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Lessons From Two International Living Future Institute Projects

March 8th, 2024 | 12 min. read

Lessons From Two International Living Future Institute Projects

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The International Living Future Institute (ILFI) seeks to promote a socially just, culturally rich, and ecologically restorative world. Its certification programs provide measurable paths for organizations to reduce their carbon footprints, strengthen community connections, and improve occupant well-being. These programs include: 

  • The Living Building Challenge  
  • The Living Building Challenge Petal Certification  
  • CORE Certification  
  • Zero Energy Certification  
  • Zero Carbon Certification  

At Neumann Monson, we’ve completed two building projects seeking certifications through the ILFI. While the Stanley Center for Peace and Security seeks a Living Building Challenge certification, our Iowa City studio is pursuing ILFI CORE.  

Completing two projects through the ILFI has given us a thorough understanding of its programs and requirements. Now, we aim to share our insights with building owners and design teams considering similar paths toward sustainable design.  

If you are considering an ILFI certification program, this article will prepare you by discussing a few lessons we’ve learned from our experience. 

7 Lessons Learned from Two ILFI Projects 

1. ILFI Programs are Challenges—Not Checklists 

One of the greatest lessons we’ve learned from our two ILFI projects is that ILFI programs differ drastically from other building certification systems. 

Most systems—like LEED and WELL—are point-based. Projects earn points for implementing strategies like energy modeling, on-site energy production, and low-flow water fixtures. If a project loses points in one area, it can make them up in another. 

ILFI programs are more holistic. The requirements are interconnected, and falling behind in one area can have larger implications. 

Although this interconnected framework can add complexity, the ILFI focuses more on intent than other certification systems. Rather than marking requirements off a checklist, the ILFI considers alternative solutions if they meet the system’s spirit. Standards may be rigorous, but project teams have some flexibility. 

2. Owner Involvement is Key

We’ve also learned that ILFI projects involve more owner involvement than conventional building projects. 

During pre-design, owners will work with their design team to survey the local community and find ways to align the project with its needs. Owners will also participate in an all-day biophilic exploration where they will dive into the history and ecology of their building site and set overarching project goals.

biophilic exploration for the Neumann Monson Iowa City Studio

Project teams will participate in an all-day biophilic exploration. 

Once the design process is underway, owners can expect continued communication with their architect and contractor. The design and construction team should help train your staff in operations and systems maintenance. To ensure success, occupants should understand how the building works and the best operational practices. 

ILFI programs like the Living Building Challenge and CORE promote lifestyle and habit changes. Fully certified Living Buildings, for example, include an urban agriculture component managed by the building’s occupants. Staff engagement and buy-in are essential to ensuring these project components remain operational and successful in the future.  

ILFI programs work well for organizations passionate about sustainability. The project’s success relies on the passion and excitement of your entire team.  

3. Commit During Pre-Design

Generally, we recommend committing to an ILFI program during pre-design—the first stage of the design process where visioning and goal-setting occur. Choosing to pursue a certification through the IFLI once the design process is underway can add unnecessary complexity, time, and cost to your project. Instead, it’s best to start the design process with ILFI standards in mind.  

When starting our Iowa City studio renovation, we debated between LEED, WELL, and an ILFI certification and didn’t commit to CORE certification until later in the design process. Debating between multiple systems delayed the project’s timeline and pushed back construction.

If we had committed during pre-design, the design process would have been more efficient. An earlier commitment to an ILFI program also would have maximized the influence of early requirements like the biophilic exploration. 

While it helps to commit to an ILFI certification during pre-design, you don’t necessarily need to select a specific program. One approach is designing the building to the Living Building Challenge’s standards and reducing the scope to a less rigorous certification later.  

The Stanley Center for Peace and Security took this approach. While we designed with full Living certification in mind, the client considered the possibility of Petal or CORE certification at multiple milestones. Although they determined Living certification best aligned with their goals, we were prepared to reduce the scope if the budget or other constraints didn’t allow for this pathway. 

4. Set Realistic Expectations About Schedule and Budget

Flexibility is crucial for a project certified through the ILFI. With many moving parts, be sure to set realistic budget and schedule expectations. 

Project teams must devote more time to research and advocacy, especially when selecting materials. Similarly, some Living Building Challenge strategies are unconventional and may require additional approval from your jurisdiction. Project teams may need more time for approvals when planning components like water systems.

water cisterns outside the Stanley Center for Peace and Security

Water systems may require additional city approvals. 

Due to energy and water requirements, fully certified Living Building projects will likely have higher initial costs than more conventional projects. However, achieving an ILFI certification on a tighter budget is possible—especially when pursuing CORE or Petal certification. 

Our Iowa City studio, for example, was delivered at $175 per square foot. Reaching the CORE certification’s requirements on a smaller budget took time, with the design team finding creative ways to reuse materials. While the project had a lower budget, its design timeline was longer than a conventional office renovation. 

5. It’s a Team Effort 

ILFI projects benefit from an integrated project team, with the contractor, architect, and client working together throughout design and construction. Negotiated contracts allow contractors to join the process early and collaborate with the design team, making them a better option than public bidding.   

Subcontractor involvement is also important. Everyone on the project team should understand the project’s goals and what the owner hopes to accomplish. 

We found a team-oriented approach was helpful when vetting and specifying materials. Fully certified Living Building Challenge projects must avoid Red List chemicals, which are known to harm human health and the environment. To research material ingredients, we used a database created by Integrated Eco Strategy.  

For the Stanley Center, we gave subcontractors access to this database. Nearly 50 people could view material information and partake in vetting. While this decentralized approach was uncommon, it improved communication and helped everyone understand the logic behind material selections. 

In short, a close relationship and shared goals between all parties is the best way to achieve success. 

6. Limit Your Material Palette

With rigorous material standards, a limited palette works best for a project seeking certification through the ILFI. Project teams should reduce interiors and exteriors to their essentials and specify local, natural materials whenever possible. 

Reuse is also a good practice. Not only does reuse lower the number of new materials specified, but it also reduces the project’s embodied carbon footprint. At the Stanley Center, renovating an existing building and reusing 95% of its mass reduced embodied carbon emissions by two-thirds.  

When renovating our Iowa City studio, we reused existing ceiling tiles and casework while keeping existing conference rooms in place. Glass panels and doors were even repurposed as markerboards.

a glass panel reused as a marker board in the Neumann Monson Iowa City studio

Reusing glass panels as markerboards helped reduce our material palette. 

Reuse helped reduce the project’s initial cost, allowing us to invest in areas with a direct impact on our team, like height-adjustable desks and new technology. In our throw-away culture, buying new is usually the easiest option. The ILFI encourages us to rethink this mentality and consider how existing materials can provide value. 

7. The Performance Year Does Not Begin Right Away 

Unlike other certification systems, ILFI programs are performance-based. Certifications occur after the project completes its first performance year. 

Contrary to popular belief, the performance year does not start at Substantial Completion. Typically, it doesn’t even start at Final Completion. Instead, it begins once all systems are operating as intended. 

Getting systems online and learning the best operational practices takes time, and project teams may need time to fine-tune the building’s systems before starting the performance period. More complex systems, like on-site energy production or water reclamation systems, will likely take time to become fully operational.  

Owners and architects should be prepared for plenty of back and forth after construction ends. More than most projects, an ILFI certification leads to an ongoing architect-client relationship. 

Prepare for the Living Building Challenge  

The ILFI offers holistic approaches to sustainable design. Its programs are rigorous—addressing everything from energy and water consumption to material health and occupant well-being.  

Perhaps most importantly, these programs offer the opportunity to strengthen your community and positively impact your organization. The inclusive design process gets buy-in from all levels of your organization and promotes enthusiasm for sustainability. 

The Living Building Challenge, Petal Certification, and CORE certification follow a framework called the petal system. Projects are judged against seven categories called Petals, and each Petal has separate requirements called Imperatives.  

Before starting an ILFI project, it helps to understand each Petal and its imperatives. Learn more about reading about the seven petals and how the Stanley Center fulfilled them