Beauty

The Living Building Challenge is a push to move not just the building industry, but human society to the next level of living a more integrated life with the natural world. Looking at nature, we can learn a lot about how to create new technologies and design strategies which work with the natural world, rather than against it.  Subject ares such as biophilia, symbiosis, permaculture, and beyond have us looking at the way plants, animals, and native cultures thrive and allow us to use this information make our designs better, while not giving up many of the comforts we are accustomed to. As LEED was far from where the building industry was twenty years ago and brought sustainability to the masses, LBC along with new versions of LEED continue to propel designs to the next level.

What is LEED?


For those just learning about green building, you’ve come to the right place. We’ve been working on green buildings for years and one of the biggest changes in construction in the last 20 years is the creation of the USGBC and the LEED Rating System. LEED is a rating system that was developed to streamline the process of creating environmentally friendly buildings. LEED looks to reduce energy and water use, create better indoor air quality and environment for occupants and reduce the carbon footprint of the materials used and waste created in the process of construction. Today, there are many different rating systems, but the USGBC and LEED began a movement that propelled the construction industry into going “green”.

LEED itself stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. LEED was created by the USGBC (United States Green Building Council) in 1993 in order to push the building industry in a more environmentally friendly direction. As the construction industry had pretty much operated status quo for almost a century, it was certainly time for a change, and LEED looked to transform the market. According to the EIA, about 40% of all energy consumed in the US in 2015 was from residential and commercial buildings, indicating we can make great reductions in energy demand through better design, smarter construction and more thoughtful renovations of new and existing building stock.

The US currently has around 50,000 LEED projects with another few thousand internationally. While many building projects still operate much like they did fifty years ago, the industry has begun the movement towards more environmentally thoughtful design. Much of LEED’s success can be attributed to its holistic approach to building. Although many experts would agree that energy reduction is the most important focus in sustainable building, it is not the sole focus of LEED, but absolutely a major component.

The holistic approach to green building can be seen over the eight major sections to the LEED program:

  1. Location & Transportation
  2. Sustainable Sites
  3. Water Efficiency
  4. Energy & Atmosphere
  5. Materials & Resources
  6. Indoor Environmental Quality
  7. Innovation
  8. Regional Priority

Most of the credit categories are made up of a mixture of prerequisites and credits. Prerequisites are mandatory and all LEED projects must meet these requirements in order to achieve even basic certification. Based on the number of credits achieved, a project is then able to bank points towards earning a level of certification: 40-49 points (Certified), 50-59 points (Silver), 60-79 points (Gold), and 80-110 points (Platinum).

LEED projects look at not just the completed building’s energy and water use, but also the construction process, including waste reduction, habitat restoration, low/no chemical materials (Low VOC and NAUF), and sustainably sourced and manufactured materials (through the use of EPDs – Environmental Product Declaration) Because of the holistic approach, some may find LEED to seem overwhelming and overly complicated, however with a little education (you can earn your LEED AP credential) and some experience on a project, you will have a strong understanding of the program and will be able lead your team on the next LEED construction project and add to the growing number of building projects that are seeing the value in building more sustainably.

Building Sustainability: Here today, beyond tomorrow…

Although at times it can seem to be moving at a snails pace, here in 2016, the building industry has come a long way from where it was just ten years ago. Many states and townships now have energy codes which require thicker walls (2×6 or double wall) and greater insulation R-values. New HVAC products like mini-split and ground source heat pumps, have flooded the market. As heat pumps are able to produce heated and cooled air at a fraction of your old oil or gas furnace, buildings can now be designed and built to produce more energy than they consume, with the help of solar panels.

Climate Change has had a huge impact on how we view the world as well as our relationship and impact on the Earth. Spurred from the need to address climate change, LEED, Energy Star and many other factors have helped to try and address climate change in the construction industry and propel building code requirements forward and create more sustainable buildings. However, today’s approach to sustainability as many interpret it, isn’t going far enough beyond where we are today. To be sustainable is to allow for things to be “able to be maintained at a certain rate or level” or “to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The second definition from 1987’s report “Our Common Future” gets more at where we really need to go, which is far beyond just being “less bad” and to regenerate and repair the environment that has been damaged. Most “sustainable” or “green buildings” today are still having and overall negative impact on the environment, however their destructive impact is reduced from what buildings using traditional standards are.

As building codes have increased the efficiency of baseline buildings, Signature Sustainability continues to look ahead. We long to work with project teams that want to be on the cutting edge and set the stage for creating positive impact regenerative projects. We are excited to help projects to push the envelope on building sustainability, green building, and high performance design so that all projects can one day create a positive impact on the environment rather than a negative one.

This blog was created to share our knowledge and create a space for newbies to learn the basics of the industry, as well as seasoned professionals to check out the latest and greatest projects, rating systems, technologies, building techniques, and more.

Have an idea for a post? Contact us and let us know: mailto:ian@signaturesustainability.com