Home AEC A Q&A: Weber Thompson’s Sustainability Director Myer Harrell

A Q&A: Weber Thompson’s Sustainability Director Myer Harrell

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Pilot program, Weber Thompson, Fremont, office building, Stephen C. Grey & Associates, Seattle Living Building Pilot Program
Fremont Office Building | Rendering: Weber Thompson

By Brittan Jenkins

To see how Seattle can become a more sustainable city, in terms of construction and design, we spoke to Myer Harrell, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, and principal and director of sustainability for Weber Thompson. Myer focuses on urban infill mid-rise, mixed use multifamily and boutique-scale commercial office construction.

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Myer Harrell | Photo: Weber Thompson

Along with other cities across the U.S., Seattle prides itself on being sustainable, green and efficient, but is it really?

I think the pride is warranted, but there is still so much more we could be doing on the whole. Seattle as a municipal jurisdiction is very progressive; this is evident in the energy code, in the incentives built into the land use code, and the discussions around long-term planning and project support. But when it comes to commercial development, unfortunately, it’s usually the sticks (regulation) and not the carrots (development incentives and market advantage) that determine how sustainable, green, and efficient each new construction project or renovation/retrofit is.

So what’s the hold up? What steps need to be taken in order to accomplish more sustainable goals?

In the community I generally hear two answers to this question: more incentives from the city (increased FAR and height, reduced permit fees, and/or expedited schedule for green measures), or focus more on regulation – as many projects will only do what is code-required. But I wonder if a third path – boosting market advantage – might be the most effective.

There are many groups out there that offer incentives to builders looking to incorporate green components into their buildings, how effective are those strategies in getting others (builders, developers) to follow?

Incentives from the city (increased FAR and height, reduced permit fees, and/or expedited schedule for green measures) are fantastic – in many cases they provide that financial edge to make the deeper green project worthwhile. However, sometimes these incentives can generate challenges, and they don’t give green strategies the chance to demonstrate intrinsic value for building owners.

What are the challenges involved with opting in to those programs?

I’ll speak to the Living Building Pilot Program (LBPP), as it is the one I know the best. Some of the things that make this program great – post-occupancy performance and third-party certification – also introduce new risk for building owners. Also, as we have seen in some recent LBPP projects, sometimes these incentives can generate controversy. This happens when there are unprecedented modifications to former “sacred cows” like building height (especially adjacent to residential neighborhoods). [The] incentives these projects seek can test the limits of the public’s appetite for deep green buildings.

We know there’s a push for sustainability in new buildings, but what about existing structures?

Absolutely, this is a critical part of sustainable building construction – we have to recognize the value in the embodied energy and resources that went into our existing building stock, find opportunities to preserve, renovate and add-on to existing structures and should reward projects that do so in a thoughtful way. Not only is it good from a performance standpoint, but also in a cultural preservation of our past and maintaining texture to our urban places. LEED and the Living Building Challenge have recognitions and certifications for existing buildings, and I believe the Seattle 2030 District is advocating for recognition of high-performance existing building renovations under the Living Building Pilot Program ordinance for height and FAR incentives.

How can we get older, less green buildings to retrofit or replace worn out systems and fixtures with new ones to reduce waste?

Find ways to offset the up-front costs to do the retrofit. Help build community (like the Seattle 2030 District has done) to share resources, generate light competition (between building owners/managers and between districts), and make existing building operations improvement exciting.

Why aren’t as many people on board with doing that? What are the difficulties and challenges?

Existing buildings have a greater number of unknowns and risks – some issues aren’t discovered until you are well into demolition/construction or a retrofit project. It’s not always seen as an opportunity to create a flagship project, and is not often the flashiest piece in the portfolio. But, with the right attitude, efficiency upgrades can be recognized as a value add to the building, and marketed as such.

While a healthy blend of push from both the tenant and the landlord/owner are vital to work towards green goals, who is more responsible for acting on those goals when it comes to existing buildings?

I personally think it is the landlord/owner that needs to set the tone (sometimes through the branding of the building), set the goals and targets, structure lease agreements in a way that addresses performance, and find easy and inexpensive ways to encourage and reward tenants with more efficient occupancy.

How can your regular, every day employee take steps to reduce waste in the workplace?

Build awareness. Question why things are done the way they are. Look for ‘leverage points’ – easy, one time tasks that have a lasting impact, for example changing your printer settings to double-sided as a default.

And what are the easiest ways as an employer to take greener steps as well?

Senior staff within a company can lead by example, and take steps to create a culture of thoughtful habits and practices.

Is sustainability becoming more of a “must have” or standard when constructing new buildings and why is that important?

Yes and no – in Seattle it is still dependent on the type of project, the land use code requirements, and occasionally by the available direct incentives from the city jurisdiction or local utility. Sometimes tenant demand can drive the decision for the level of sustainability in projects, but that is on a case-by-case basis. This is an important question because I don’t believe that in general building owners hear tenants (often channeled through brokers) demanding sustainable construction in a way that impacts the development pro forma.

In 20 years, what is your hope for Seattle in terms of its sustainability goals? What will the city look like to you?

In 20 years, my hope is that the market drives decisions on sustainable strategies and certifications and fuels progress. I hope that net zero energy buildings are very common for new construction in mid-rise projects, and we are on our way to a carbon-free future. That can be achieved once we have an informed public and complete transparency in building performance, and a deep understanding of how environmental performance impacts financial performance. In 20 years I hope that city incentives are no longer what tips the scale for a project to pursue deep green goals; instead the strategies become their own incentives for building owners, because they are demanded by tenants and improve long-term value. Codes will still be very stringent and will continue to prevent the most inefficient projects from being resource hogs. More than anything, I hope Seattle becomes a leader in green building, and that the health of our real estate market becomes inextricably tied to that leadership.