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“Azehna” Means "Give Back”: Aiming for the Living Building Challenge

Updated: Sep 10, 2020

A single-family residential home in Nanaimo, British Columbia, the Azehna project is a high performance, net zero passive home recently completed in 2020. The project makes use of low embodied-carbon and zero-VOC materials and also produces as much clean energy as it consumes.

Mike Leggett of Ora Homes is the builder, owner, and resident of the Azehna project. His experience with green building began in Saskatchewan where he ran a company called Equinox Construction. The company became well-known for their green builds across the province, even garnering televised features on programs like CBC Saskatchewan. “No one else was doing green building in the area back then, we were using ultra low VOC and reclaimed materials and avoiding poly. We did a lot of retrofits, adding 3-4inches of insulation to projects, but we never tackled Passive House outright. With Ora Homes, I wanted to do things right. I want to build homes that we look back at in 100 years and think, we should have been building that way all along.” Now Mike isn’t just tackling passive house, with Azehna, he aims to meet the Living Building Challenge.

The Azehna Home. Courtesy of Ora Homes Ltd.

The Living Building Challenge

The International Living Future Institute is a social and environmental non-profit with a mandate to help create a green and sustainable world for everyone. One of the most prominent issues they tackle is climate change by pushing for an urban environment free of fossil fuels. One of the ways they do that is through the Living Building Challenge, which could be the world’s most rigorous green building standard.

The Challenge is essentially a green framework ensuring buildings are net positive energy, net positive water, and net positive waste, as well as 100% free of toxic chemicals. To be certified under the Challenge, a project must meet a series of performance requirements over 12 months of continuous occupancy, making the challenge based on actual, rather than modeled or anticipated performance. Living Building Challenge projects must also be holistic, meeting a range of seven “Petals,” which are essentially the core imperatives of the challenge.

Reclaimed and Local Materials

Reclaimed fir stairs. Courtesy of Ora Homes Ltd.

One of the petals of the Living Building Standard is materials. Emphasis is placed on a project’s contributions to a materials economy that is non-toxic, ecologically restorative, transparent, and socially equitable. The Challenge acknowledges that it is currently extremely difficult to gauge the true environmental impact and toxicity of materials and a build environment because of the lack of product-level information, but it is still important for the team at the Living Building Challenge to continue to spearhead transformative industrial practices.

The institute does this by keeping a list of “red” materials and chemicals on their website that can’t be used in any buildings trying to meet the challenge, as well as their own Declare® labels, which create transparency by listing ingredients for various industry building products, through an online public database. Materials used in any building going for the Living Building Challenge must also support companies using sustainable resource extraction methods and contribute to a sustainable regional economy.

The Azehna home meets this requirement in a myriad of ways. The project features reclaimed fir stairs that were originally 80-year-old railway trestle timbers, showcasing its commitment to diverting materials from the waste stream. The home also features stonework from Matrix Marble and Stone, based locally in Duncan, BC. The company is a family run business that sources Vancouver Island-quarried marbles and granites that are featured throughout the home. Exterior walls feature 10 inches of densely packed cellulose, while interior walls will be insulated with Havelok sheep’s wool, both low in embodied carbon and free of chemicals.

Wool Insulation. Courtesy of Ora Homes Ltd.

Rainwater Collection

Viqua Filtration System. Courtesy of Ora Homes Ltd.

Water, another petal of the Living Building Challenge, demands zero wastewater from a building, as well as dependence on captured precipitation that is purified without the use of chemicals to provide all the home’s water needs. Essentially harvesting, using, and treating all the water that is required without burdening aging municipal infrastructure.

The Azehna project includes a handmade 35,000-gal concrete cistern below the garage where all the rainwater from the roof will be collected and used for all of the home’s water needs including drinking water. All the water coming from the cistern is filtered through 3 stages of sediment and carbon filtration then treated with UV disinfection to eliminate the need for chlorine treatment. Water used for drinking purposes also passes through another round of more advanced filtration using a MineralPro Ultrafiltration system that removes a vast array of heavy metals and chemicals, down to 0.01 microns. The water system will produce zero wastewater and also maintains the natural mineral content in the water. The filter can also be used to elevate the pH of the water, producing great tasting alkaline water.

Beautiful and Biophilic

K2 Stone “climbing” wall. Courtesy of Ora Homes Ltd.

The Beauty petal of the Living Building Challenge is one of the more difficult, if not impossible, imperatives to mandate. Any building in question must contain design features intended solely for the purpose of human delight. “Biophilic,” is also a recurrent term at the International Living Future Institute. It is a word that means “innate or inborn love of living things and nature,” and it's something every building going for the challenge must employ, but how they do that is entirely up to the builder to explore.