A reflection on the Divinity School’s Living Village
By David Sokol
David Sokol ’01 B.A. is a New York–based writer and editor whose work focuses on the contemporary built environment. He is a frequent contributor to Architectural Digest and Dwell magazines, and his recent books include Hudson Modern and Hamptons Modern, both of which were published by Monacelli. YDS commissioned him to write the following essay on the Living Village and the architectural context in which it was conceived and designed.
Architecture does not undergo wholesale identity changes as rapidly as, say, popular music or fashion. The act of making a safe building often demands abstaining from a new device or material, while architects often feel an obligation to create buildings that eclipse aesthetic whim as well as they withstand gravity or weather. Indeed, cultural and physical longevity are very concise, respective definitions for venustas and firmitas, two of the three elements by which Roman architect and engineer Marcus Vitruvius Pollio defined good design on the eve of the first millennium. Vitruvius’s virtues are drilled into students almost from their first day of design training. (More on the third term, utilitas, later.)
Yet even a profession devoted to endurance goes through broad shifts, and the past half-century can be divided handily into three such movements. The oldest of them—a period sometimes known as “the style wars” in which architects declared themselves modernists or historicists—emerged in earnest in the mid-1970s. The second, “starchitecture” movement, hemmed to the opening of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in 1997. Supported by new design and construction technologies and supercharged by a belief that iconic architecture could revitalize local economies, a proliferation of sculptural buildings and the elevation of architects to celebrities opened the 21st century.
While the Great Recession painted both the style wars and starchitecture as indulgences, this global economic tailspin did not spell the movements’ end altogether. Style is occasionally relitigated in the court of public opinion and blockbuster architectural commissions by jet-setting creatives still make headlines, foretelling the ebb and flow of public imagination to come.
Perhaps the style wars and starchitecture persist, too, because the movement of our moment, sustainable design, is inclusive of both the cutting edge and of nostalgia and of architects ranging from the upstart to the idol. As architect and writer Lance Hosey ’90 M.Arch. reminded readers in a 2020 survey of sustainable design, 30 years beforehand a high-ranking magazine editor observed, “People are losing patience with stylistic polemics and are looking for…a kind of architectural morality.” With its emphasis on the efficient use of natural resources in the constructed environment, sustainable design cares less about image or fame and more about responsible building science.
It is no coincidence that America’s longest-running sustainable design organization, the AIA Committee on the Environment, was founded also in 1990. The launch followed the previous year’s American Institute of Architects convention, in which a group of young professionals disrupted the proceedings to force passage of a resolution entitled “CPR: Critical Planet Rescue.” The appetite for morality was palpable, and awards programs, professional pledges, code revisions, and certification programs championing sustainable design have since taken off to sate it.
Such efforts have advanced sustainable design both as a cause and a method. They originally concentrated on reducing buildings’ operational carbon—in other words, emissions released via power usage and climate control—and over time have expanded focus to encompass the carbon footprint of supply chain decisions, materials’ impacts on health, and habitat restoration. The widening of sustainable design criteria reflects growth in knowledge about changing buildings’ impact on the environment and human well-being, and in unabated hunger for that expertise. Even if the pace of change can be frustratingly slow, it is generally accepted that the moral arc of architecture is bending toward good. In fact, when architecture professors nowadays teach utilitas, which translates to functionality, they often use sustainable performance in part to describe the Vitruvian virtue. Historically, the term referred to a functional arrangement of interior spaces.
After more than three decades of earnest action, sustainable design is more than a trend. Someday soon, it may not even be considered a movement. It is poised to be, simply, anybody’s standard approach to creating or renovating a structure.
The Living Building Challenge
Until that day arrives, building certifications deserve the brightest spotlight. These voluntary programs are providing the roadmap to a future in which ecological and human health are designed into building projects by rote. They presage what will one day be mandatory improvements to energy and water efficiency, indoor air quality, and material toxicity—and they have already made incremental progress toward that end. Underlining the success with which advocates have been converting the concepts and techniques of sustainable architecture into physical reality, oversight organizations release increasingly sophisticated versions of their certification programs every few years. For evidence of greater recent emphasis on embodied carbon, human health, and landscape design, you need look no further than these updates.
The certifications marketplace is crowded as well as dynamic. Architects and their clients can choose to certify a building according to the impenetrability of its skin, its impact on occupants’ well-being, and multiple other benchmarks. The U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program, which measures sustainability across multiple categories, has earned the most mainstream acceptance among them. To wit, Yale University requires LEED Gold certification as a minimum performance standard for new construction and major modernization projects. And as of 2022, the school had achieved 27 LEED Gold designations and three certifications at LEED’s most rigorous, Platinum rating. That same year, the world’s 100,000th building earned LEED certification, totaling more than 11 billion certified gross square feet.
Rather than eliminate competitors, the popularity of LEED has energized the agora. Most notably, it propelled the Living Building Challenge into existence in 2006. As this certification program’s coauthors Jason McLennan and Bob Berkebile explained in a 2008 overview, “When LEED emerged in the late 1990’s, it filled a huge void in the building industry: designers all over the country were trying to understand how to effectively define ‘green building’ and measure it in a consistent way. With a focused goal on market transformation, LEED has done more for the national green building movement than anything previously conceived. When the Platinum certification level was defined, it was widely accepted as the highest rank of environmental performance possible for buildings, and indeed it is significant. Yet, completing the requirements for LEED Platinum certification does not fulfill the ultimate obligations of the building industry towards the pursuit for sustainability. Rather, it was defined by the changes that seemed possible at the inception of the LEED program for the majority of projects…The Living Building Challenge’s aim is to push projects even further to provide models for the industry to follow.”
Whereas other certification programs had envisioned buildings that do less harm to people and the planet, the Living Building Challenge was aiming for regenerative design—buildings that make the world a measurably better place.
Threading the Living Building Challenge through everyday design practice requires systemic thinking. To quote McLennan and Berkebile’s 2008 document again, “Imagine a building informed by its eco-region’s characteristics, and that generates all of its own energy with renewable resources, captures and treats all of its water, and operates efficiently and for maximum beauty.” The certification standard breaks down sustainability into seven performance categories, known as petals, that range from net-positive energy and water consumption to integration within the urban fabric and the equitable treatment of occupants and neighbors. Certification is possible in single or multiple petals, or in all seven.
In addition to being ahead of its time in terms of comprehensiveness, it bears repeating that the Living Building Challenge leads the industry for rigor. Of the more than 100,000 LEED-certified projects in the world, approximately 6 percent are rated Platinum. Currently, there are approximately 750 places that have earned or are pursuing one or more of the Living Building Challenge’s petals. Only 34 buildings have achieved full certification in the program’s history thus far.
Origin of the Living Village
Greg Sterling says he was familiar with LEED, but not the Living Building Challenge, when he joined Yale Divinity School as its dean in 2012. He also remembers observing that the school’s affordable, on-campus apartment had become obsolete beyond repair.
After Sterling spoke about this pending housing crisis with Christopher Glenn Sawyer ’75 M.Div., then the chair of the YDS Dean’s Advisory Council, Sawyer forwarded an article about the Living Building Challenge to Sterling. Almost immediately in turn, Sterling recalls in Yale Divinity School’s “Village Voices” oral history project, “I thought this is what we need to do.” Moreover, he pictured new housing achieving full Living Building certification. All seven petals, full stop.
In 2012, however, the same Great Recession that had hastened the decline of the style wars and starchitecture also prevented Sterling from launching any real estate project in earnest. “A new building was not in the immediate offing, because we’re incredibly dependent on our endowment. And when you lose 30 percent of your endowment after the 2008 downturn, you lose 30 percent of your income,” he explains in “Voices.” Instead, Sterling advocated for the inclusion of profoundly sustainable housing in Yale Divinity School’s 2015 strategic plan, and he spearheaded a feasibility study conducted by McLennan’s eponymous, Bainbridge Island, Washington–based studio with Boston-based Bruner/Cott Architects.
The sustainable design movement is a collegial community, but if it were stratified into laypeople and celebrities, then the Living Village’s inaugural team represented a star turn. McLennan, as cofounder of the Living Building Challenge, requires no further introduction. Meanwhile, at the time of the feasibility study, Bruner/Cott’s renown for sustainability was just about to take off with its completion of the R.W. Kern Center at Hampshire College—the largest academic building in the world to meet the Living Building Challenge.
Generous gifts from the Dean’s Advisory Council paid for the feasibility study, and a $2 million gift from Connecticut residents George and Carol Bauer (Honorary YDS Campaign Co-Chairs) in December 2017 allowed McLennan and Bruner/Cott to apply their findings to the Living Village’s conceptual and schematic design phases in collaboration with Philadelphia landscape and planning firm Andropogon. By 2020, moreover, the Bauers had promised $15 million for construction of the Living Village, while Samuel W. Croll III (’75 M.A.R.) and his wife, Ann, pledged $1 million to the residential complex, as did Clyde Tuggle ’88 M.Div. and his wife, Mary Streett.
“Varying paths, common commitment”: Read article about the supporters of the Living Village
With total commitments exceeding $30 million, Sterling readied his counterparts across Yale University to make the Living Building a reality: the design team added the progressive Boston-based architecture studio Höweler+Yoon to its acclaimed ranks; it also received critical advice from architect Marion Weiss ’84 M.Arch. and from Yale School of Architecture’s former and current deans Robert A.M. Stern ’65 M.Arch. and Deborah Berke, whose longtime renown rises above movements. The Bauers donated another $10 million in the sprint to groundbreaking, as well.
Meditations on the Groundbreaking
Construction of the Living Village’s first phase, which includes housing for 51, began in October 2023. When these students and family members take occupancy of their residences in August 2025, they will also have access to the seeds that sprout exchange and belonging, such as strategically placed common kitchens and outdoor destinations that include the Divinity Farm. Several of these amenities do double or triple duty in service of Living Building Challenge certification. The Water Commons, for example, comprises constructed wetlands and rain gardens for water filtration that also invite Yale Divinity School and New Haven community members to gather, learn, and relax. YDS is hoping to construct a second phase of the Living Village after the first is completed.
As academic campus buildings go, groundbreaking of phase one has prompted unusually broad and enthusiastic media attention. The charms are many. There is the years-long dedication of Sterling, George and Carol Bauer, et al., for example, and the impeccable composition of the design team. Consider, too, the emblematic qualities, in which regenerative design stands for Yale Divinity School’s theologically rooted purpose of giving back to the world more than it takes, and in which the Living Village helps diverse audiences visualize ecotheology as a concept. Then there is the tangible giving back that will occur when YDS graduates, inspired by the Living Village to become, in Sterling’s words, “apostles of the environment,” refurbish a house of worship, feed a community, or write policy with their previous experience in sustainable housing in mind. Not to mention that the first phase is compelling as an architectural image whose simultaneous expression of historic reference, sculptural form, and sustainable performance lends new perspective to recent design history.
Yet all these appeals are predicated on the Living Building Challenge; the audacity and consequence of full certification cannot be overstressed. Returning to the handful of projects that have accomplished full certification since 2006, none is a multifamily building, which is namely due to the challenge of the hydrologic cycle—unlike office workers or visitors to an education center, residents use a lot of water, which explains why the Water Commons is just one of multiple water-management strategies embedded within the Living Village’s design.
As the first of its kind, then, the Living Village is poised as a source of study and inspiration equally to the building industry and to the students occupying it. Sterling further anticipates that the Living Village will compel the higher education community to raise the bar of all campus housing. Yet perhaps more than anything, groundbreaking of the Living Village offers hope. In a year when the United Nations has proclaimed that “climate breakdown has begun,” the Living Village represents not only the accelerating normalization of sustainable design as standard practice, but also a repair in the firmament. Humanity is reawakening to stewardship as a charge and privilege of life on Earth, and that revelation is taking on an enduring, three-dimensional form on a hilltop in New Haven.