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Seattle’s 2030 Challenge Pilot Program Looks to Build on Momentum Made by Living Building Challenge Pilot

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By Jack Stubbs

Seattle has long been regarded as a leader in sustainable design initiatives in the built environment—with programs like LEED, Living Building Challenge, Salmon-Safe and Net Zero Energy having gained traction and recognition over the last few years in particular—and as of early July, the city has a new Pilot Program officially in the works.

On July 2nd, Mayor Jenny Durkan signed legislation approving the 2030 Challenge Pilot Program, a new land use initiative to incentivize developers to make their renovations of existing buildings more energy efficient.

The 2030 Challenge Pilot program encourages the construction of buildings that meet the highest green standards and environmental quality: the pilot program provides up to two additional floors and a 25 percent floor area ratio bonus (30 percent for unreinforced masonry buildings) for developers if their projects meet the performance goals of the 2030 Challenge for Planning, which is an internationally-recognized standard for decarbonizing the built environment. The Challenge for Planning calls for a 70 percent reduction in energy usage, a 50 percent improvement in water management and a 50 percent decrease in transportation emissions, according to the 2030 District’s web site.

One of the major goals of the pilot program is to open the lines of communication between project developers and the rest of the AEC community in terms of considerations around how to renovate existing buildings, according to Susan Wickwire, executive director of the Seattle 2030 District, a public-private organization who worked with the city to develop the pilot program. “What the Pilot brings to the conversation is consideration…maybe, the developer would have first thought to demolish the building and then build from the ground up. But [with the program], they might [decide] to put more height onto the building and recoup some of the investment,” she said. “So I think there can be different conversations with the developers. We’re working with the architecture firms, GCs and land use attorneys who talk with developers to start with an awareness effort to have this as one option on the table.”

In terms of the scope of the pilot program, it will continue either until 20 projects are built in the city’s six urban centers (Downtown, First Hill/Capitol Hill, South Lake Union, Uptown, University District and Northgate) or until the program expires in 2025. While the pilot won’t necessarily work for every project, the hope is that it enables more flexibility moving forward for developers of a wider range of existing buildings in the city, according to Wickwire. “Clearly, the 2030 Challenge Pilot won’t work for every project; but the fact that it is available in the six urban centers I think gives a lot of flexibility for where this could happen. It’s also about being a bit more creative about how developers can reposition and repurpose buildings through adaptive reuse and environmental investment,” she said.

The 2030 Challenge Pilot Program represents the city’s most recent step in trying to encourage sustainable development in the city and is a separate initiative from the Living Building Pilot Program established in 2009, which allowed developers to request additional departures from the city’s Land Use Code through the Design Review and provides additional floors and FAR incentives for buildings attempting to meeting the Living Building Challenge (LBC). One of the key differences between the 2030 Pilot Program and the Living Building Challenge Pilot, however, is that it targets encouraging sustainable design for existing buildings rather than in-the-works projects. “The Living Building Pilot program has been around since 2009 and has been amended several times, including the latest ordinance that created the 2030 Challenge Pilot; there have been changes made to try and make it more engaging and attractive with the developers,” Wickwire said.

Another of the goals of the 2030 Challenge Pilot program is to garner more interest in the Living Building Pilot, to which developers haven’t responded as actively as the city would have hoped since its introduction in 2009, according to Mike Podowski, code development manager with the city of Seattle. “The Living Building Challenge has been on the books since 2009, and we haven’t had a lot of uptick on that; we wanted to make some changes in order to garner some more interest and get some more people participating in the program.”

More broadly, the city hopes that in its targeting of existing buildings, the program will in the longer term allow the city to meet its loftier goals around cutting carbon emissions, according to Wickwire. “The city is really rightly targeting existing buildings as a source of carbon and a barrier to meeting the Climate Action goals…[the question is] evaluating what it will take to get some of these [developers] to reevaluate how their buildings operate,” she said. “This is a great moment here where these great incentive programs and converging to promote this change in the buildings’ operations.”

Podowski echoed this point, emphasizing how one of the primary targets of the program is to reduce harmful carbon emissions. “The other key distinction that we are interested in studying is that part of the [building’s] environmental performance is based on reducing carbon emissions from people commuting to work, so there’s a transportation element that is unique to this program,” he said. “Somewhere close to 70 percent of the emmissions in the city are a result of people driving cars, so a program that would help people get out of their cars was key [to the program].”

In terms of its impact within the wider community, the hope is that the program will both allow the city to meet its environmental goals and strengthen its connection with members of the AEC community. “We want to try various green building performance measures to see what’s effective in helping us meet our environmental goals and at the same time make these goals appealing for the development community to take on board,” Podowski said.

Thus far, the Seattle 2030 District has heard interest from a few building developers that they are interested in pursuing the program (some members of the 2030 District include Sabey Corporation, Vulcan Inc., and Unico Properties).

In the wider context around encouraging sustainable design practices among members of the AEC community, programs like the 2030 pilot will hopefully help to bring other voices to the table, according to Chris Hellstern, Living Building Challenge Services Director at the Miller Hull Partnership. “We’re definitely in support of incentives like this that help to move along our responsibility as designers for these sustainable requirements,” he said. “We’re excited by these types of incentives and hope they work well for developers in terms of the increased FAR and height in the buildings, which will help increase features like daylighting and make these buildings more marketable for tenants and developers as well.”

Since the official signing of the legislation in early July, Hellstern has seen interest expressed in the program about how it could potentially impact existing development projects. “We’ve seen some interest from clients as well, asking about what [the pilot] means and how it can fit into their projects; we certainly have seen a lot of interest in terms of understanding what these new requirements [mean],” he said.

One of the current challenges facing the city in terms of its goals around encouraging sustainable development is a disconnect between code requirements imposed by the city and developers’ ability to achieve sustainability goals in their projects. “Certainly right now we’re seeing the codes drive the market and helping us move towards these energy and climate change goals that we have. But that kind of leaves out the developers and building owners and only requires them to meet a certain prescriptive code,” Hellstern said.

In the currently-booming market, Hellstern thinks that initiatives like the 2030 pilot will help encourage collaboration around sustainability in the longer term. “Understanding the client and development side is not really doing enough to meet these goals; we’re trying to meet these market demands at a rapid rate and looking for certain ROI but not really considering sustainability or energy use impacts or how they affect the city’s larger goals around climate change and carbon emissions,” he said. “On the design side, we have a fairly clear path of what we need to achieve with these different goals around energy and water reduction and transportation…and initiatives like this will really help make it clearer for the client and developer side…programs like this really help to further the collaboration between public and private entities together to talk about what some of these barriers might be,” he said.

As the city continues to grow, greater collaboration will be needed between members of the AEC community to really drive home the positive potential of programs like the 2030 pilot and the Living Building Challenge. “We can make any building as sustainable as any client wants, we can make every building a Living Building, but having the drive from the client side with incentive programs like these really opens the conversation and allows more opportunities for design freedom,” Hellstern added. “We’re glad to see the city stepping forward; it really makes a difference to see the City furthering their own climate action goals.”

The Seattle 2030 District continues to collaborate with the city on the evolution of the pilot program, and further revisions to the program will be made in December 2018. According to Wickwire, one of current obstacles that still needs to be resolved is the Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) component, which is a voluntary, incentive-based program that allows landowners to sell development rights from their land to another developer who can then use these rights to increase the density of the development. “The Transfer of Development Rights issue is a piece of unfinished business that needs to be resolved…that kind of got caught up in a larger city review of its incentive zoning program, and [the two programs] were moving on parallel tracks,” she said. “This TDR component will really make some projects, especially in Pioneer Square, more attractive, because developers in Pioneer Square can’t add onto buildings to the extent that they would like,” she said.

As the pilot program continues to evolve over the coming months, the hope is that it will both further previous strides made in Seattle and heighten the role of the city in the wider national context. “This is the first time that these 2030 Goals have been clearly codified…there are now twenty 2030 Districts [nationally], 19 in the U.S. and one in Canada; we were the first. We’re hoping that the program might be a model for other cities, [both] within the 2030 network and more broadly as well,” Wickwire said.

With its spirit of innovation, the city will continue to play a role, according to Hellstern. “Seattle does continue to lead the nation when it comes to energy compliance and energy codes, and as we continue to innovate and show that this is possible in a rapidly-growing market, then other cities can adopt the same,” he added.