Village Voices: Jason F. McLennan

Jason F. McLennan is the creator of the Living Building Challenge, which is known as the world’s most stringent sustainability building certification program. He is the founder and former CEO of the International Living Future Institute, and in 2022 his studio McLennan Design merged with the global architecture firm Perkins&Will, where he now serves as Chief Sustainability Officer. McLennan has been a key advisor to the Yale Divinity School as its pursuit of the Living Village progressed from a feasibility study to conceptualization and schematic design On the eve of his 2023 Margaret Lindquist Sorensen Lecture, McLennan reflected on his time as a consultant and champion of the Living Village, and he spoke more broadly of the relationship between architectural imagery and sustainability innovation. McLennan was joined in this conversation by Jason Jewhurst, partner and principal of Bruner/Cott Architects.

Thanks to your visionary career in sustainability, you’re often in the position of helping organizations venture into uncharted territory. How does YDS compare to your typical client?

Jason F. McLennan: We’ve had the opportunity to work with different people over the years, and there was deep passion by the YDS team to make the Living Village an exemplary project in all facets. That’s why they wanted to strive for full Living Building Challenge certification, and to demonstrate that there shouldn’t be a compromise between practicality and responsibility. We had to find a way to deliver something that was great for the campus as well as great for the world—that would serve as a training ground for students who would come through and live in the new residences. We want students to begin to understand that there is another way of being and living, which they would take with them into their journeys as future leaders.

Could you unpack that phrase “compromise between practicality and responsibility”?

JM: Design and construction by its very nature is hard. And every year it gets more expensive and more challenging. So, there are hundreds of opportunities over the lifetime of a project to backslide on your values and stay within a particular budget or schedule. Sustainability ends up on the chopping block as compared to more “practical things” such as the amount of square footage or the number of beds. These issues get played off one another in unhealthy ways: ‘Should we have a healthy building or more beds?’ But you shouldn’t have to have beds in an unhealthy environment. The tradeoff is a false narrative. Under Greg Sterling’s leaderships, YDS stated that we need to do both—that we can’t look ourselves in the mirror if we do something lesser.

Jason Jewhurst, let’s turn to you. As part of the team now shepherding the Living Village to reality, would you speak more about reconciling drivers that, as Jason McLennan just said, only seem to compete with one another? How do non-architects visualize this effort?

Jason Jewhurst: With an institution that’s this committed to seeing the Living Village through, part of our job is to serve and nurture that commitment in our work every day. There is discomfort involved—the discomfort of asking questions of a water utility that haven’t been asked before, for example—but Jason and I have embraced it. That’s why we take on projects like this. That’s what makes projects like this special. That’s what institutions like YDS and Yale are asking for, although Yale hasn’t broached questions like, ‘How do you collect as much precipitation as possible to turn into drinking water and other uses?’ or ‘How do you reclaim 100 percent of the water you’ve collected and used?’  We’re still stepping through approvals and strategy that meets the intent of the Living Building Challenge.

What other reconciliations are proving difficult as we enter the home stretch toward groundbreaking? Creating a closed water loop is obviously one aspect of the Living Building Challenge that’s challenging.

JJ: Another is more philosophical. We are still working through a regenerative landscape design that is both beautiful to be in and functionally robust for the environment—this is part of that question about reclaiming water and cleansing it. The solution has partly to do with the right vegetation, but there’s also the intelligence and the cost of a landscape infrastructure that we’re installing in the five acres around the Living Village. It is something Yale has never encountered. When we talk about practical cost pressures, here you have to set aside normal references.

Let’s imagine the day when these challenges are surmounted and the Living Village is serving the YDS community in a healthy, net-positive, and just way.

JM: When all is said and done, universities across the world will take notice of this project. The Living Village will become a beacon of inspiration for the higher education sector.

On some level a successful project is one where people don’t feel there’s any appreciable difference in their day-to-day lives. They should just feel that a facility is the best of its type. We’ve evolved beyond the idea that a sustainable building should impose a particular aesthetic on its audience. But the philosophical approach to sustainable design is that, whatever you’re designing and whatever it looks like, a project needs to be fundamentally different in terms of how it operates.

But you’re not saying that performance should be completely hidden from view, right? Otherwise, the building might not maximize its value as a teaching tool.

JM: For those who tend to look around more thoughtfully—and to the extent that YDS goes above and beyond in providing interpretation and education about the Living Village—people will begin to understand the systems at work. The relationship of the sun to building orientation and design. The coordination of the hydrological cycle and cycles of building use. The relationship between chemical use in materials and occupant health. There’s a whole host of issues that people may dive into—and they will see how the Living Village differs from everything else on campus in New Haven and beyond. That the facility can be a teaching tool is an interesting outcome.

You’ve made a nice callback to an earlier comment, about how the Living Village will inform its residents’ journeys toward leadership. Greg Sterling says the Living Village will help students become “apostles of the environment.”

JM: There are literally a lot of future leaders coming through YDS who will lead congregations, serve prisoners, conduct academic work, and all the other things that graduates end up doing. They are going to be in positions of influence, and in physical assets where they can exert that influence.

This project will show these future leaders that wherever they go, they should be doing what they saw and experienced at YDS. The Living Village is really a new bar in showing what’s possible.

Because YDS graduates are not architects and engineers, they don’t necessarily know what’s possible as they calibrate their expectations of leadership to their work. But the Living Village is meant to lift that veil. This project will show these future leaders that wherever they go, they should be doing what they saw and experienced at YDS. The Living Village is really a new bar in showing what’s possible.