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Jason F. McLennan: The Best Kind of Troublemaker

Feb. 7, 2018

A leader in the sustainability charge, the architect, designer, and sustainability champion is the visionary the industry needs to reach ongoing environmental goals.

Jason F. McLennan, partner and CEO of McLennan Design and founder of the International Living Future Institute, has been dubbed a “troublemaker”—but in the best way possible. His work uncovered the importance of sustainability before it was a buzzword and movement in the design industry.

Starting his career as an architect, McLennan said he was focused on sustainability from the start of his path, focusing on its importance “before it was cool.”

He continued, "I've always had a passion for the environment, good design, and trying to show that we can create a better world for designs of buildings, products, and systems that are beautiful and elegant. Sustainability was not a very big movement in architecture and not taken very seriously by most in the industry. There was very little definition around what ‘green design’ even meant. Through the late ‘90s and into the early 2000s we saw the rise of green building programs.”

With the advent of LEED and as other sustainability programs came up worldwide, people began to take the movement more seriously, McLennan said, “and we got more rigor. It went from something that was just a sideshow to something more clearly defined and with a better sense of direction.”

With that, McLennan founded the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), leaving his architecture job and working to challenge the building industry “to go further faster.” With McLennan, ILFI has created programs such as the Living Building Challenge, Living Product Challenge, and Declare labels to help ensure the places where we live and work and the products we use are safe and lending to a healthier world around us.

“I realized that the industry needed tools it didn’t have that would help focus its energy on the right direction for sustainability and design,” he explained. “Because of that, I created the Living Building Challenge, Product Challenge, and JUST and Declare labels—they were all born out of that need to see the building industry move forward.”

These initiatives that challenged an industry set in its ways meant McLennan had to do the initial work in proving the value of his efforts. “It was a matter of overcoming skepticism and the initial naysayers,” he recalled. “There were a lot of preconceptions and myths about our programs. There were all sorts of ideas that needed to be challenged and it is particularly hard to challenge how people think—it is the biggest challenge. But there was a lack of information out there, especially about product. So we had to create our own tools, create own education, and some places had to change backwards regulations. We had to fight against the inertia of how the industry wants to do things.”

Mohawk Group's2017 release, Lichen, which was the first floor covering to receive Living Product Petal Certification

A Powerful Force

Countless buildings and products have become certified under ILFI’s programs since the early 2000s, with numerous renowned industry names backing the organization’s efforts. Flooring powerhouse Mohawk Group, for example, was on board with McLennan’s vision from early on. In fact, the company recently collaborated with McLennan and his design firm to develop Lichen, an award-winning carpet product inspired by nature. It is the first floor covering to achieve Living Product Petal Certification. In addition, Mohawk Group’s Light Lab in Dalton, Ga., was the first Living Building Challenge Petal Certified project in the state and the first restoration project in the entire Southeastern United States.

“When the Living Product Challenge was launched, we knew we wanted to pursue the certification based on our history with Declare labels and our Light Lab Design Center’s Living Building Challenge Petal Certification process,” said Jackie Dettmar, vice president of design and product development, Mohawk Group. “Mohawk Group has over 500 Declare Red List-free products and developing a Living Product was essentially the next step in our sustainability journey. It was a logical choice for us to reach out to Jason about collaborating on our first project of this magnitude.”

McLennan and ILFI’s goal of leaving a handprint—a positive mark on the planet—aligns with the sustainability goals of green-minded companies like Mohawk. As noted by George Bandy, Mohawk Industries’ vice president of sustainability and an expert on the movement, “It’s leaders and visionaries like the McLennan Design team that help demonstrate how better is always possible, whether it’s creating better products for commercial spaces, exploring better processes for manufacturing, or more thoughtfully considering better ways to leave a handprint on Mother Nature.”

Declare Label

While projects and products continue to take part in the Living Challenges, more manufacturers are adopting the Declare label for their offerings and now organizations have the opportunity to verify operations with the JUST and Reveal labels.

“Declare was first and it was really based upon the idea that transparency and information are tools of change unto themselves,” McLennan explained. “If you can shine a light on the truth, many people—at least the leaders—will respond to that information and create further change. That’s really why we’ve had the success with Declare; leading companies making good products have this platform to show leadership that’s more honest. It is helpful to them and people who specify materials. It’s really succeeded or is succeeding, I should say.”

Mohawk Group's Lichen uses biomimicry to copy the natural texture of lichen found in nature

Continued Efforts

From the Declare label, McLennan watched transparency come to the forefront of design discussions. With that, the movement has started to transcend products. “We started to realize this sort of notion of transparency … was applicable to other areas,” he explained. “The building industry has [been behind] on equity and social justice issues. I created the JUST label as a way to bring those topics to the foreground of our industry and hopefully that will be helpful to other industries. But the JUST label can be used for any organization in any industry. It is a useful tool to shine a light on corporate practices toward people.”

The JUST label follows the same nutrition label format as Declare. However, unlike Declare, the JUST program is not for certification but a transparency tool “for organizations to disclose their operations, including how they treat their employees and where they make financial and community investments.” The process requires an entity to report on a range of indictors with “measurable accountabilities.” Included on a JUST label are ratings for Diversity, Equity, Safety, Worker Benefit, Local Benefit, and Stewardship.

Similarly, Reveal is the next in line, uncovering true energy performance within buildings, “which is typically obscured,” McLennan noted. “People don’t know how energy efficient or inefficient their buildings really are.”

The Reveal program verifies energy performance using three metrics: energy use intensity, the zero energy performance index, and reduction in energy use from baseline. It also shows if a building/project meets the 2030 Challenge energy use reduction targets established by Architecture 2030. The 2030 Challenge aims for a fossil fuel reduction standard for all new buildings and major renovations over the next 12 years, meeting carbon neutral goals by 2030 (using no fossil fuel GHG-emitting energy to operate).

“It’s all part of a theory of change to use transparency as a tool,” McLennan said. “Giving structure and platforms for transparency [creates] consistency in definitions and terms and a way to showcase it. Each [label] is a tool for transparency. It really helps organizations and projects organize their information.”

When asked about what impact he thinks he has had on the A+D community, McLennan hopes he has motivated people to become positive “troublemakers” as well. “Hopefully I’ve inspired people to think differently and to become troublemakers for change themselves. It’s always gratifying to hear from someone that I haven’t even met that [ILFI’s] work has made a difference to them or moved their career in a certain direction.”

Going forward, he encourages people with his shared vision to work even harder with the country’s current state of affairs. “We have to double down at this time,” he said. “We have to roll up our sleeves and do the hard work. We can’t look for leadership from the government. Leadership begins with ourselves anyway. It’s too easy to get distracted and distraught by things that are out of your control so I always encourage people to begin with the change you can control and try to move outwards from there as opposed to getting lost in what’s happening in the outer world. That’s hard to change directly and typically is not in our control.”

 Visit living-future.org to learn more and find out how to get involved.

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