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Strides Made in the Pacific Northwest in Sustainable Design, Despite Challenges Ahead For an Expanding Region

Seattle, Runberg Architecture Group, Capstone Partners, Vulcan Real Estate, Esterra Park, Redmond, Gold Nugget Awards, Overlake
Image courtesy of Runberg Architecture Group

By Jack Stubbs

As cities throughout the Puget Sound region continue to expand, members of the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) community are continually looking for ways to implement design strategies that respond to growing concerns around environmental sustainability. 

Commercial and residential projects, in particular, are increasingly viewed as one way to solve and investigate key environmental issues facing the region, with design awards given for projects that demonstrate achievements in the AEC community.

On June 5th, Runberg Architecture Group, a Seattle-based architecture firm specializing in environmentally sustainable, urban mixed-use, housing and adaptive reuse projects throughout the Pacific Northwest, was awarded two Gold Nugget awards at the 2019 Pacific Coast Builders Conference (PCBC) held on May 31st in San Francisco. 

Regarded by some as the gold standard when it comes to highlighting achievements in the building industry, PCBC’s Gold Nugget Awards—which are open to builders, developers, architects and land-planners with projects across the U.S. and internationally—are presented annually to the leaders in planning, design and development.

Awards like PCBC’s Gold Nugget Awards given in recognition of such developments not only speak to achievements made by the design-team-in-question, but also serve to highlight a paradigm shift in the way that such projects are conceptualized, thinks Brian Runberg, principal of Runberg Architecture Group. “There’s bit of an evolution in development happening here that needs to respond to this generation and set new standards in appropriate design to accommodate a whole host of issues that are becoming more urgent…these awards art part of that, and it’s humbling for us to play a small role in all this, but we [need to] constantly challenge ourselves to seek the right design solution,” he said.

Runberg Architecture Group won the Best Innovative Energy Design award for Sitka, a 7-story, 384-unit building in Seattle’s dynamic South Lake Union neighborhood developed by Vulcan Real Estate, and the Best on the Boards Multifamily Community award for Esterra Park Apartments, a 634-unit residential project developed by Capstone Partners and located in Redmond’s Overlake neighborhood. 

Given that areas like Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood and the city of Redmond across Lake Washington sit in the heart of a continually-expanding Puget Sound region, increasing consideration is given to the unique social, economic and environmental opportunities that each project represents—a collaborative, integrative mindset that Runberg Architecture Group strives for in all of its projects, with Sitka and Esterra Park the two most recent efforts.

“Sitka is certainly an example that hit the nail on the head on all three of those pillars; it’s a project that’s appropriately advancing industry needs and can be a precedent,” Runberg said. “The vision for Sitka might have been somewhat loose [initially]…because this is a complex problem that requires a contribution from all levels, from the political jurisdictional level, the developer’s vision, and the [ultimate] need to execute that.”

Seattle, Runberg Architecture Group, Capstone Partners, Vulcan Real Estate, Esterra Park, Redmond, Gold Nugget Awards, Overlake
Sitka. Image courtesy of Runberg Architecture Group

With the two recent accolades won this year, Runberg Architecture Group continues as the leading Northwest representative in PCBC’s national award program—though several other design teams throughout the Pacific Northwest, also, took home awards at the recent ceremony. SMR Architects and the Yakima Housing Authority won the Judges Special Award of Excellence for Cosecha Court II in Granger, WA, while Dahlin Group Architecture Planning and MainStreet Property Group received the award for the best commercial project under 20,000 square feet, the Seaplane Kitchen & Bar in the growing city of Kenmore. 

Because such extensive growth is occurring across the board throughout the Puget Sound region, designing sustainably is becoming more of a necessity rather than a preference, thinks Runberg. “In terms of areas of urban growth, this certainly is a pivotal point in our region’s growth, both in terms of societal growth and how we can live appropriately…and not only in the Seattle metro area, [because] it’s certainly a dynamic that’s playing out in other metro centers as well,” he said. 

In particular, growing concerns around environmental sustainability mean that the stakes are undoubtedly raised for members of the AEC community across the Pacific Northwest. 

“The current accelerated climate change effects makes us all that much more acutely aware of what is needed and how the building industry can and should respond to [those effects],” Runberg added. The LEED Platinum-certified Sitka—the design for which is inspired by the landscapes of the nearby San Juan Islands—implements cutting-edge technology design features like a Wastewater Heat Recovery System, and also includes a central tree-filled courtyard and sloped green roof to maximize natural light. Similarly, the massing of Esterra Park in Redmond, which sits adjacent to a 2.7-acre park and also features a 34,000 square foot outdoor amenity space, looks to respond to the natural landforms of the Sammamish Valley. 

Greater overall consideration is given to creating financially-viable projects that adequately respond to their surrounding neighborhood and regional contexts during a period of growth for the Puget Sound region more generally. “Each site has its own set of circumstances to solve, and there are certain overarching environmental circumstances that [can] make economic sense as well,” Runberg added. 

Both Sitka and the Esterra Park Apartments occupy prominent locations within the respective cities of Seattle and Redmond, respectively. Sitka rests in the heart of the ever-active South Lake Union neighborhood, which has a number of commercial and residential projects coming online. Over on the Eastside, The Esterra Park residential project is part of the Master-Planned Esterra Park campus, which over several phases will ultimately include over 1.2 million square feet of commercial space, 1,400 residential units and a 275 room hotel. Esterra Park is the first phase of the city of Redmond’s 170-acre Overlake Village master plan, which will house between 30,000 and 40,000 people when completed; approximately half the size of South Lake Union, according to developer Capstone Partners’ web site. 

Seattle, Runberg Architecture Group, Capstone Partners, Vulcan Real Estate, Esterra Park, Redmond, Gold Nugget Awards, Overlake
Esterra Park Apartments. Image courtesy of Runberg Architecture Group

The two projects bode well for the neighborhoods and cities of which they are a part—and will undoubtedly serve to activate the areas surrounding them by providing much-needed housing to the cities’ inhabitants. However, much more work still needs to be done when it comes to moving the needle for sustainable design practices, with the onus on members of the AEC community to lead the way, thinks Runberg. “[The AEC community] is doing something [to combat these changes], and that’s a step forward. [But] I don’t think nearly enough folks are voluntarily stepping into the 2030 Challenge. In policy, there have been some steps made by the City of Seattle and other jurisdictions to help support sustainable strategies as part of the [overall] process,” he said. 

Seattle, in particular, 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 over the last few years. In July 2018, 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.

Seattle, Runberg Architecture Group, Capstone Partners, Vulcan Real Estate, Esterra Park, Redmond, Gold Nugget Awards, Overlake
Esterra Park Apartments. Image courtesy of Runberg Architecture Group

And although various completed and underway projects in cities throughout the Puget Sound region continue to set new benchmarks in sustainability—as Seattle’s various initiatives and the recent design awards for Sitka and Esterra Park Apartments testify to—the region as a whole cannot afford to rest on its laurels following the success of any one project. The challenge moving forward, thinks Runberg, is how to reconcile the environmental factors of any given undertaking with the more stringent economic realities facing the region—perhaps now more than ever, time is of the essence. 

“No two [projects] are alike, and nor should they be, because they have different environmental constraints…there have certainly been gems of architectural renderings that never got realized because they didn’t make any economic sense,” Runberg said. “Our needs, resources and environmental technologies are constantly changing…each of these projects are constantly pushing and testing these limits. So every one of these projects needs to respond to the context in some way to make an appropriate contribution to the community.”