DJC Green Building Blog

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

Posted on May 9, 2012

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.

O'Brien

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 www.emergeleadership.net.

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

Posted on March 17, 2010

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

Posted on August 7, 2009

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.

Ouch.

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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Could your project be denied because of its greenhouse gas emissions? The idea is spreading like wildfire here

Posted on May 5, 2008

It sure is amazing how one government decision can issue a string of changes (even if they are in Washington and take forever to come to fruition). Such is the decision of King County Executive Ron Sims last June to consider climate change under SEPA.

SEPA is Washington's State Environmental Policy Act. The decision means that any project that fills out SEPA paperwork in unincorporated King County, or where King County is the lead, has to measure its greenhouse gas emissions on a spreadsheet and hand them in to the country as part of its SEPA paperwork. Doesn't sound like much, but if it leads to mitigation (which is the direction King County is heading here) it could mean time, money, and a lot more than just a piece of paperwork.

Already, King County is creating an ordinance that would let it deny or change projects that have too high of a greenhouse gas emission impact (deadline for commenting on that is May 19).

Read the timeline below to see how it's spreading like wildfire in this state (and California). If you work on projects in Washington, you'll probably have to consider this in the near future. If you're not in Washington.... well, you might still have to consider this in time.

So how does it make you feel? Is this an unfair use of government power or is a realistic way to deal with project emissions? Let me know!

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Density: Vancouver, B.C., vs. Seattle

Posted on April 21, 2008

Dear reader, it is time to put your analytical (or more likely guessing) powers to the test: what exactly is it you see in the photo to the left?

If you said a mini-mansion, most likely inhabited by a couple or prim family of four, you are dead wrong. Instead, it's a model of dense urban living that houses ten people in eight bedrooms.

This is where I stayed last week while attending Cascadia's Living Future Conference in Vancouver, B.C. It's a charming space that a developer bought, renovated and began renting out to young professionals and students in January.

It's bright, daylit, airy and dense. It's clean and well lit and is filled with amicable students and young professionals, including my sister. It's within walking distance from a number of shops, bars and restaurants in a trendy family neighborhood. It's a street away from a bus line and only a couple of the house's inhabitants even have cars.

My only question? Why doesn't this happen more.

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As of today, Seattle projects must calculate greenhouse gas emissions in SEPA (is mitigation next?)

Posted on March 31, 2008

As of today, any project in Seattle that trips a SEPA review will need to calculate its greenhouse gas emissions.

What do you think? Is this a good move or is it impinging on your rights? Should the city, county and state move in this direction, and if not, what would you tell them to do?

I've written about this subject pretty extensively since King County kicked off the crusade last June. Back then, King County Executive Ron Sims declared his intentions to connect developments to greenhouse gasses in an executive order. To read that story, click here

As the deadline for action neared, I spoke with representatives of local business groups NAIOP, AGC and the Master Builders Association. They told me what their concerns were about the process. To read that story, click here.

Then Seattle began considering the changes, read about it here, and Washington State Department of Ecology Director Jay Manning advised anybody seeking a permit to start considering the same questions, read that one here.

Now, Seattle's day has finally come. Seattle is using the same checklist that King County has had in place, though there may be some tweaks to it. To see a draft of the checklist, go here. DPD has also devoted a whole Web site to today's changes. To see that site, visit here.

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What Seattle code issues stop you from building green(er)?

Posted on March 25, 2008

When I'm out in the field at forums and talks, I hear over and over that the construction and design community wants to build sustainable projects, but Seattle's code prevents them from really pushing the envelope. But rarely does a talk go into the specifics of what exactly needs to change.

Super Challenge!So here's my challenge for you: answer what exactly needs to change and how. I want to know what general issues are problematic, how code makes it difficult to build green or incorporate green features, and what you would change to make the process easier. I welcome personal experiences and third-party stories, comparisons working in other jurisdictions or just ideas. It can be about residential, office, mixed-use, etc. I'd also welcome comments from areas outside Seattle (or Washington for that matter).

What's the biggest hurdle? It it soil issues, gray water or water rights? Is it related to density or materials?

Conversely, is there anything Seattle recently did to make life (and projects) a whole lot easier? 

Post your thoughts and experience. You never know who could be listening......

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