Category Archives: Code issues

Oso mudslide: Were the risks ignored?

The following post is by DJC staff:

Disaster-resiliency expert Stephen Flynn has posted a piece about the Oso mudslide on Northeastern University Seattle’s Re: Connect blog.
Flynn is a professor of political science and director of Northeastern’s Center for Resilience Studies in Burlington, Mass.

Oso mudslide

He spoke with the DJC in February about lessons from Hurricane Sandy and the need to better prepare for natural and manmade disasters.
In his post he says we tend to ignore the risk of disasters until they happen and says builders, developers and planners have a role to play in changing that.

He writes:

It is purposeful denial, bordering on negligence, which allows residential property development in dangerous areas. That negligence is fed by a self-destructive cycle that begins when builders and developers with short-term interests are granted local permits to build new homes on low-lying barrier islands, flood plains, or near steep hills in the wilderness. These homes then require investments in new public infrastructure, which in turn require additional tax revenues to build and sustain. In order to expand the tax base, towns end up approving new property development adding new fuel to growth. When the foreseeable disaster inevitably strikes, individual property owners are often wiped out and the American taxpayer ends up picking up most of the tab.

Read the whole thing here and tell us what you think.

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Ellensburg’s energy strategy shows one size does not fit all

The following post is by Kathleen O’Brien:

I had the pleasure this past month of presenting the final product of a two-year process with the City of Ellensburg and its residents for approval. The Energy Efficiency & Conservation Strategy (EE&CS) is one of dozens across the country that were funded through DOE Energy Block Grants. In this case, the grant was administered by the State’s Department of Commerce and locally by the city’s Planning Department.


There are basic elements that are required for every EE&CS, such as developing a vision statement and goals through a public process, and reviewing existing conditions to measure progress. But in looking at the various EE&CS produced around the U.S., it’s clear that each community leaves its very own stamp on the process.
Anyone who’s traveled to Ellensburg for its annual rodeo knows the city has an independent streak, so it is no surprise its EE&CS should be a “little different.” The EE&CS draws on the fact that Ellensburg is one of the few cities of its size that has its own electric utility, and was the first city to create a community-funded renewable energy park, so there was a lot already happening.
In addition, the EE&CS was aligned with a concurrent update of the Land Development Code to make hay of opportunities to use the code to encourage energy efficiency in development and transportation.

Ellensburg Rodeo


Another defining aspect is that the city clearly wanted a planning tool, not a plan. So although there are guidelines and templates for developing plans that address the strategy’s focus areas, and background information from which to draw on, the action plans themselves are left for the city and community to complete over the next planning cycle(s).
Case studies in the EE&CS document are meant to inspire local action, not be imported. The upside of this approach is flexibility, something the city really wanted. The downside (and frankly this is always the danger) is that the EE&CS could end up sitting on a shelf.
When asked by a Council member what would make the difference between successfully implementing the EE&CS tool and its being shelved, I responded: “The difference is you — your leadership will make the difference.”
After a brief pause, the council member said gamely: “I think you’re right!” and his fellow members of the council grinned. The EE&CS was unanimously adopted.
Let’s see what happens next!

Kathleen O’Brien is a long time advocate for green building and sustainable development since before it was “cool.” She lives in a green home, and drives a hybrid when she drives at all. Having recently sold her firm, O’Brien & Company, she is now focused on leadership work with those “still in the trenches.” For more info see

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Will private developers pick up living buildings?

In Fremont, a different kind of living building is in the works: it’s being built by a private developer.

The five-story, 120,000-square-foot building is being developed by Skanska and

is Skanska USA’s first development effort in the Seattle market. (Talk about a way to come to the market with green guns-a-blazing!)

Brooks Sports is the anchor tenant and will take 80,000 square feet and move 300 employees into the space in late 2013.  Skanska said it would lease the site from the owner, Fremont Dock Co. The site is at 3400 Stone Way N., next to the Burke Gilman Trail and near Lake Union.

This project is of course fascinating because it’s a living building, widely considered the toughest green building certification on the planet. But another thing that makes it stand out is who’s building it. All living buildings on this coast that I’m aware of are built by schools (University of British Columbia’s CIRS project); nonprofits (the Bullitt Foundation’s headquarters in Seattle); consortium’s of city groups or donors (The Bertschi School Science Wing); or partnerships involving all of the above (the Oregon Sustainability Center in Portland). There’s also a few home projects thrown in. These groups have various resources (tax credits, donors, endowments etc.) that a standard developer doesn’t have access to.

Skanska’s project in Fremont is the first I’m aware of to be built by a commercial developer on its own. Granted, it is being self-financed. But the fact that Skanska is building it means the company sees a future in living buildings. It’s taking a chance! In the scale of things, it will be incredible to see how this project works out because it will inevitably be used as a living building test case for other developers.

Living buildings are fascinating creatures but they’re not cheap. Generally, I’m hearing that developing a living building costs a third more than a standard project. Schools and nonprofits are willing to make that investment. But the formula gets more complex with private development. Adding to the complexity, Skanska is aiming for its project rents to be market rate.

Chris Rogers of Bullitt’s development partner Point32 says Bullitt’s space will be market rate too, though it’s being marketed towards environmentally-minded businesses and organizations. The Cascadia Green Building Council is one tenant. For these organizations, the environment is a critical part of what they do. For Skanska’s more mainstream tenants, locating in a living building says they care. But Skanska’s also got to do more convincing.

In this DJC article from last June, Peter Busby of Vancouver’s Busby Perkins + Will said it cost his team $100,000 to go to living building status on two Vancouver projects. He said it generally costs $40,000 to have a project certified LEED gold. The Bullitt Center project is costing about $30 million, with Bullitt putting up half that amount and borrowing the rest from US Bank. Rogers of Point32 says a lot of the cost is a first-cost premium, because it’s the first time his team (or any team) is moving through a living building project of this size with the city. But there’s still a premium.

According to the International Living Future Institute, it costs $20,000 for living building certification of a building that is between 107,640 and 538,195 square feet.

Skanska’s project is also interesting because of what it could bring to the neighborhood. The end of Stone Way near Lake Union has a handful of stores but is kind of a dead zone. In a Seattle Times story, Ryan Gist, a neighbor called it “an odd, pseudo-industrial street that really doesn’t do much for the neighborhood.”

Once complete, the ground floor of this building will house Brooks’ first ever retail concept shop. The goal is for the shop to act as a gathering place for the community and trail users.

There are some neighborhood concerns about the structure’s height. Here’s hoping a clean agreement can be made on that topic so this revolutionary project can move forward.

By the way, back in January, I wrote this post about the launch of Skanska’s Seattle commercial development division. In it, I said:

“I’m curious to see what kind of projects they pursue, what kind of sustainable goals they target, and what kind of green technologies they might choose to pursue that others wouldn’t be able to. Of  course, they could simply go the LEED gold route. Or they could build something really innovative.”

I don’t want to say I told you so but it’s fair to say this project falls to the later half of that spectrum. Now the question is to see how it plays out.

P.S. It’s interesting to see the architecture firms with living buildings under their belts. This project is being designed by LMN. Bullitt’s is designed by Miller Hull. The Bertschi project was designed by members of KMD Architects. I’m going to be waiting to see how long it takes for the area’s other big green architecture firms to add a living building to their project list. At the current pace, I’d bet we’d see another two or three pop up.

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Seattle moving towards LEED gold city buildings. Is that a high enough standard?

The city of Seattle is planning to increase its requirement that city owned, financed or operated buildings larger than 5,000 square feet be LEED gold, up from LEED silver. Here’s my question: is it enough?

In 2000, Seattle broke some major ground when it required city buildings be LEED silver. If you go back to 2000, LEED was still really, really new. That’s reflected this  DPD data slide supporting policy changes here. Check it out, in 2003 and 2004 there were more city LEED buildings than those in the private sector. That switches in 2005 and after 2006, LEED in the private sector continues to grow by leaps and bounds each year.

I started this job at the DJC at the start of 2007 and in the time I’ve been here,

West Entry of the LEED gold Woodland Park Zoo, image courtesy Ryan Hawk, Woodland Park Zoo
I’ve certainly seen the switch. In early 2007, a story was news if a building met LEED silver or had targeted LEED gold. Then LEED platinum became the hot topic. Now, it’s net-zero energy and Living Buildings. That’s not to say that LEED is a dinosaur and that LEED platinum isn’t a big deal. It’s just that the really cutting edge projects seem to have moved beyond LEED. Silver just isn’t big news anymore.

Now, the city is looking to create a more robust policy, the outlines of which can be seen in that slide linked to above. There will also be a DJC story early next week explaining the likely changes. Generally, the city is going to require LEED gold for buildings where it previously would have required LEED silver. It also expands the program to consider major renovations and tenant improvements, sites and small projects. Sandra Mallory, DPD’s Green Building Team program manager, also said the city wants to pilot a living building and six Sustainable Sites Initiative projects, three of which are already in development. It’s some big changes. But are they big enough?

The question seems simple but also touches on the changing role of city government, especially because green building is so much larger today than it was back in 2000. Back in 2000, Seattle took a strong leadership role in its silver requirement. Making a similar, envelope-pushing switch today would likely require city buildings be net-zero energy or living buildings. Given today’s market, I’m not sure the city could make that change, even if it wanted to. Financially, I don’t know that it would make sense, or that it could even be feasible for all projects. Also, the private sector has already taken the lead in both these areas.

Then again, if Seattle wants to keep saying it is the “greenest city in the country,” something that seems to be getting a bit outdated as green and sustainable elements become mainstream, wouldn’t it have to make a ground-altering change like that? Additionally, most of its buildings in recent years have met LEED gold, though they weren’t required to. According to that slide, it still doesn’t have a LEED platinum project.

What do you think? Should the city have made a stronger stand or is LEED gold fair for now? Also, how do you think the city’s role in supporting green building should change in the future? Eventually, will the city require all its buildings be net-zero or meet living status? It’s a curious question and I’d love to hear your responses.

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Bullitt team releases energy information for Cascadia Center

This week, the Bullitt Foundation’s Cascadia Center for Sustainable Design and Construction released a report detailing its energy performance metrics. For all you energy nerds out there, this is a pretty exciting development.

The document outlines how the six-story building will meet net-zero energy. The big

Bullitt energy chart.

Image courtesy The Bullitt Foundation.

highlight is that it releases the planned EUI of the building, or Energy Use Intensity. An EUI score  is expressed in units of thousands of BTUs per square foot of gross floor area. Based on 52,000 square feet of gross floor area, the project should have an EUI of 16. Based on 39,000 square feet treated floor area, a common European measurement, it would have an EUI of 21.

I was recently discussing EUI with members of a ZGF team. They told me the average EUI for an office building in the Pacific Norhtwest is 106.

The report also says the U.S. Department of Energy’s Zero Energy Building database currently contains no comparable buildings.

The report includes a pie chart with sections for the center’s different energy uses. The largest percentage at 23 percent will feed lights. The next highest amount of energy, at 10 percent are pumps. About 9 percent of the building’s energy will feed monitors while 8 percent will feed workstations. Toilets will get .2 percent of the building’s energy use.

To read the report, click here.

P.S. The Bullitt Foundation is hiring an administrative and grants assistant. The job description is here.

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