“Azehna” Means "Give Back”: Aiming for the Living Building Challenge
Updated: Sep 10
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 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
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.
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
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.
Incorporating biophilic elements into the Azehna home came easily to Mike. More than a demand of The Challenge, he always wanted to create a home that fused indoor and outdoor living. His plan is to incorporate an indoor green wall, with a central garden that will feature a tree reaching up to, and viewable from, the second storey of the home.
K2 Stone on the outside of the home will also be used to mimic the natural rock formations found in the area. There is an outdoor living space which features a kitchen and pergola to encourage time spent in nature. Floors on the main level of the home are made of concrete, featuring sea glass and shells collected by Mike’s kids from the beach. As the concrete is polished and sanded, the glass and shells will be seen peeking through.
Energy and Place
One of the more obvious petals and demands of the Living Building Challenge is energy. Any building going for the challenge must use solely pollution free renewable energy. The Azehna project uses virtually no heat other than body heat and solar gain from the windows. The home's heat load is so minimal, the remaining heat is made up through supplemental under-tile radiant electric heating by Schluter heated floors.
The “place” petal asks builders to be mindful of local community heritage and the natural environment. The Azehna Project approaches this by acknowledging that it will be built on the traditional, unceded territory of the Coast Salish People. This mindfulness exists in the very name of the project, in the Ojibway language the word “Azehna” means " to give back” and evokes reciprocity, living with the Earth in balance and synergy. The name of the project also honours the couple’s indigenous (Iroquois, Metis, Dene and Cree) ancestry and family relations.
More than an exercise in certification, Mike is proud to have pushed himself as a builder to be mindful of future generations, he is also just really proud of his team. “The team we had take on this project learned so much on the go, they weren’t afraid to tackle new things, they were so resourceful. I’m proud of the fact that we stuck to our guns, we saw our environmental commitment and passion all the way through. And not just that, it is also a project that is aesthetically pleasing. With this project done, we are starting our second one on the lot next door. Going forward we plan to do spec builds, all of which will be certified Passive House. We know that a lot of people think Passive homes come with a premium price tag and that spec builds are seen as cookie cutter low budget builds, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We think Passive House and Spec Builds can and should start to go hand in hand and we look forward to exploring that.”
Twelve months of continuous occupancy is quickly approaching for the beautiful Azehna project and with that, hopefully Living Building Certification.