Beyond the Bio: Jason McLennan

You can find the degrees and bullet points of the career accomplishments of the keynote speakers who will appear at the 2012 Funders’ Network conference. But there's more to the stories of these diverse, complex, and nuanced individuals. The Network is pleased to present the third in its series of in-depth profiles of our conference keynote speakers with our profile of Jason F. McLennan, CEO, International Living Future Institute. Click here for the pdf.


Jason McLennan’s life is about the power of transformation. As a boy, he witnessed the transformation of a ravaged terrain into a considerably healthier, green natural environment, and then the transformation of some of that same renewed land into an unsightly sprawl of strip malls and cookie-cutter houses. Watching the evolution of the landscape of his youth—from bleakness to burgeoning greenness to the clutter of heedless development—inspired him to become a leader in a movement to achieve yet another transformation: the transformation of the way we construct the buildings in which we live our lives.

McLennan was born and raised in Sudbury, Ontario, an area accustomed to transformation. The area was hit by a meteor 1.8 billion years ago that created the Sudbury basin; visible from space, it’s the second-largest known impact crater. Geological forces filled the hole with precious metals. In the late 1880s, when blasting for the Canadian Pacific railroad uncovered high concentrations of nickel-copper ore, Sudbury transformed yet again, from a remote lumber camp into one of the world’s largest mines.

The Sudbury of McLennan’s childhood had been devastated by the combined environmental exploitation of mining and logging. “When I was a kid,” McLennan says, “Sudbury was known as a moonscape. The plants were gone, the trees were gone, lakes were dead.” Giant fires were historically used to smelt the ore out of the ground and in modern times Sudbury’s smokestacks belched a potent mix of sulfur dioxide gas and ore particles that ravaged the region. What was left was exposed, pitted rock dyed black by acid rain.

In the ‘70s, mining company Inco built the Superstack, a smokestack taller than the Eiffel Tower. “At the time,” McLennan says, “it was determined that ‘the solution to the local pollution was dilution’—the Superstack would send all that bad stuff away from Sudbury. Of course, now we know that’s not the answer at all and all it does is push the pollution farther downstream. Damage is still done, but it’s done somewhere else.”

The Superstack, though, allowed Sudbury to begin an environmental restoration called the “Regreening of Sudbury,” a partnership of the mining company, city, and other partners. When the regreening began McLennan was already deeply attuned to nature. In addition to camping trips with his family to other areas of Canada, McLennan spent part of every summer on an island owned by his aunt. “My aunt was a really formative influence on me,” he says, “and I got to know her island as an infinite place and it was beautiful—an absolutely gorgeous place. So I always had these twin environments of incredible natural beauty in places, with lots of time outdoors, and this industrial background of mining and logging.”

McLennan was an enthusiastic Regreening participant and joined other volunteers fertilizing barren land and planting trees and grasses. “It was amazing,” he says. “I’d grown up seeing how people could destroy nature; now I was seeing how they could heal it.” The regreening effort was so successful that the town eventually won a United Nations commendation.

Throughout, sprawl had been coming to Sudbury in fits and starts, depending, McLennan says, “on whether nickel prices were high or low.” But when a parcel of land near McLennan’s house was developed the effect on McLennan was profound. “There was a huge area not far from where I lived,” he says, “and I used to go all the time and look for frogs in the ponds that were there and climb over the rocks. That whole area was purchased by a developer and it was basically destroyed from my perspective and what they put up were typical parking lots and cheap buildings selling crappy stuff inside. In my mind, it wasn’t a fair trade. We’d spent all this time and energy to create a beautiful place and suddenly trees I helped plant were razed for strip malls. It didn’t make sense.”

In many ways, McLennan himself is a creation of his environment. “If I lived somewhere else, I would have still been drawing castles and designing things—that was obviously in my DNA—so I think I would still have become an architect. But I’m pretty certain that the focus on environmental issues would not have been as strong, or maybe would not have been there, or it would have emerged later in my career, maybe only after I’d been exposed to it in the profession itself like so many others. But living in Sudbury had a major impact and I’m just glad it worked out as it did.”

A New Way of Building

McLennan’s desire to focus on green building came at exactly the wrong time. “It was the go-go ‘80s and green wasn’t cool. Consumerism was in, energy was cheap, and green was a fad that didn’t generate jobs.” Determined to pursue an alternative to mainstream architecture, he chose to go to the University of Oregon, one of the only schools at the time with a deep environmental program and one of the greenest architecture programs he could find. There, he studied alternate construction techniques with a small group of dedicated professors.


By the time he graduated, McLennan had come to the attention of another transformative figure in the field of architecture, Bob Berkebile of BNIM in Kansas City. Known as the Professor Dumbledore of the green building movement, Berkebile hired McLennan to join the team developing Montana State University’s EPICenter, which McLennan calls, “the most advanced building ever designed that was never built.” In McLennan, Berkebile told the Seattle Times, he sensed a “change agent.”

McLennan went on to become the youngest partner at BNIM and continued to push the envelope of sustainable building. He refined his philosophical approach to architecture. “Architecture should not be about style or fashion,” he says, “which doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful. Fashion is not the same as beauty. Beautiful buildings fit in with where they are—they are in harmony with the culture, climate and surroundings of their environment. You should be able to tell where you are when you look at a building. Design matters. A truly beautiful building complements its setting; it doesn’t fight with it.”

Living Buildings began to grow out of the EPICenter project. According to McLennan, “When that project met its untimely demise, Bob and I were adamant that the lessons learned not die and from that I actually created a new consulting division called Elements, to try to take a lot of this knowledge and disseminate and teach others. We began talking about Living Buildings as a concept. It wasn’t yet a program and it wasn’t a certification system; it was a philosophy and an approach.”

McLennan and Berkebile believed strongly in their shared philosophy and began talking about it to anyone who would listen. “Most people thought we were just nuts. We began working to push the idea with clients—whoever was interested in sustainability, we would try to get them to understand how to move beyond the conventional definition and towards a place of regeneration, but again most clients weren’t ready at the time and weren’t willing to go that far. We did get some funding from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation to pursue some amazing research on the economics of various levels of performance—including the idea of Living Buildings. Then it became something we were writing about, publishing about, talking about, but there were no living buildings yet.”


Bringing Living Buildings to Life

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and starkly illustrated design and planning failures. In January of 2006, An Inconvenient Truth premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and suddenly the effects and consequences of climate change were on the nation’s mind.  The marketplace had begun to change and McLennan was ready.


In 2005, McLennan had written Living Building standards, “as a result of things I was seeing in the marketplace and other experiences we were having, and also the uptake of LEED, which really opened the door for this particular program to have a place it the market.” LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a green building certification system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council.

In 2006, the Cascadia Green Building Council (CGBC) in Seattle offered McLennan a new opportunity to transform sustainable architecture. CGBC was looking for a visionary leader offering revolutionary ideas just as McLennan was deciding how to approach marketing the Living Building standards. “I knew that it was an idea whose time had come. It needed the right platform and the right launch and with that something could be born. I thought a nonprofit should launch Living Buildings. I didn’t want people to think it was about making money. A nonprofit would give Living Buildings legitimacy. There’s a lot of greenwashing out there and I wanted to take the issue of who was going to profit off the table.”

Moving to Seattle was not an easy decision, according to McLennan. “It meant a pay cut. It meant uprooting my family. It might not work out.” McLennan’s family threw their full support behind the move. “Luckily, my wife is great. Her response to ‘I’m thinking of taking a job with a huge pay cut and moving everyone 2,000 miles away because I really think this the opportunity I’ve been looking for,’ was ‘that sounds great, let’s go.’”

When McLennan took the reins at CGBC, what began back in Kansas City with the never-built EpiCenter project in Montana was on the verge of becoming a reality.

In 2006, the Living Building Challenge officially launched and not as most programs that deal with sub-flooring and waste management systems may launch—laden with dry technical terms and hardware specifications. The Living Building Challenge, the standard of which is just 48 pages, instead launched as a “visionary path to a restorative future.” With a flower for a metaphor and employing poetic language, the Challenge is comprised of seven performance areas or “petals”: Site, Water, Energy, Health, Materials, Equity and Beauty.

The seven performance areas are further broken down into 20 imperatives, which range from measurable practicalities like net zero energy and water to the more transcendent “rights to nature” and “beauty and spirit.” It gives new meaning to the term “petal power.”

A project must go through design, construction, and be operational for a full year before it can be certified. Recognizing that not all buildings will be able to meet all the petals, the program celebrates partial certification as well; when a project satisfies requirements in at least three areas, one of which must be water, energy, or materials, it is awarded those petals.

Despite the seeming simplicity of the challenge, it’s still a challenge and it can be a difficult one. That’s fine with McLennan. “It’s a living tool and a living program by definition. We’re constantly learning from the projects and from the teams that are actively working on this. We have a protocol called our dialogue site which becomes sort of a living body of law for what’s allowed and what’s not allowed in terms of interpretations, so we’re over time slowly evolving and improving and tweaking the tool.”


The Next 100 Years

The collaborative nature is also a hallmark of its intent to “lead the market forward” and “create models for the future.” About to launch Living Building Challenge 2.1, McLennan is already deep in the process of creating 3.0. “We’re constantly thinking about and talking about what 3.0 needs to be and how can we be more holistic and how we can find more leverage points to change the marketplace. We know in some areas we’re not doing a very adequate job of really addressing the issues that we really want to address—in other areas it’s stronger—so we’re trying to figure out, with the community’s help, how to make the program more robust and more interesting and really improve the process for teams that are trying to do this. There’s a lot of work to be done over the next few years.”


The Living Building Challenge has taken root in some unlikely places. Two schooners, or tall ships, recently registered with the Challenge. “Suddenly,” McLennan says, “we’re going to be certifying sailing vessels as living sailing vessels and that wasn’t something that I had ever thought about before.” One is a 100-year-old vessel on the National Registry that is being retrofitted and one is a schooner under construction in California; both are educational sailing vessels.

“Independently,” McLennan says, “without talking to each other, both ships found the Living Challenge and within a couple months from each other both registered with us to do Living ships. Now, what the heck? It’s bizarre but we said, great, sign up, we don’t know how to work with you yet, but we’ll figure it out and so that’s what we’re doing and it’s a beautiful thing.”

The upbeat nature of the Living Building Challenge doesn’t completely mask the fact that it’s designed to deal with very real and potentially very scary problems. “These buildings are designed for a particular climate and these climates are changing,” McLennan says, “but they’re very adaptable, resilient buildings where the systems are designed to handle some change, whether it’s their water collection systems or energy generation.”

When McLennan talks about what the buildings mean to the future and the problems they are designed to alleviate or withstand (depending on whether you’re feeling optimistic or pessimistic), he doesn’t speak in terms of a bunker mentality. There are no canned provisions or thin mattresses on concrete floors to be found. His vision remains true to the Living Building Challenge to “infuse with inspiration and poetry.”

“Living Buildings,” he says, “are designed to keep humming along. If power goes out in the cities, if the waste water infrastructure gets disabled, these buildings keep marching along. They become beacons, they become places of shelter and that’s by design.”


—by Amy Rutledge
Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities

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