Running a building off rain and sunlight sounds like an ecological fantasy. But the Desert Rain House, situated on the high, dry desert of Bend, Oregon, has managed to achieve a standard for sustainability that no other residential project in the world has met.
As the first Living Building Challenge certified home, it not only generates more power than it uses, but recycles and reuses all its own water, leaving the most minuscule of footprints. According to architect Al Tozer of Tozer Design, the project architect, the process, an eight-year journey of resourceful design and refinement, was far from simple.
“This is the first home in the world to get such a challenging certification,” says Tozer. “And it was worth the year wait.”
Tozer designed the home to reflect both the Oregon landscape, and the southwestern home where co-owner Tom Elliott grew up. A compound of five buildings supporting extensive solar arrays, the project includes a 2,200-square-foot main home and two apartments, a 500-square-foot studio, and a two-story utility structure with a top floor apartment. If this type of project could be built near downtown Bend in central Oregon, the owners felt, it could be done anywhere.
While the shed roofs, butterfly roofs, and straight lines of the structures give the buildings a sleek, modern look, they also have an earthy, organic side, from the natural tones to a wall that snakes through the home and across the yard. Curved like a canyon wall, it’s the backbone of the home, offers a distinct separation between open, sun-drenched spaces and the more contemplative east side of the home
Elliott and Barbara Scott, both staunch environmentalists who moved to Bend from Montana, had asked for a “super-green” design, not knowing that the Living Building Challenge existed. Sited near the Cascades, in an area that receives plenty of sun, Tozer felt that with well-placed solar panels and efficient design, he could create a net-zero home. But once the owners heard about the Living Building concept, they decided to aim higher.
“We can’t continue thinking we are building a better world by making a “less bad” version of the world we have created,” said Elliott in a statement about the home’s certification. “The Living Building Challenge forces us to think in terms of a new paradigm.”
Established in 2006, the Living Building Challenge sets a high bar for green construction that requires sustainability, regenerative power, and self sufficiency. The standard requires a 12-month audit to make sure the building meet a strict set of energy goals, and the entire project needs to avoid using any chemical-filled, toxic materials on a long list of banned substances.
Ever since Seattle’s Bullit Center, a sleek commercial space designed by Miller Hull, opened to acclaim in 2013, others architect and designers have achieved this rare distinction for 49 other U.S. buildings. But the requirements for complicated, self-sustaining, regenerative power and water systems make the achievement that much more difficult for smaller residential projects.
From the outset, Tozer and a large team of sustainability experts had to find creative solutions to sustainable designs. To meet LBC goals, myrtlewood from the old homes that previously stood on the building site was repurposed to make stunning lofted ceilings, and stone underfoot was pulverized and transformed into the sleek concrete flooring found throughout the compound.
“The very warm, organic, and modern forms on the site speak to the owners’ love of the outdoors and the history of the project,” he says. “There’s a story behind every material you touch, it’s pretty cool.”
For Tozer and his team, the most challenging aspect of meeting the challenge was water: the Red List of banned substances included PVC, found in nearly every commercial plumbing system, the desert environment meant every drop needed to be conserved, and implementing and designing a self-sustaining water system ran into regulatory and design hurdles. The eventual solution included cisterns and rain collection, a focus on conservation, and the installation of a series of vacuum-powered toilets, like the ones found on cruise ships, that transports waste water to an above-ground, evaporative composting system.
Going this green wasn’t quick or easy. Tozer, who had been working on the home since 2008, recruited a team of dozens of sustainability experts, contractors, specialists, and landscape architect. The eventual $3.48 million price tag—which is still below the most expensive homes in Bend—is roughly three times the cost of a new, high-end modern house ($640 per square foot versus $225-$250).
Scott and Elliot, who moved in over the winter of 2013-2014 after roughly six years of construction, have spent the last few years working out home’s energy and water systems to eventually meet the conditions of the Living Building Challenge. But they now feel it’s more important to live by their ideals and set an example. Desert Rain isn’t just a living building, it’s a living teaching tool that can push more designers and architects to adopt sustainable practices.
“It’s an intense process,” says Tozer. “Full certification is something that you have to think about every day. But it’s wonderful to visit this home. It feels, and smells, incredibly fresh and natural.”