Jason F. McLennan
December 14, 2021
Love + Green Building: You and Me and the Beautiful Planet—the title of Jason F. McLennan’s children’s book encapsulates well the essence of what his work and passion are all about. Although he is one of the world’s most influential and sought-after individuals in architecture and the Green building movement today, the multi-hyphenate recipient of the prestigious Buckminster Fuller Prize (the planet’s top prize for socially responsible design) comes across as grounded and sincere in wanting as many people to understand what being Green is truly about. So, he teaches and writes extensively to share this wisdom. McLennan is also the creator of the Living Building Challenge (LBC)—the most stringent and progressive Green building programme in existence, as well as a primary author of the WELL Building Standard. As Founder of the International Living Future Institute and CEO of McLennan Design—his own architectural and planning practice—he is continuously seeking to put into practice what he preaches by designing some of the world’s most advanced Green buildings.
We caught up with him after his presentation at the International Building Environment Week (IBEW) 2021 virtual conference.
CL: What are the major milestones for you since our last chat in 2014?
JM: In 2014, I was still CEO of the International Living Future Institute. And as you guys know, I created the Living Building Challenge and a whole host of programmes that the industry still uses in many different places around the world. I’m now on the board of the Institute—I’m kind of the emeritus [CEO]; grey hair and all—helping to still provide some inspiration and guidance, but I’m not involved with the entity on a day-to-day basis.
That year marked a transformation for me professionally, where I went back into practice after having led the not-for-profit, the NGO, for 10 years. And so, I started McLennan Design, which is my own design and planning practice based in the Seattle area. And we now design Living Buildings and net zero energy projects, as you have heard about in the conference. We’re really trying to bring to life a lot of the types of thinking and the philosophy that I was pioneering. And that work continues. So, we’re involved in all kinds of projects. That was really the big shift since 2014.
DM: What are your favourite projects to work on?
JM: All the projects I like to work on have to have this regenerative outlook, but it’s also a lot of fun when the people are really nice, and it’s going to make a difference in their lives. So, it’s always fun to work with kids; it’s always fun to work with people who take me out of my comfort zone; with different experiences as well. So, yeah, I like to have fun too because it’s a hard job. It’s a lot of work.
CL: How did your children’s book come about? Does it have a greater link with your philosophy of sustainability, perhaps to engage the younger generation?
JM: I wrote an article for another magazine that described why I care about Green building, and I wrote it to be very simple and easy to understand for anybody who isn’t an architect, etc. And I got a lot of good feedback from it. So, it occurred to me that it would make a good kid’s book if it was illustrated. I reached out to a friend of mine, another architect in Mexico City, who has really wonderful and unique illustrations, and I sent him the manuscript and said, “Look, draw me a picture for every line in the book”. And that’s what he did—he did all these great illustrations. And it’s really just a series of essays on why we care about sustainability and so on. Since 2016, this book [Transformational Thought II] came out. So that’s the sequel to Transformational Thought. And it’s a series of articles on sustainability and futurism, the future of cities. And so that was my previous book that came out since 2014.
CL: Let’s talk about LBC. Dinda and I were talking about the chart that you showed at the conference in Singapore, a spectrum between LBC and LEED. Why do you think we need so many certification programmes rather than sticking to the most rigorous one, which I think LBC is?
JM: Well, I would love everyone to do LBC. And it certainly is time to move to that far in the spectrum.
But there’re a lot of people who have trouble imagining how they can change so quickly, so, I think that’s why there are different standards, as people are entering this world, if you will, at different places. But the problem is that we don’t have the luxury of a lot of time to make change anymore. We’re learning about, as you guys know, the incredible impacts of climate change all over the planet. And we don’t have time for people to be ‘light green’—they need to be ‘Deep Green’, and to be pushing towards regenerative outcomes as fast as they can. But that’s not what’s happening in most places.
CL: How do you think we can make that better? Or expedite the process towards Deep Green?
JM: Thankfully, the economics around certain things are getting better, especially renewable energy, and electric cars, batteries and LED lighting, etc. There’s a real technological boom that is driving change in some areas very rapidly. And that’s encouraging. But that’s only part of the story. So, the other part of the story really continues to have to be a mindset shift for people where they understand that their livelihoods and the future of their children really depend on making a significant change. But, that’s a really hard thing for people to get their heads around. I think we’re going to see a greater adoption of these ideas out of sheer necessity. We’re starting to see that already in certain places where you can no longer deny the existence of climate change when it’s so evident. And so, we’re starting to see policies and shifts that are bigger.
For example, in the tech sector, companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, are really getting much more serious about all these issues, and changing the way they build their facilities and trying to change their supply chains. That’s another driver for this, and that’s really encouraging. But really, ultimately, we have to start to care more about other people—these are social justice issues and environmental issues. Our societies have been very selfish and very consumer oriented, very much about the present moment, not caring about the future. So that’s a bigger psychological change that has to happen.
CL: Is that why love is a main thing that you’ve talked about sometimes? I like that. I mean it’s hard to flesh it out or explain it. But I like that it’s part of your conversation about the issues.
JM: Yes, if you look on my website, I have a newsletter that I publish called Love and Regeneration (https://mclennan-design.com). And to me, those things are inseparable, because we try to heal what we love, and we love what we heal.
And there’s been a real lack of love and lack of care for other people—people who don’t look like us; people who are from different places; people who have different cultures; and there’s a lack of love for other species as well. That’s really at the heart of this—we’ve been very unloving as a society. And so, opening our hearts to other people and other life is really what I’m after. And that’s an exciting thing.