Category Archives: Living Building

Visit Seattle’s first (likely) living building

Recently, the Restorative Design Collective completed what will likely be the first living building in Washington State at the Bertschi School. Of course, we won’t know whether it meets living building certification until it has operated for a year. But the project is designed to provide all its own energy, treat its own water and lay light on the land. It is called the science wing and will be a scientific learning area for students.

This is the first living building project to target the 2.0 version of the challenge (a tougher standard than the original), and the first project to be built in an urban area. The project was built largely through volunteer work, organized by a group called The Restorative Design Collective. The project cost about $1 million but members of the collective donated about $500,000 in pro bono time in addition to that.

Stacy Smedley, of KMD Architects and co-founder of the collective, said it is important to have a living building in the region where the challenge was born. Jason McLennan, CEO of the Cascadia Green Building Chapter, published the challenge at the end of 2006. Chris Hellstern, the other co-founder of the collective, is also at KMD.

The DJC story on the finished product is here, a story written last June details the founding of the collective and design plans here. If you don’t have a DJC subsciption, this story is unlocked (meaning anyone can read it). It’s a really interesting personal look at problem solving issues on the project. We also covered the installation of the building’s SIPS panels on the Green Building Blog here.

For instance, the team focused heavily on water and has a system in place that would treat collected water to potable standards. But before it can do that, it must wait for state and local rules to change. A runnel, cut in the ground, will allow children to see flowing rainwater.

Bertschi will offer tours of the building, though it will usually be a science wing for students’ education so tours must be pre-arranged. For more information, call Bertschi at 206-324-5476.

If you’re interested in learning more about living buildings, check out the fifth annual Living Future (Un)Conference. This year it is in Vancouver, B.C. from April 27-29. As someone who has attended each of these conferences so far, I can say it is an incredible time.

Here are some pictures of the finished product. More pictures on my Facebook page here.

The exterior of the science wing, Image courtesy Katie Zemtseff

The living wall and area where children will do plan and animal experiments, image courtesy Katie Zemtseff
Closeup of the living wall. Image courtesy Katie Zemtseff.
A runnel where students will be able to watch rain water flow, like a river. Image courtesy Katie Zemtseff.
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Bertschi living building gets SIPS panels

Last week, the team building the Bertschi School’s new living building science wing installed its structurally insulated panels.

The project, on target to be the first living building in Washington State, should be complete in December. It was designed pro-bono by the Restorative Design Collective, a multi-discliplinary team led by KMD Architects and founded by Stacy Smedley and Chris Hellstern. I wrote a story in June about this project and

A rendering of what the completed project should look like, courtesy KMD Architects.
the collective here.

To  achieve ‘living’ status, a building must meet and prove all requirements of the challenge through a full year of occupancy and operation. A living building must generate all its own energy, and capture and treat all its own water among other requirements.

SIPs provide airtight insulation through a super tight envelope, reduced on-site construction waste and time as they are prefabricated in a factory and enhanced energy efficiency.

To watch a great video showing SIPs installation, go here:

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First three living buildings certified in New York, Missouri and Victoria, B.C.

This week, the world’s first three living  buildings were certified. The projects are the Omega Center for Sustainable Living in Rhinebeck, N.Y., Tyson Living Learning Center in Eureka, Mo., and Eco-Sense, a private

Tyson Living Learning Center, image courtesy David Kilper
residence in Victoria, B.C.

Omega and Tyson were fully certified as ‘Living.’ Eco-Sense received ‘Petal Recognition’ for meeting four of the six goals.

Today’s DJC has the story here. I’ve previously written about Omega here and Eco-Sense here. For much more information, visit

As someone who’s been covering this topic since April of 2007, its really exciting to see this idea become a reality. The cool thing is that these are just the first of many projects around the world. Locally, the Bullitt Foundation’s Cascadia Center for Design + Construction, designed by The Miller Hull Partnership, is the highest profile project. Other projects include an addition to the Bertschi School by the Restorative Design Collective that is already under construction and could become the first living building in the area, and The Valley View Middle School in Snohomish, by Dykeman. In Portland, the Oregon Sustainability Center is another high profile project. I, for one, am really interested to see how these projects turn out.

Omega Center For Sustainable Living, Image courtesy Andy Milford
However, I’m also baffled by the national media’s failure to cover the story (I should point out that the Seattle Times and The Oregonian have both written about projects involved in the challenge). A month ago, Jonathan Hiskes at Grist interviewed Jason McLennan, the challenge’s creator. But that’s pretty much it. The New York Times recently profiled Passive Houses. The living building story, especially now that three have been certified, seems just like their kind of feature.

Is this topic too specific to the building industry? Does it not have broad, national appeal? Or am I just not being patient enough. For now, I guess I’ll just continue to wait.

For more on living buildings in general, click the living building tab below.

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Living Future Unconference: the future is a strange mix of doom and hope (so far)

This is my fourth Living Future Unconference. With the expection of last year’s talk by Janine Benyus, each keynote talk has been somewhat doom-filled. Well, last night’s talk by James Howard Kunstler was the most frightening and depressing of all.

HOWEVER, that’s not to say it was a bad talk. It was a great talk. Just sweeping, opinionated and scary.

Kunstler basically said that our entire future is going to change and quick. In the next five years, he said air

Is this what we want our cities of the future to look like?
traffic and flying will be a thing of the past. It will become so expensive that it will become an elite sport: the rich will do it and the rest of us won’t. Another thing we won’t be doing is driving everywhere. Here are other things that will be totally different: suburbs, skyscrapers, green building, schools, food production and daily life.

Education he said, will be done mostly via homeschooling and groups of homeschooled kids. This will give children an 8th grade education level, he said, which is better than current college students are receiving.

Green skyscrapers he said don’t exist. It’s greenwashing. Skyscrapers will become abandoned and unused.

Suburbs, he said, will just plain die. They have four futures: 1. Being retrofitted, 2. becoming salvage yards, 3. Becoming slums and 4. becoming ruins. A very small amount of suburbs, he said, will be retrofitted. Those that will be will be located strategically near waterways or other useful things for human civilazation.

As a society, he said we better start changing things and getting used to this different future RIGHT NOW.

I just finished an educational session with Bill Reed. He mentioned “wanting to slit your throat” after listening to Kunstler and other similar speakers.

On the other hand, this morning’s keynote by Jason McLennan, CEO of the Cascadia Green Building Council totally counteracted the idea that our world is doomed. We have a choice, he said. To move forward and create a brilliant future or to not. The future, he said, is not set in stone. We have every possibility in the world to make it ours. (Bill Reed echoed this theme, saying the future doesn’t have to be as negative as some people believe).

McLennan said we need to recognize human failure and feel that pain. Then we must “make a difference in the time that we have.”

It’s been an interesting dichotomoy of ideas so far that leads to internal pondering of philosphy. Living Future, as always, does just that: it makes you think. Now onto the rest of the day….

If you’re interested in up to the minute updates on the conference, follow me on Twitter @KatieZemtseff.

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Bullitt wants to go off the water grid: realistically, will it be able to?

I have a story in today’s paper on The Bullitt Foundation’s proposed living building on Capitol Hill. The project is fascinating: it aims to create all its own energy, produce and treat all its own water and re-energize the neighboring park among other points.

The project has a lot of interesting aspects. However the one I’m most interested in is the water angle. The building hopes to break the mold by capturing all its rainwater off the roof, which will be held in an underground cistern, according to Colleen Mitchell, project manager with 2020 Engineering. Then, some of the water will be treated by UV filters, pumped to faucets throughout the building and used as potable (or drinking) water. Some of the water will be sent to toilets, which will use one pint per flush. All waste from the toilets will be sent to a composting container in the basement, where it will slowly compost and be used for the building’s greenhouse. The greenhouse will run up the south side of the building with plants on each level. Urine from the toilets will go to four tanks in the basement where it will stabilize and be sterilized over a three-month time period. After three months, one part urine will be mixed with eight parts greywater (or the water that goes down faucets). That mix will be sent to the greenhouse where it will be evapotranspired by plants with nutrients from urine being used for fertilization.

I’ve got a rendering of what the system will look like here:

This is what the water system will look like. Click on image to enlarge.

Image courtesy 2020 Engineering

The system is incredibly cutting edge and will set an amazing precedent if permitted. And the ‘if,’ dear readers, is a big ‘if.’

Unfortunately, the precedent is one of the things that probably has permitting agencies worried. Last June, I attended a forum on water attended by a number of speakers. One of them was Steve Deem of the state health department. Going off the water grid is great in theory, he said, but architects, developers and engineers don’t generally understand that if a project provides water, it is responsible for the building’s water forever. That raises a lot of health and safety issues.

Secondly, there’s the issue of charges and rates. King County is in the process of building Brightwater, its massive, multi-million-dollar water treatment plant outside Woodinville. Brightwater gets paid for in part by capacity charges, fees and rates from users. From what I’ve heard from multiple sources, projects are welcome to go off the water grid, as long as they pay those hook up fees and charges. For most developers, this is a turnoff because they are paying twice – once for the water system and once for the hook up. Bullitt has yet to finalize these details with the county. Chris Rogers of development partner Point32 said, “There will be conversations with the county and other players to understand what sort of levies there will be for something that we don’t use.”

At that same June meeting, Christie True, director of the King County Wastewater Treatment Division, said it’s a social justice issue. If developers don’t pay for wastewater infrastructure, people with fewer resources will end up paying more.

Last April, Ray Hoffman, acting director of Seattle Public Utilities, said on-site water treatment is not moving forward in the Puget Sound area because of bureaucracy. “There are institutional barriers on both the public and private side that prevent things that are readily available from getting off the shelf and into the ground.”

These are some of the issues Bullitt faces in trying to go off the water grid. I don’t envy them the process but it will be an amazing achievement if they succeed.

When I asked him about the difficult code issues he was about to face, Denis Hayes of Bullitt said all agencies are on the same page in wanting to see innovative projects happen. “We’ll take that robust optimism until somebody in authority says we shouldn’t have it.”

What do you think, readers? Just how important is this project and what kind of a precedent will it set? Will it succeed in getting off the water grid and are the health and social justice issues valid concerns? I’d love to hear from you on this topic.

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Green Trends for 2010…. what’s going to be hot?

What does the future hold?
Generally, I’m not one for predictions. So I’m letting Parsons PR be psychic for me. Parsons, a local public relations group that only represents sustainable clients, recently issued this list of green trends for 2010. Here’s what they think is going to be hot. What do you think? Do we agree?
According to Parsons, here’s what we should be paying attention to:
  1. Green wallsGreen roofs were all the rage in 2009 and their numbers will continue to grow – but why stop there? Incorporating green walls into a building’s design creates additional opportunities to reap the benefits of vegetative surfaces: added insulation; reduced stormwater runoff; absorption of pollutants; natural habitat for birds, bees and butterflies; and reduced outside noise.
  2. Living Buildings – More comprehensive than LEED Platinum and beyond net zero, the Living Building Challenge is the highest standard of sustainability in the built environment. Functioning as complete, natural and self-sufficient systems, Living Buildings represent a radical step forward in green building when there is growing consensus that the time for baby steps is past. 2010 will be a big year for Living Buildings; four years after the launch of the Challenge, the first Living Buildings are finally expected to be certified.
  3. Green retrofitting – President Obama is planning a new federal economic stimulus plan that will train workers in home energy audits and green retrofits.  New and green is sexy, but the bulk of the opportunity to address energy efficiency lies with our existing inventory of buildings.
  4. Indoor Air Quality – With one in four Americans suffering from allergies and/or asthma and with Americans spending 90% of their time indoors, tighter and more energy-efficient homes demand more attention to IAQ.  The EPA has updated rules coming on line in 2010 with new requirements for remodeling work to reduce the harmful impacts on children and adults.
  5. Green neighborhoods – An individual green building is great, but again, why stop there? It’s time to make the whole neighborhood green too. Walkability, transitoriented development, smart growth principles ? all elements of a green neighborhood.
  6. Green modular – Mostly factory-built and assembled onsite, modular housing poses several benefits – monetary savings, reduced material waste and less time onsite, for starters ? that will propel the green building movement forward in 2010.
  7. LED lights – Commercially and in homes, LED lights will become more mainstream in 2010. Previous problems in design and distribution are being corrected. And even though LED lights are still a little pricey, consumers are getting savvier about the life cycle assessment of the products they choose, as well as the long-term pay-off of using a more sustainable lighting alternative.
  8. Environmental labels – Like the nutrition labels on food, green building labels offer easy-to-digest data and performance metrics for building materials.
  9. Performance countsWe’ve seen the modeling for green buildings, now we want to see some results. In other words, prove it! In 2010, expect to see more and more studies from academia, non-profits and corporate America that document the rental premiums, cost savings, health benefits and longterm investment value of green.
  10. Updating community and homeowner association rules – Rules hindering environmentally-friendly behavior are being overturned: clotheslines are back, white roofs are okay, and compost bins and recycling containers are a point of pride, rather than hidden away.
P.S. If green trends is your thing, Sustainable Industries will be hosting a free Webinar on the topic Jan. 6. More info here.
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Urban agriculture added to the Living Building Challenge and more

Yesterday I heard Eden Brukman present briefly on the updates to the Living Building Challenge – v2.0 – and was excited about the inclusion of Urban Agriculture, among other new features.

The Challenge now also includes ‘car free living’, ‘biophilia’, ‘human scale and humane places’, ‘democracy and social justice’ and ‘rights to nature’ – a few of these under the new ‘Petal of Equity.’

Not sure what a Petal is?

Urban agriculture, now a part of the Living Building Challenge
Petals are the category areas such as Site, Water, Energy, Health, Materials, Equity and Beauty. Petals are subdivided into a total of twenty Imperatives, each of which are required to achieve Living Building Status. Imperatives are renamed (formerly Prerequisites), and rightly so!

Within one performance based rating system, the Challenge covers small and large scopes of buildings and communities.  Good going guys.

From partial building renos to entire new construction projects, individual landscape to infrastructure projects and whole communities, ‘scale jumping’ within the system is permitted.  It’s the bookshelf concept that USGBC is only beginning fully realize.

The performance requirement of one year of continuous operation remains the same.

Go straight to the source here, and download the new rating system today!

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24,000 attendees, 1,800 booths: Critical Mass at Greenbuild?

Austin, Pittsburgh, Portland, Denver, Chicago, Boston…now Phoenix! Greenbuild has grown by leaps and bounds from the first year I was inspired by this movement, at my first Greenbuild in Pittsburgh. As I look around at all of the people, booths, products, educational sessions – a plethora and flurry of excitement washes over me.

Have we finally reached the critical mass to ‘main street green’ as USGBC suggests?

As usual, it’s great to touch in with practitioners from around the country who helped launch this movement over a decade ago, and to be reminded of just how much Pacific Northwest is infused in the spirit of this movement. The Lucia Athens, the Jim Goldman’s, the Lynne Barker’s and the Tom Paladino’s of the world are beaming in the glow of the energy of this place.

While we celebrate Turner’s 100th LEED building and a clinking of glasses, we recognize our job is far from done. This is just the beginning. Now is not the time to rest. Now is not the time to congratulate ourselves on a job well done.

We need to continuously pull the movement forward with hope and optimism and I’m proud to stand by the International Living Building Institute as Jason McLennan, Eden Brukman and others roll out the evolution in the way we redefine our buildings within the context of our current paradigm.

This morning I heard ‘Re-membering: the Patterns of Living Systems’ from Bill Reed, Penny Bonda, Jon Boecker, Dayna Baumeister and am reminded that again, the key to transformation is all about an evolutionary mindset. I recognize the complete mindset shift that needs to take place if we are going to save our planet from ourselves.

The messages are compelling, and I wonder, are the masses getting the right message? Let’s see what Rick Fedrizzi, Al Gore and Sheryl Crow (?!!??!) have to say tonight.  Stay tuned!

Marni Jade Evans, the Living Project

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LEED: should your building be retested each year to keep its certification?

Yesterday’s New York Times has a great overview on the the elephant in LEED’s room. The story, “Some Buildings Not Living Up to Green Label,” by Mireya Navarro, discusses how many buildings aren’t as efficient as they were planned to be, or should be.

It’s a good overview for those who don’t already live the problems and issues discussed in it. Though the article discusses a very valid question, I don’t know that it’s really fair, considering the

Should your building get retested?

Should your building get retested?

USGBC did not even require a LEED building be more energy efficient than a standard building until June of 2007. Plus, both the main building cited in the article and the study of 121 buildings mentioned in it looked at buildings certified through 2006. (Doing a similar study looking at buildings designed and built since then would be fascinating but I digress.)

Anyhow, what I find most interesting is the last line of the story where Scot Horst of the USGBC says LEED may eventually move towards the EPA’s Energy Star Model where buildings must attain the label each year in order to keep it. “Ultimately, where we want to be is, once you’re performing at a certain level, you continue to be recertified,” he said.

This raises two main questions in my mind. First, if that’s where the USGBC wants to be, why isn’t it there now? LEED 2009 has some major changes in it, but it will be another couple years until the next version is released. I understand that LEED is still a growing tool (and money-maker) but if this is really the way it will be in the end, why not just bite the bullet and figure out a way to incorporate the goal now? The Living Building Challenge had some pretty audacious goals as a part of its first incarnation. Why can’t LEED make these changes now?

Which brings me to my other main question. Is the idea of making LEED something that can be rescinded even realistic? While there is no denying that it would be valuable to require LEED buildings be tested every year to retain their certification, LEED is an investment and an expensive one at that. Would it become a less attractive investment from a business perspective if your pretty little plaque could disappear due to let’s say a crummy building manager?… or to a changing system? What if further versions of LEED required changes that you simply couldn’t add on to a building. Would you be penalized and lose your certification because you, or the person you bought a building from, didn’t make a significantly different decision in design?

Maybe commissioning should become a required part of LEED. But that also adds costs to a project.

What do you think?

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To support green buildings should codes stay the same, be reworked or be reinvented?

On Thursday, the DJC published an article I wrote on a new report that says codes are getting in the way of cutting edge green buildings. This, in itself, is really nothing new.  Last August, I wrote this article about the city’s Priority Green program. In it, DPD’s Peter Dobrovolny (whose last name is almost as difficult as mine!) said many projects consider innovative ideas but drop them when they realize how much extra time it will take under city code. However, having the problems and possible solutions written down in an actual report – well that is new.

However, the report. Is. Huge. If you dare to read it, click here . It manages to be very

The Rubik's Cube of codes
comprehensive and vague at the same time. It is comprehensive in that it studies code barriers across the country, identifies problems and makes recommendations. But because it is dealing with national issues, some of the solutions are vague in their range. For example, one solution is to “identify and address regulatory impediments to green building and development” while another is to “create incentives matched with desired goals.”

I spoke with one of the study’s primary authors, David Eisenberg of the Development Center for Appropriate Technology, this week. Essentially, he said codes are built incorrectly in that they are hundreds of ad hoc responses to problems. Codes, he said, should instead be built comprehensively to support a specific kind of development or project. Basically, he said the entire system needs to be rebuilt.


In Seattle, it can take months or years for changes (especially large ones) to occurr. Can you imagine what it would take to wipe out all the city departments responsible for allowing development to get built… and then to rework the system from scratch? 

Eisenberg said he realizes that what he’s asking might be impossible. But even if it is impossible, by voicing the idea, he hopes to get people talking about it. Everyone – he said – whether it’s greenies or permitting people or anyone really – wants healthy buildings. And our current code system does not encourage healthy buildings because it pawns risks relating to climate change and environmental degradation off on future generations.

What do you think about all of this, dear readers? Is there any possibility that our overall codes could be reworked and if so, what would you want them to encourage? Here in Seattle (where we are pretty progressive in environmental issues, at least compared with some parts of the country) do we even need to be considering reworking the system or do we need to tweak it? If you could totally rework one code or issue, what would it be?

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