By Jack Stubbs
Sustainability in the built environment is increasingly coming on the radar of members of the architecture/engineering/construction community in the Puget Sound region with the rise over the years of established initiatives like LEED, Living Building Challenge and Built Green. Data 1, a 5-story commercial office building in the heart of Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, is looking to provide a template for how to solve sustainability issues around the adaptive reuse of water in the Puget Sound region.
“I think overall in sustainability, there’s been a more recent move towards looking beyond the building site itself. A lot of the original programs like LEED and Built Green are very point-related and only relate to what you’re actually building on the site,” said Rachael Meyer, landscape architect at Weber Thompson, who designed Data 1. “But an exciting trend that we’re seeing is the idea of looking beyond the building site to see how we can improve the community, which can be interpreted in a lot of ways from a pollution standpoint.”
The project team for Data 1, a 113,000 square foot commercial office building completed in 2017 and located at 744 N. 34th St., includes Weber Thompson (architect), KPFF (engineer) and property developer COU LLC (led by Stephen Grey, Mike Hess and Joanna Callahan)—and the team hopes that the undertaking will break new ground when it comes to environmental sustainability strategies in Seattle.
The development looks to prevent the runoff of 200,000 gallons of harmful stormwater into Lake Union through a series of landscaping elements and bioswales. Along the east edge of the project site, the Aurora Bridge typically empties stormwater runoff directly onto Troll Avenue and N. 34th St., which then flows directly downhill into dedicated storm drains that discharge into Lake Union without ever being treated. However, the unique landscaping and stormwater management features incorporated into the project—which includes a green roof and a variety of planters and bioretention cells running alongside the building—allow dissolved pollutants to settle before the water is diverted back into the lake.
The plans for Data on have been evolving over the years—on July 14th, the project team hosted an annual event called the ‘Clean Lake Union Race,’ to raise awareness about cleaning local waterways—and progress continues to be made when it comes to raising awareness around how to promote water cleanliness in the built environment. However, that was not always the intention with Data 1, according to Mark Grey, principal at SCGA. “Early on in 2014, when we were looking at doing Data 1, we hadn’t landed on this concept of doing stormwater [runoff],” he said. “We had a project nearby on Northlake where there’s a marina…there was a leak into Lake Union caused by a boat. We saw this huge slick on the lake…and came to find out that this was caused by a simple catch basin draining from the catch-basin into the lake,” he said.
The city of Seattle has what is called a Combined Sewage Overflow (CSO) system, meaning that sewers that collect rainwater runoff, domestic sewage and industrial wastewater run out of the same plumbing. Data 1 doesn’t operate on the CSO system, but instead operates on a direct-stormwater only system—meaning that only rainwater is diverted into Lake Union, while the other water harmful to the lake is collected in a tank.
Data 1 is the first phase of three developments that the project team has in the works, according to Myer Harrell, director of sustainability at Weber Thompson. “The project is setting the stage for a few others projects that could occur on bridges between the lakes and Puget Sound,” Harrell said. Phase two of the project is Watershed—currently undergoing design review and scheduled to begin construction sometime in 2018—a 7-story, 61,000 square foot office building. Watershed will divert and clean approximately 400,000 gallons of harmful rainwater runoff into Lake Union. Phase 3 of the multi-stage development is Raingarden—a project still in its conceptual design stages—which will ensure that approximately 1.24 million gallons of water runoff Aurora Bridge is diverted and cleared before entering the lake.
In the broader context of raising awareness around the harmful impacts that untreated water runoff can have on local waterways, the hope is that Data 1 and subsequent projects will bring these issues further on the radar of city agencies as well, according to Harrell. ”One of the things that we’ve learned in doing these projects …is to highlight [that] stormwater is going untreated into our waterways…this isn’t often highlighted as a problem, but in some ways it might be more harmful than the CSO problem because it’s happening after every rain event,” he said. King County has plans to construct 14 wet weather treatment stations around the Puget Sound region, and in June 2018 began construction on a new facility in Georgetown.
From a practical perspective, implementing the sustainable design moves into projects like Data 1 come with associated financial challenges—and there remains a disconnect between whether local, state or federal agencies have a responsibility to address water runoff issues in the built environment, according to Grey. “Part of the problem is getting the financial resources to do these projects from the city and state governments; they’re not opposed to [the projects], but they haven’t bubbled up on their radar at this point,” he said, also highlighting that time is of the essence with these issues in particular. “We’re doing something faster because we’re raising the funds and we’re not waiting on them, but we do need help from the state and city to work with us to get [this] done.”
Senior principal at Weber Thompson Kristen Scott emphasized how, as a private project, Data 1 presented a simpler, more direct solution of redirecting and cleaning water runoff that was draining into Lake Union. “It didn’t require a huge infrastructure change, but that won’t necessarily be the case for the six other bridges that cross Lake Union,” she said. And while there remains some uncertainty surrounding which local or federal agencies are ultimately responsible for on-site water management, the associated issues remain just as pressing. “This isn’t about identifying who is responsible or what the cause is. At this point, nobody knows why the water coming off the Aurora Bridge is so toxic,” Scott said. “But at the same time, even when the accountability is traced back to its source or agency, this opportunity to clean it and remediate it is very cost-effective and readily available…you just need the right opportunity to make it happen.”
The question of which legislative bodies own the actual land on which these water runoff issues are occurring is also a factor that prevents these projects from gaining momentum in a timely manner, according to Grey. “ We don’t want this to be political. [But] if I buy land and the property next to mine is a city right-of-way and I want to put something in that right-of-way, then questions start arising about who’s going to do the maintenance and improvements that will last,” he said. “There are issues when the water comes out of the downspout, and we spend a lot of time talking about whether it impacts public utilities work or the state’s work. Meanwhile, while we wait for the [project] permit, dirty water is flowing into the lake.”
For the neighborhood of Fremont, the city of Seattle and the wider Puget Sound region, Data 1 represents an intriguing case study of how to become more environmentally conscious in an evolving area of the city. “I think what we’re seeing in today’s world, especially in the little microcosm of Fremont…is an existing neighborhood that is quirky and had a strong sense of community already in place. The companies and future tenants want to be in buildings that are doing good things for the broader community,” Scott added.
While changes are occurring in Fremont, the hope is that Data 1 will also serve as a template for future development projects as well. “Fremont really is becoming a sustainably-focused, community fabric-oriented place with new buildings that recognize what’s there; Ballard is the next place where we’ll probably see a wave of new development, but hopefully it won’t be pulling from the same cues as Fremont,” Scott added.
Often recognized as a positive standard when it comes to highlighting sustainability, the Puget Sound region and the Pacific Northwest are informed in large part by their forward-looking legislation, according to Meyer. “The city of Seattle is very progressive in its codes, especially towards cleaner stormwater. That starts from stormwater codes at the state-level that the city has chosen to implement. Now, every project built in Seattle has to mitigate the stormwater.”
And while Data 1 represents that progress continues to be made in highlighting these concerns, there is more work yet to be done, according to Meyer. “Even though there’s the strength of the connection between Seattle and the Puget Sound region and water, since there are so many areas where we can see and be connected to it…it was a hard thing to visualize how much water and pollution that we were talking about,” she said. “Now, we can start to quantify and understand the effects that these developments are having. These solutions are simple enough that they really change the conversation.”