Amy Xiong

Although his event was titled “The Evolution and Future of the Green Movement,” Jason McLennan decided to begin his talk at the Yale School of Architecture last Thursday with a story about acid rain, clear-cutting and the tallest smokestack in Canada. It was the story of Sudbury, a city in Ontario and the backdrop of his childhood.

“It used to be the example in every environmental textbook of what not to do,” McLennan said in his talk. “They cut down all the trees for miles and miles around, and they ran these open pit fires 24/7, permanently stained all the rocks black, acidified the soils, killed off many, many lakes.”

McLennan, an architect known for his sustainable designs and currently working on a Yale Divinity School project, used Sudbury’s environmental degradation as a launching point for the rest of his presentation. The event, which drew about 25 attendees, lasted just under an hour.

Though Sudbury remained polluted throughout much of his youth, McLennan detailed how its citizens eventually rehabilitated the city. During the architect’s teenage years, Sudbury implemented a giant reforestation project, and its citizens, including McLennan, planted about eleven million trees in the area.

Before the project, McLennan saw firsthand society’s capacity to destroy the environment. But following the city’s rejuvenation, he witnessed a different type of behavior.

“I was also then able to see that with the right intention, with the right caring for place, we have the ability to be agents of healing, not just of degradation,” he said in his talk.  “That really affected my whole career and thinking.”

The rest of the talk focused on McLennan’s career and his ideas about sustainable design. In 2006, McLennan founded and formerly ran the International Living Future Institute to advocate further for green buildings.

“I was convinced that the industry really needed a kick in the pants,” McLennan said. “We were being too complacent and too proud of ourselves for the plaques on our walls, rather than the impact of our actual design decisions.”

The Living Building Challenge is a hallmark of McLennan’s work with the institute. Based off the same ecological healing principles McLennan saw in Sudbury, the challenge encourages architects to design structures that function similarly to flowers and trees. Buildings that complete the challenge are powered solely by solar energy, harvest and clean rain water for the building’s plumbing and release no emissions, among other criteria.

If a design meets all of the challenge’s checkpoints, the institute will designate it a living building.

“You don’t get to pick and choose between these issues,” McLennan explained. “Living building isn’t about chasing points. It’s about doing all these things.”

Since leaving the Institute in 2015, McLennan has formed an architecture firm, McLennan Designs, where he creates his own living buildings. His upcoming work with the Yale Divinity School, a dorm that he said was estimated to cost 100 million dollars, aims to attain the Living Building Certification.

“Hopefully, [the project] becomes a model for all the people that then go through the program,” McLennan told the News. “They remember they lived in a living building, or they taught there and that they should bring that thinking to any of the communities they work in.”

Members of the Yale Architecture community who attended the event were quick to laud McLennan’s ideas. Yale School of Architecture Dean Deborah Berke, who introduced the talk, told the News that McLennan served as a good example of how to implement sustainable architecture.

“Jason McLennan is a true leader in the area of green design ideas and methodologies,” Berke told the News. “His Living Building Challenge has contributed to new ways of thinking for architects and their clients, showing how we can best and most responsibly design and build.”

Misha Semenov FES ’19 ARC ’19 said that he found the event inspiring. He admired how McLennan introduced his childhood experiences as the framework for his work in sustainable design.

“I’ve long admired Jason for the work he’s done,” Semenov said. “I’ve heard a lot about that vision, but it was incredible to see how it meshes with his own life story.”

McLennan’s Divinity School project is expected to be completed by 2025.

Allen Siegler | allen.siegler@yale.edu .