Living Buildings

Millennials love plants! And as Caroline Biggs noted in her NYTimes article, Plant-Loving Millennials at Home and at Work, companies are working hard to incorporate greenery and natural features into building design.

Going even further, forward-thinking companies from around the world have taken on the “Living Building Challenge” at their offices and workspaces. The Living Building Challenge (LBC) is a green building certification program that challenges designers to build a structure that functions as self sufficiently and sustainably as possible. Only eight buildings in the world are certified as living buildings, with many more working on the certification.

The challenge is divided into seven performance areas that stress the importance of non-toxic materials, regeneration, and health and beauty. A final project integrates biophilic design, local culture, and a connection to all things natural.

In the United States, two New York-based companies and one Massachusetts College site have taken on the challenge to become a “Living Building”, and in the process create a biophilic design with a workspace focused on the occupant’s well being.


1. Etsy Headquarters


Etsy, which is everyone’s favorite place to shop online for handmade goods, started with an existing building for its New York headquarters and transformed it into a sustainable and naturally harmonious workplace. Located in Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood, the rooftop has sixty species of native plants and two outdoor terraces providing a beckoning place to relax. Rainwater collection on the rooftop feeds an irrigation system in the building sustaining the living walls growing on every floor.

With greenery everywhere, the indoor air quality is much higher than the outdoor air quality, and Etsy believes by keeping employees healthy and happy they tend to be more productive and loyal to the company. In open areas, employees sit facing large picture windows working on sustainable wooden tables with a living wall spanning the space behind them. These appealing and healthful areas are a calm contrast to the hubbub of the city.


2. Ted Talks Headquarters


At Ted Talks headquarters in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood, two floors of the building have been outfitted with low maintenance, high visual-impact plants. Oversize planters line the halls filled with a dizzying variety of easy-care plants. Individual desktops are adorned with plants and meeting areas have self-watering plant dividers. Everywhere you look there are plants, blended with the decor or placed to serve as screening walls.

Ted Talks recognizes that not all employees work well in the same spaces. They have customized each workspace (integrated with plants of course!) to suit each person’s working style. Ted Talks open, non-desk work areas with flexible designs accommodate the many different work styles producing their popular 18-minute talks.


3. Williams College – Class of 1966 Environmental Center


In Williamstown, MA the Class of  ’66 Environmental Center has taken on the ambitious performance requirements of an LBC certification. The center focuses on plant infused indoor spaces with measurably healthful indoor air. Large picture windows and lots of access to fresh air ensure compliance with the light and air quality requirements of an LBC building.

Williams College is committed to demonstrating that high-performance buildings are not only possible but practical as well. The LBC standards require that the occupants of a building be active participants in the process because success is determined by the actual building performance, not the theoretical one. It is imperative that the occupants understand how the building works and how their behaviors may affect the performance goals of a green sustainable building.


These companies have taken on the challenge to raise the design bar for themselves and to inspire others to reach greater natural harmony with their design choices. There is much to learn from studying the new structures and monitoring their progress. Even if the benchmark goal of environmental equilibrium can’t be reached, striving to achieve a ‘living building’ stands as a commendable accomplishment. It is a biophilic design inspiration to architects and environmentally conscious companies around the world.