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Environmental Sustainability Initiatives in Puget Sound Region Continue to Move the Needle; But Greater Leadership Needed From the AEC Community and Design Review

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By Jack Stubbs

The Greater Puget Sound region, and the city of Seattle within, it has long been regarded as a leader in sustainable design initiatives in the built environment. And while programs like LEED, Living Building Challenge, SalmonSafe and Net Zero Energy are just a few of the initiatives that have gained traction over the last few years in particular, forward progress continues—in July 2018, Mayor Jenny Durkan signed legislation approving the 2030 Challenge Pilot Program, a new land use initiative incentivizing developers to make their renovations of existing buildings more energy efficient. 

And while strides continue to be made when it comes to moving the needle around sustainable design, a lack of proactive conversations between the city and members of the AEC community means that there are more pressing needs to be met in the longer-term, according to Chris Hellstern, Living Building Challenge Services Director at the Miller Hull Partnership. 

“I think one of the first key pieces is getting the word out earlier [about sustainable design] and talking about it; this has to be a common part of the way we describe buildings in our community,” he said. “It should not only be their materials and who the tenants are, but how they perform through performance data…the more we bring this up with clients and members of the public, the more we can help to bring this situation to light.”

Initiatives like the 2030 Challenge Pilot Program represents the city’s most recent step in trying to push sustainable development and is a separate initiative from the Living Building Pilot (LBP) Program established in 2009, which allowed developers to request additional departures from the city’s Land Use Code through the Design Review process. The LBP also provided additional incentives for buildings attempting to meeting the Living Building Challenge (LBC), a green building certification program led by the International Living Futures Institute (ILFI) that encourages more efficient energy usage and greener building materials. 

In a city that continues to expand—with a number of mixed-use projects undergoing Design Review each week, and various new-construction undertakings in the pipeline—the city cannot afford to rest on its laurels when time is of the essence and a greater shift in priorities is needed, thinks Mathew Combe, executive director of the Seattle 2030 District. “The 2030 Challenge Pilot has the larger potential because it applies only to existing buildings, and that’s really where the huge opportunity is in transforming our built environment to make it more efficient,” he said. “New construction is great, but only accounts for about 30 percent of the buildings in Seattle…for those other 70 percent, something will need to happen there…we don’t really have the time right now to be doing just code-compliant buildings. If we have the opportunity to incentivize and push people, then we should be doing that.”

Currently, one of the primary objectives of the Seattle 2030 District—an interdisciplinary, public-private organization collaborating with the city to develop a roadmap for higher-performing buildings in the Emerald City—is to align its goals around sustainability with the need for more transit-oriented development [TOD] in a city and region that is densifying rapidly. According to the 2030 District, transpiration is the largest source of carbon emissions in Seattle, and the District has set a goal of reducing them by 50 percent by the year 2030. 

“These TOD sites—where there will be a lot of development over the next few years—will become prime locations where people can take public transit in and out of Seattle,” Combe said. 

In early 2019, the Seattle 2030 District released a report commissioned by King County Metro titled “Local Assessment of Transit-Oriented Development and Sustainability in King County.” 

The report analyzed how four local cities—Shoreline, Redmond, Bothell and Burien—are incorporating sustainability priorities into their planning and zoning policies, and also identified the incentives and opportunities for further collaboration between the private sector and members of the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) community to encourage sustainable design practices for buildings within TOD sites. 

Similarly to how the 2030 Challenge Pilot Program built upon progress made with the earlier Living Building Pilot (LBP), the hope is that a new approach to TOD sites will mark another step in the right direction, thinks Combe. “The biggest thing for a lot of this comes down to the incentives that you can offer for buildings around those TOD sites…we did a lot of work last year in getting the Mayor to sign the 2030 Challenge Pilot Program..we seem to have hit that sweet spot where the incentives are good enough, which is allowing developers to really look at Living Buildings as a [more] viable option,” he said. 

Although it is one of the world’s most rigorous environmental performance standards—evaluating not only the materials used in a project’s design and construction but also the building’s environmental impact over time—The Living Building Challenge has gained more traction in the Emerald City over the last several months. As one recent example, developer SRM Fremont and Seattle-based architect Weber Thompson have embraced the challenge with their proposed 100,000 square foot office development located at 3524 Stone Way N. in Wallingford—an undertaking that was given the green light by the city’s Northeast Design Review Board in mid-April 2019.

And while examples like the Wallingford project demonstrate that it is possible to strike a balance between the LBC requirements and the overall design of the building, the city’s Design Review process could do more to more proactively highlight the importance of sustainable design elements earlier on, thinks Combe. “So much of the Design Review process for the buildings focused on the aesthetics; no one is really asking [the design team] what they’re doing with regards to energy efficiency or sustainability, and those questions really need to be asked at each meeting,” he said. “The might be a time when the City requires that people talk about the environmental side of things in Design Review…[but] things need to be moving a bit quicker in the city’s process.”

Currently, a disproportionate amount of the focus during the city’s Design Review process—meant to give planners, residents, and the professional volunteers serving on the Design Review Boards a voice in the design of most new multifamily and commercial buildings in the city, according to the Seattle Department of Construction’s web site—is given to the visual impact of the development rather than the project-in-questions potential environmental goals, thinks Hellstern. 

The Design Review Program reviews multiple elements of a building and its site, including the overall appearance of the building; how it relates to the adjacent street frontage and geography of the site; considerations around pedestrian and vehicular access; and the quality of proposed materials and landscaping, according to SDCI’s web site. 

“Essentially, there hasn’t been enough emphasis put on the building’s performance, with more focus on the aesthetics piece, and I think that’s a disservice to many people in our community. I think [Design Review] needs to start including performance-data as a more important factor,” Hellstern said. “Buildings should be providing estimated water and energy consumption at the same time that these designs are being brought forward to the public; especially with the community’s input people have a right to know how these buildings are going to perform.”

One promising example of effective data measurement and performance usage is The Bullitt Center located at 1501 E. Madison St. in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, a 5-story, 52,000 square-foot building completed in 2013 that is widely recognized as the greenest commercial building in the world. The Bullitt Center—which features energy-efficient heating and cooling system, electricity generated through 575 photovoltaic solar panels on the roof of the building, and adaptive reuse of wastewater—exceeds several benchmarks when it comes to sustainable energy. 

For example, the EUI (energy usage intensity) per square foot for a typical office building in Seattle is 92; the EUI for a typical office building built to Seattle’s Energy Code is 57, while the current EUI for the Bullitt Center stands at 13.9. Furthermore, the typical office building in Seattle uses 14.2 gallons of potable water per square foot per year, while the Bullitt Center uses 1.1 gallons per square foot per year.

Over the last year or so, at least, the City of Seattle has made progress in its attempts to open up dialogue sooner regarding how in-the-works projects are perceived in the public eye. In July 2018, the Department of Neighborhoods and SDCI implemented its Early Community Outreach Initiative for projects, which requires development teams to conduct mandatory community outreach earlier on in the process before the Early Design Guidance (EDG) meetings—until recently, the EDG meetings were the first opportunity for members of the public to give input on upcoming projects. 

Looking ahead, greater transparency implemented earlier on in the city’s Design Review process will undoubtedly help to foster dialogue about the potential that mixed-use projects have to meet certain sustainability goals—something that will be crucial in the longer-term, thinks Combe. Similarly to how channels of communication between the Design Review Board members of the general public could be opened up sooner, more needs to be done to highlight the positive potential for initiatives like the 2030 Challenge Pilot Program and the Living Building Challenge. “The relationship between AEC members and the private sector the city is always going to be important…part of the reason the 2030 District was formed was to bridge that gap and try to break down silos within the City’s departments,” said Combe. “I think there’s probably a little bit more that could be done from the city’s perspective to make people more aware of those Pilot Programs.”

In the wider context of how Seattle and the Puget Sound region can continue to grow effectively, and at a time when new projects continue to shape the fabric of the city, a change in mentality might be needed, members of the AEC community, in particular, have an important role to play moving forward, thinks Comb. “There are definitely a few architecture and engineering firms that have worked on Living Buildings that know how to design those kinds of buildings, which does change the conversation. But there needs to be more emphasis now on the AEC firms really pushing developers to do more around sustainability—to show that it can be done in a cost-competitive way,” he said. 

Though local concerns around how to achieve sustainable design goals with both existing projects and new-construction are mounting, strides continue to be made. The introduction of the 2030 Challenge Pilot Program following the original LBP, and SDCI’s implementation of the Early Community Outreach guidelines demonstrate that the city very much has an eye on its future—most recently, members of Living Building Challenge in mid-June met for the second with the Seattle 2030 District to propose changes to the next round of energy code in Seattle. 

For the time-being, most all signs are indicative that positive progress continues to me made in spite of the loftier objectives ahead, thinks Hellstern. “To make the most wide-spread immediate impacts and swifter progress, we really need to focus on legislation, advocacy and code regulations,” he said. 

At a critical juncture for a city within a growing regional ecosystem, time is very much of the essence, and past precedent—though a sign of incremental positive progress—can serve as a warning sign for the future, thinks Combe. “It took us around three years from when we started to having the conversation around the 2030 Challenge Pilot program to [actually] getting it signed into legislation. That’s just too long, and we missed such a huge part of the new development cycle [during that time],” he said.