Promulgators of the Living Building Challenge, acknowledged as the most demanding certification program for the production of ultragreen buildings, are on a campaign to scale up the size of the projects that register for the rigorous net-zero annual energy- and water-use performance categories. As the movement to reduce energy and water use in buildings continues to grow, the International Living Future Institute, which administers the LBC, is actively seeking more teams to move beyond net-zero to net-positive annual energy and water production.

 “We are facing a real water crisis,” with 783 million people, globally, without access to clean water, said Amanda Sturgeon, CEO of the nonprofit International Living Future Institute, at ILFI’s Net Positive Energy + Water Conference, held Feb. 18-19 in San Diego. “How do we challenge ourselves to create models to save water?” she asked the 325 attendees.

Early adopters are forging ahead on the path toward bringing rainwater to potable standards, and there has been a 17% reduction in the cost of solar energy since 2009, she said. “We’re on a pivot point to see net-positive energy and water becoming possible,” said Sturgeon.

A pioneering rainwater treatment project is the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s 10,500-sq-ft Brock Environmental Center, in Virginia Beach, Va. The building got its state permit in November 2014, a day before its dedication.

“We are the first project in the U.S. to get approvals to drink treated rainwater, but to do it, we had to become a public waterworks,” said architect Greg Mella, the SmithGroup JJR Brock Center principal.

Mella considers achieving net-zero water and energy as the project’s biggest challenges. “Five years ago, I wouldn’t have thought what we accomplished at Brock was possible,” he said.

In addition, in response to the global water crisis, ILFI is pushing another goal. They are advocating the use of natural systems to clean up degraded bodies of water, waterways and groundwater.

“There are a lot of things we can do that we previously didn’t think possible,” said John Todd, founder and president of John Todd Ecological Design (JTED).

Since the 1980s, Todd has been developing commercial systems that rely on the sun, biodiversity and natural processes for the treatment of wastewater and the remediation of degraded bodies of water. Biodiversity and natural processes create mechanically simple but biologically complex systems to treat the most difficult contaminants and human-waste streams, said Todd.

In 2002, JTED collaborated on the restoration of Fuzhou, China’s 600-meter-long, sewage-filled Baima Canal, using 12,000 plants of 20 native species. The project reduced odors, eliminated floating solids and improved the neighborhood.

JTED also consulted on a natural wastewater filtration facility, which treats up to 52,000 gallons per day, at the 6,246-sq-ft Omega Center for Sustainable Living in Rhinebeck, N.Y. The center, completed in late 2008, is the first project certified both as a LEED Platinum building under the U.S. Green Building Council and as a Living Building under the LBC. Called an Eco Machine, it is housed in a greenhouse that also serves as a classroom, event space and yoga studio. The system safeguards water quality in a nearby pond and provides the entire Omega Institute campus with tertiary treated water.

On the power side, DPR Construction Inc. is retrofitting its offices for net-zero energy use. So far, the firm has completed green-office retrofits in Phoenix, San Francisco and San Diego, and is in the process of redoing its Washington, D.C., office.

The 33,833-sq-ft San Diego retrofit is powered by a 64-kW solar system. DPR predicts it will save an average of $46,000 per year in energy costs.

“The building has been net-positive for energy for five of its six years,” said Landry Watson, DPR’s sustainability manager.

Watson added that the project would have been capitalized this year had the solar array been sized properly, instead of 5 kW too large. “The business case on energy seems obvious,” he said.

At the conference, Todd, who envisions a world in which natural treatment systems are at the heart of industry and cities, summed up by saying, “I’m scared when I see the data on the browning of waters. Still, I believe it’s the best of times for innovative and creative solutions to heal the planet.”