DJC Green Building Blog

Don’t be a massive louse – check out the passive house!

Posted on January 5, 2011

A few years ago during an interview, I spoke with a source who told me about something called "passivhaus." I remember listening attentively and I remember being surprised and impressed with the ideas behind the method, specifically the tight, efficient envelope it supports. I can't recall who my source was. But I do remember getting this Feb. 2009 notice that the Passive House Institute U.S. was going to be speaking in Seattle. In fact, I was registered but did not attend.

Now, almost two years later, the first passive houses are completing construction. One of them is currently located in a very public space - at the parking lot of the Phinney Neighborhood Center. The

Mini-B! Image courtesy Joe Giampietro
project, called "Mini-B" (for mini bungalow) was developed by Joe Giampietro, director of housing at Johnson Braund Design Group. Turns out Joe was at that passive house meeting and was so inspired, he became a passive house consultant. Then, he chose to build mini-b as a demonstration project to show others just how cool the system is.

Mini-B is a 300-square-foot dwelling designed to meet the city's requirements for a backyard cottage on a single-family lot. It has a bathroom, kitchenette and sleeping area. The project will have a grand opening at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 15. Then, it will be open for weekend open houses starting the weekend of Jan. 29 and lasting for six months. After that, it will be sold. Partners in the project include  South Seattle Community College and the Phinney Neighborhood Center. After paying  back development costs, any profits will go to those partners and to a nonprofit housing organization, Giampietro said. The goal is provide exposure for the method. Giampietro thinks similar units could be developed for $80,000 each and thinks it has potential for affordable housing units. Weekday tours will be available by appointment.

Giampietro said there another passive house in South Seattle is nearing completion, and that there are 12 others in the works in the area. He said there are about 40 passive house consultants in the area. There's also this organization - Passive House Northwest - which holds really fascinating conferences from time to time on the passive house method.

For more information, visit the project's Web site. PhinneyWood also had a really nice write-up of the project last month, available here.

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Want to watch a modular house get put together?

Posted on December 2, 2010

On Dec. 7, Greenfab's first modular project will be put together in Seattle's Jackson Place neighborhood and they are inviting you to come. Interested? Show up at 1827 South Lane Street near Boren Ave South and Rainier Avenue from 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Transported via truck from an Idaho factory, six boxes measuring 12 feet wide, 20 feet long and 16

Will this module become a home? image courtesy GreenFab
feet high will be installed by crane onto the foundation forming the team's prefab demonstration home. Once complete, the 1,790-square-foot house will have three bedrooms and 2.75 baths. The project is targeting LEED platinum certification.

GreenFab has done a great job documenting their process with the home to date. They've got videos documenting everything from site excavation to the foundation pour. Check them out here.

For more on GreenFab, read this earlier post or see the full-length DJC story here.

*If you plan on attending, note that South Lane Street will be closed. Visitors can park on nearby streets.

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6-acre green roof in Vancouver, BC feels amazing

Posted on May 21, 2010

In case you missed it, we had a story in this week's DJC about the six-acre green roof on top of the Vancouver Convention Centre West. I toured the roof during March's Globe Conference and finally got around to writing the article and editing the video.

The story was carried by the AP and is currently in the Seattle Times, Seattle PI, Tacoma News Tribune and on Sightline, among other news organizations.

The article provides a nice overview of the green roof, its story and its ambiance. Basically, it felt unlike anything I have ever experienced before. The meadow is quiet and calm. When you are up there, you feel like you are in the county or on a mountain that happens to be surrounded by a bustling city, rather than actually being a part of the city. It's a pretty amazing experience.

However, when I was there, I was struck by what a wonderful space it could be for weddings or events or even soccer games. It seemed strange that so little visitors would be able to experience it the way I had. When I spoke with Bruce Hemstock of PWL Partnership, he gave me the whole reasoning behind why the roof is closed off. It's basically to create ecology for urban creatures such as bees, birds and insects. A city by nature takes habitat away from these creatures and keeping humans off the roof was one way to give it back. He provided a pretty convincing argument. There's more detail in the article.

If you have time, click on the video link to watch my (slightly bumpy) video tour. I'm still learning about videos here and am not yet an expert. Plus it can be a tad tough to take down note, take pictures and take video.

Speaking of pictures, here are some that did not make the cover of the DJC. There are more on my Facebook page here. Hope you enjoy!

The green roof, looking towards Vancouver

These are the four beehives

This is another portion of the green roof. The red is pretty striking!

Here I am, enjoying the view (and rain).

Yes, those are teeny, tiny people!
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Interested in backyard cottages? Event May 24 is for you!

Posted on May 14, 2010

On May 24, Method Homes and Infiniti RED are holding an event that will showcase the work of 35 local architects and designers related to backyard cottages. It should be an interesting time.

At the end of 2009, the city of Seattle legalized backyard cottages on Seattle lots over 4,000 square feet. This

Image courtesy Infiniti RED
event, launched in April, asked local architects and designers to come up with innovative backyard design to offer for Method Homes customers.

Those who attend the event will see all the design challenge entries, meet the designers, participate in the awards ceremony and enjoy food and drink. A jury including David Cutler of the Seattle City Planning Commission, Robert Humble of Hybrid Architecture and Colleen Groll of O'Brien & Co. will judge the entries. Andrea Petzel, Seattle City Planner, will act as advisor to the judges.

There will be five awards given out. Awards will be given for overall best design, honorable mention for best design, most innovative, most sustainable and most adoptable.

The free event will be at 7601 Greenwood Ave. N. and begins at 5:30 p.m. For more information, contact Brian Abramson at Method Homes at (206) 790.2852 or Infiniti RED at (206) 235.6925.

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AIA hands out its green awards… and none are from Seattle! Eeek!

Posted on April 23, 2010

This week, the AIA's national Committee on the Environment handed out its top ten green awards. And for the first time in two years, there isn't a project from Seattle! (There is however a project from Portland -Twelve/West by ZGF Architects - on the list so the Northwest didn't entirely miss out this year.)

Pacific Plaza used to be an ugly parking garage. Image courtesy BLRB.
Though the Northwest is often considered a leader in the green building movement, it's not too surprising that no Seattle project won an award this year. As far as super green projects goes, it seems to me like Seattle is in the middle ground right now. Last year, a number of high profile green projects in the region (some of which did win AIA COTE awards like Dockside Green in Vancouver, B.C. and The Terry Thomas in Seattle) finished up. And a number of cutting edge green projects are just getting planned or are about to be completed (Urban Waters in Tacoma, The Bullitt Foundation's Headquarters).

That's not to dismiss projects that were completed this past year. There has been some amazing work in the region (though a number of really cool projects are on a smaller scale or are different projects than AIA COTE traditionally honors). If you had to pick a project or two that was completed in the past year that exemplifies green design in the Pacific Northwest, what would you pick?

Off the top of my head, a couple projects come to mind. One is Pacific Plaza in Tacoma (rendering above). The project targeted LEED platinum and turned an old, ugly parking garage into a useful, efficient green building. If we're looking for models of what we can achieve with our existing structures, one need look no further than this.

The other is the headquarters of DA Stark Interiors in Georgetown. Made out of cargo containers, this project's structure is recycled and thus, inherently green. If we're really looking at reusing existing materials,

This Georgetown office project is made of re-used cargo containers
this seems like a really big way to do that. To see a video I created on the project, go here.

However, more than the national COTE awards, I look forward to the regional AIA What Makes it Green Awards. These awards are limited to projects in the Northwest and the Pacific regions. They are judged locally by high profile experts, often during an open process where viewers can listen in and hear what judges are looking for and what they are impressed by. I highly recommend attending the event, which will be held May 5 at Seattle City Hall from 1 to 4 p.m.

Until then, I'm posting a few winners of the AIA COTE honors below. If you want more info about any of these projects or want to see more pictures, visit the AIA's very informative Web site.

355 11th Street in San Francisco, a restaurant, office and industrial space. Designed by Aidlin Darling Design. Photo by Matthew Millman

Two images of Kaust, a school campus in Thuwal, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Designed by HOK. Photo by J. Picoulet.

Manitoba Hydro Place in Winnipeg, Manitoba. An office space. Designed by Kuwabara Payne Mckenna Blumberg Architects. Image by Paul Hultberg.
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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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Party with Martha Rose tomorrow and Saturday!

Posted on January 28, 2010

Tomorrow and Saturday, Martha Rose (the "queen of green") will be hosting wine and cheese parties at her

Martha Rose at the development site
newest development, Fish Singer Place. The event features a behind the walls tour. It runs from 2-4 p.m. on Friday and from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday. To attend, meet up at 15715 Dayton Ave. N., Shoreline Wa. 98133.

To watch a video about the project (with a really catchy song), click here. To learn more about the project, visit the project Web site here or click the tab 'green developers' below to learn more about this project.

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Green developers and straw bale structures – let’s start 2010 off right!

Posted on January 6, 2010

I've had a few interesting articles in the DJC this week. If you're not a subscriber, you've been missing out!

First, an article published on Monday discussed what local green contractor Martha Rose had to do to get financing for her latest 4-home project. Turns out she had to fund part of the project herself and educate (many, many) bankers on just how sustainable a builder she is. (Rose believes in continually improving her green credentials. Her latest projects employs a number of Passive House techniques and is striving to be a net zero development). That story was carried by the AP - so anyone can read it, even if you don't have a subscription. The story is located here at The Tacoma News Tribune and here at The Seattle PI (who do you want to give your advertising dollars to?)

Second, an article I wrote appeared in yesterday's (Jan. 5) edition regarding the first straw bale structure in Seattle to receive a permit. The project was completed last fall and was built by the community via a number of different work parties. As part of my reporting, I visited the home addition, which has a bedroom in it. The space was beautiful but what struck me most about the space was how different it feels... it somehow seems more safe and secure than your stick built home (likely thanks to the walls that are around 20 inches thick!) It also is extremely, extremely quiet... and comforting.

Have you been in a straw bale house? What was your experience?

There were a number of photos I didn't get to include in the story so I'm including them below for your enjoyment:

An outside view of the edition
An inside view
A small window showing the staw behind the wall (and some cute, lil animals)
Architect Sage K. Saskill and home owner Brenda Abjour
Interior view of the window without people in it

Third, also in the Jan. 5 edition, I wrote a story about Art Stable, a new development in the Cascade neighborhood of South Lake Union. More on this later but the team is using an innovative combination geothermal and piling technique, which allows the system to make sense financially. Fun stuff!

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Living Future, Day 2: Are these brilliant ideas?

Posted on May 7, 2009

Apparently, Living Future has a theme of people taking their shirts off. Last year it was Sim Van der Ryn. This year it's the people introducing the 15 Minutes of Brilliance (though to be fair they said they were just getting more casual and only stripped to their t-shirts under dress shirts).

(By the way, the audience is whoot-whooting like in the Arsenio Hall show....)

So 15 minutes of Brilliance lets a few pre-chosen teams to get up and share their brilliant ideas in 10 minutes or less. Excuse me if the below information is a tad fragmented. 

The first item was presented by Geof Syphers, chief sustainability officer of Codding

The Sonoma Mountain Village site plan
Enterprises and Greg Searle of BioRegional. Syphers is helping to redevelop Sonoma Mountain Village, a 200-acre factory site in California into an urban neighborhood that will be leed nd, leed platinum and will meet the OnePlanet sustainable criteria. The project is 100 percent solar powered. The team is regrinding 40,000 tons of asphalt to recreate roads. It has a biodiesel factory. What's brilliant, Sypher said is looking at the impacts of a project through this tool,  we have to set impact design goals for projects, and we have to measure the end impacts of projects. "Leed platinum isn't always better than LEED silver," he said... but this tool will help get projects greener.

Aurora Mahassine of Habitile The Hanging Gardens went second. She said we need to re-think what our home is, what we value as a society and our connectivity with the Earth systems we evolved with. She said we need more curves, holes and places for life to happen in our landscape. Quote of the day? "fertility begins with a hole." If we keep telling ourselves stories of an apocaypse, she said, we will get there but if we re-embrace gardens with our hands, touch life and reinsert ourselves into the natural lifecycle, our future won't be an apocalypse. Reintegrating ourselves. Habitile itself create vertical modular living systems that become a living wall. 

Jim Estes of Inhabitability dicussed the Greensburg Living Building Challenge Competition. Two years ago, a tornado decimated Greensburg, Kansas. As they recovered they

Greensburg after the tornado
decided there had to be a better way, so each new structure is being developed to LEED platinum. The city has a new sustinable recovery plan to make the city into a sustainable pioneering center. Greensburg Green Town is developing a series of green houses so people can test drive them. Greensburg is currently forming a new partnership with Cascadia to create affordable homes. It will host a contest for teens to design, build and create affordable homes that meet the Living Building Challenge. Greensburg is offering no ordinance roadblocks for water, netzero energy etc. Teens from different locales can enter.  They hope to launch the competition in the fall. At every item this will be presented to the media (ahem).

The fourth idea was presented by Bryony Schwan, executive director of the Biomimicry Guild. Scwan said if we could use biomimicry to create change in the built environment, we could effect real change to help prevent climate change. Animals, she said, do more with less while humans problem solve in a completely different way. For example, she said, we thought until recently that flat surfaces were easier to clean. But we looked at lotuses, which had tiny rivets that allowed water to roll off the leaf and clean it. The guild is hosting the Green Building Design Challenge, to look at the connections between design and nature. There are three parts to this challenge: on Wednseday, the guild hosted a design charette to tackle the problem. Now, the challenge will be available online for comment and the third part will be taking designs to market. The challenge will be at

Sara Garrett, director of the Motivespace Coalition spoke about community asset funds and growing community space. Motivespace asks how space can motivate change through community asset funds. The first step in developing a fund is is to stay positive. The second is to support each other. The third is to know your value. The fourth is to cooperate. No one person or gorup could build a thriving community asset fund alone, Garrett said. Because time is money, neighbors can work together to get projects done, bank extra hours and use the extra time they've banked for yard work, neighborhood massages or other work. In this system, any person can seed a project and the best projects will rise to the top and draw the neighbor's assets and skills. 

..... and that's it!

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Living Future, Day 1: the tour

Posted on May 6, 2009

Bright and early this morning (7:30 a.m.) I boarded a Seattle train bound for Portland so I could attend Wednesday's Living Future site tour (the first official part of the Living Future Conference) and share the results with you. Though I may be hitting the sack a little early tonight, the results did not disappoint.

There were three tours being held. I attended the one at Portland State University's Shattuck Hall, a building that was originally built in 1915 and recently underwent a ginormous renovation, both functionally and sustainably.

The building itself houses the school's architecture program, so one of the goals of the renovation was to make the building itself a teaching tool. Hence it features things like exposed piping and systems and exposed radiant ceiling panels. The visibility of systems changes from floor to floor, with the top being the most obvious and open.

Having written about the Vance Building earlier this week for the DJC, I noticed a lot of similarities. Both were built early in the century, and both recently underwent massive improvements on tight budgets. The differences in what the two decided to concentrate on though, especially having toured both buildings, were really interesting.

I took some amazing photos, which my (old) computer is unfortunately not letting me load. I promise to post them as soon as I feasibly can. I'll also try to add more information about Shattuck Hall at a later date.

Stay tuned: tonight's keynote speaker is Janine Benyus!

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