Home AEC Q&A With Weber Thompson: Examining the Terry Thomas Building in South Lake...

Q&A With Weber Thompson: Examining the Terry Thomas Building in South Lake Union and Trends Around Environmental Sustainability

Seattle, Weber Thompson, South Lake Union, environmental sustainability, Terry Thomas Building, Living Building Challenge
Image courtesy of Lara Swimmer Photography

By Jack Stubbs

As Seattle and the wider region continues to grow, design teams are continually looking to implement sustainability practices into their projects. The Terry Thomas Building in South Lake Union—designed and occupied by architecture firm Weber Thompson—is a four-story, 40,000 square foot commercial building that looks to reflect environmental sustainability practices and the evolving South Lake Union neighborhood of which it is a part.

2018 marks the ten-year anniversary for the project. In recognition of this milestone, we recently spoke with Kristen Scott, managing partner and senior principal at Weber Thompson, and Myer Harrell, principal and director of sustainability, to discuss the Terry Thomas Building, the importance of sustainable design elements in the project, and what has changed over the last few years—in South Lake Union and the wider region—when it comes to promoting environmental sustainability efforts.

Seattle, Weber Thompson, South Lake Union, environmental sustainability, Terry Thomas Building, Living Building Challenge
Myer Harrell
Seattle, Weber Thompson, South Lake Union, environmental sustainability, Terry Thomas Building, Living Building Challenge
Kristen Scott

Can you tell me a little bit about your background and role at Weber Thompson and the design practices that the firm looks to bring to its projects throughout the city and the region?

Kristen: For our office projects, we are always looking at how our design can make a positive impact in the community—everything from designing the most sustainable building we can to looking beyond our site boundary to improve the environment (for example, treating the polluted storm water runoff from the Aurora Bridge on our DATA 1 project before it flows into salmon filled waters of Lake Union).

Home to and designed by Weber Thompson, in what ways is Terry Thomas reflective of Weber Thompson as a design firm in the city of Seattle? 

Kristen: The Terry Thomas is a living, learning laboratory of sustainable design ideas. As a naturally ventilated building with exposed structure and minimal finishes, it reflects both our practical and aspirational design goals. Its open-office design is critical to our collaborative work style and provides near constant opportunities for learning and mentorship internally.

What are some of the other commercial projects Weber Thompson is currently working on throughout the city and which of these projects are you most excited about?

Kristen: We have several boutique urban commercial office projects either starting construction or on the boards; we are particularly excited about two Living Building Pilot projects we are doing in Fremont!

Myer: Those two Living Building Pilot Projects are Watershed and an office building at 35th and Stone Way. Watershed is pursuing Petal Certification through the International Living Future Institute with a focus on materials, and has a very intensive right-of-way design feature to treat runoff from the Aurora Bridge. The Stone Way office building is also targeting Petal Certification, with an ambitious project goal of Net Positive Energy.

How is Terry Thomas informed by its location in the city’s ever-active South Lake Union (SLU) neighborhood? How did the programming and design of Terry Thomas look to channel the character of South Lake Union (SLU)? 

Kristen: When we were designing the Terry Thomas twelve years ago, SLU was a very different, under-developed place. It was a neighborhood of wholesale florists, car dealerships and preschools. There weren’t any restaurants and very few people lived in the neighborhood.

We designed the Terry Thomas to be a transparent glass box that would likely end up being a small building as the neighborhood was developed. Amazon’s campus wasn’t on the horizon; Vulcan had purchased a lot of the property to try and develop Seattle Commons and was starting to develop their own large-scale projects.

Myer: Scott Thompson [former founding principal at Weber Thompson] often said that the two major benefits to the neighborhood when the firm first moved to SLU were: easy to access I-5 and ample parking. Times have changed! I think the building channeled some of the gritty, industrial character with raw materials like steel, glass, concrete and metal in the façade, but also provided a new kind of space—a semi-private courtyard.

The ground floor was left flexible as to whether it would be retail or office use; that could change as the neighborhood and needs changed. Other notable projects that have shaped the neighborhood include Lake Union Park, MOHAI, The Center for Wooden Boats at the north end, and the SLU Discovery Center at the south end. A few projects that are exciting to look forward to are the Denny Substation and Google campus along Mercer.

What do you predict for the future of South Lake Union in particular as the city continues to grow and densify?

Kristen: Hopefully, SLU will develop into a more fully realized neighborhood with 24/7 occupancy by both office and multifamily residential uses as well as the supporting restaurants and shopping fabric that make up a vibrant neighborhood.

Myer: I can imagine over time [that] we’ll see fewer cars and more pedestrians, bikes, and transit. Maybe some areas will become designated for pedestrians and bikes only. What I’m very excited to see is a sense of culture growing in and around the living and working spaces, some patina and variety in scale and vintage of buildings—that just takes time.

Specifically with regards to sustainable design, what can you tell me about the Terry Thomas Building? What are some of the key sustainability features of the project, and how do they contribute to the overall ethos of the building?

Kristen: Passive ventilation with operable windows and exterior louvers on sensors, natural daylighting work together to cut energy usage in half from a typical office building. The central courtyard acts as a thermal chimney creating a cooling breeze during hot weather to naturally ventilate the office space. Exposed castellated beams encourage air flow while also allowing us to run systems through increasing the perceived ceiling height while minimizing construction costs.

Myer: One thing I’d also mention is that a few of the features do double-duty and therefore are a more efficient use of resources. For example, we have indirect fluorescent light fixtures in our open office area that bounce light off of acoustic ceiling panels for ambient lighting.

How does the building’s interior programming look to encourage productivity and collaboration? What made these such central aspects of the project’s overall design, and is this becoming more of a prominent trend among the AEC community in Seattle?

Myer: In terms of Biophilic (literally “love of nature”) design principles, the Terry Thomas does a few things very well, including thermal variability and patterns of daylight and shadow changing throughout the day. Overall, it’s connectedness to the sounds, smells, and breezes from outdoors make for an environment that is healthier and more pleasant for the occupants. Also, the building design promotes use of an outdoor stair that not only saves energy, but also gets people outside and creates more opportunities for chance encounters. We think this has influenced other projects, as we’ve seen the “irresistible stair” concept gain traction as a tool for office wellness.

Kristen: We know from recent studies that natural daylight and fresh air increase learning and productivity. Architecture teams are collaborative by design, and our open office is arranged in teams with low partitions to encourage not only airflow and access to daylighting, but also mentorship and shared conversation about our work.

Given that Terry Thomas is both designed and occupied by the firm, in what was does the building serve particularly well as a template or learning laboratory for the firm?

Kristen: For our clients, the building is very much a ‘walk-the-talk’ demonstration, showing a straight forward, cost effective approach to sustainability while also inspiring an appreciation for the beauty of natural daylighting and connection to the outdoors—even in the very urban environment of SLU.

Myer: We’ve done a few things over the years to test the building and try to continually improve performance. In May 2016 with the help of South Seattle College, we implemented power metering and occupant behavior modification—that led to a white paper on lessons learned from attempting to “gamify” energy efficient habits. We’ve studied what it would take to retroactively install solar photovoltaics on the roof. We’ve used our building as a case study for bicycle use and alternate transportation, and applied this data to other office design projects.

Given that Terry Thomas is celebrating its 10-year anniversary in 2018, what has changed since the building’s inception in 2008 and what has stayed the same? How have the design firm’s practices evolved over the last decade, and how will the firm ensure that it continues to push new boundaries moving forward?

Kristen: We’ve seen first-hand increased density in offices, more hours of operation in the building, and the addition of Northeastern University with evening and weekend classes, making this truly a mixed use building with a variety of occupant types throughout the day. Our design practice has become ever more collaborative, more inclusionary of broader community of stake holders and inclusive of more occupant-based research.

Myer: Along with the growth of open office, we’ve become more aware of the need for some tasks and some people to have focus rooms and small meeting spaces to balance the open office environment on one hand with many distractions, and on the other hand, many great conversations to tap in to.

One thing we’ve done to ensure our firm continues to push boundaries is participation in a unique program by the University of Washington School of Architecture’s Integrated Design Lab, which pools the collective voice of local architecture firms and steers an annual research project. It means that firms that don’t have dedicated research staff can still participate in robust research that informs our work.

What has changed in the world of sustainable design practices, both in Seattle and the wider region, over the last decade? What have been some of the challenges and lessons learned in terms of sustainability in the built environment?

Myer: We’ve seen a big shift from a focus on measuring specific impacts to natural resources— especially energy and water efficiency—toward human health and well-being, social sustainability, and resilience. Some of that is driven by a new narrative of where value comes from in buildings; the cost of utilities is far outweighed by the cost of people.

One challenge we’ve seen is green certification fatigue—there are many options out there, and it can be overwhelming for project teams. Finally, in Seattle, LEED [is] not as incentivized, and code-compliant buildings are required to do a lot in energy efficiency and storm water management. So LEED has become slightly less of a market differentiator in our local area. We are learning how to keep pushing projects beyond the status quo when LEED certification is not a project goal.

Seattle and the wider region continues to lead the way when it comes to the implementation of sustainable design practices. Given the prevalence of past and current green building initiatives led by the city, are you optimistic about the direction in which the city is heading?

Kristen: Seattle is a leader, and we as firm want to be on that leading edge and participate as best we can with these forward-looking programs. We have two projects participating in the Seattle Living Building Pilot Program right now.

Myer: The Green Building Standard has been enacted as an incentive zoning provision, which shows Seattle’s leadership in incorporating green strategies into the land use code. Although, it doesn’t affect all zones, so there are a number of areas of the city that do not have a requirement or incentive to use LEED, Passive House, or other green certifications. Also, expedited permitting for green projects is a great service, especially during this busy development cycle, so more can be done to quantify and sell the benefits of this pathway to design and development teams.

Conversely, there is assuredly more work to be done—looking forward over the next couple of years, do you think design firms have a growing responsibility when it comes to promoting sustainable design, and are they meeting this need?

Myer: Yes, of course. About fifteen years ago, the 2030 Challenge was launched, which simultaneously assigned responsibility to architecture firms while creating a roadmap to better buildings. Unfortunately, we do not seem to be currently on track for the 2030 Challenge target of net-zero energy buildings as standard practice in the year 2030. Weber Thompson is an active signatory of the AIA 2030 Commitment, which requires firms to track their project portfolio to assess progress in better design, as well as lead by example in greener office operations and writing a strategic plan to further their work.

Is there anything else we should be discussing or anything else that you would like to add?

Kristen: In celebration of the 10-year anniversary of the Terry Thomas, we’re conducting an internal charrette to envision the future of this building and site 20 years from now in the context of changed environmental, social, regulatory context and character of South Lake Union. We’ll feature the results of the design exploration through 3D physical models and a virtual reality installation at the Seattle Architecture Foundation’s 21st Annual Model Exhibit at the Center for Architecture and Design.