DJC Green Building Blog

Water infrastructure: the problem no one wants to (openly) talk about

Posted on June 9, 2010

This week, the DJC published my story on the Bullitt Foundation's desire to go off the water grid and the underlying politics of the decision. I've written about this topic before in this March 17 post "Bullitt wants to go off the water grid: realistically will it be able to?" Basically, the problem centers around the idea that Bullitt wants to capture and treat all its own water. That means it wants to do the impossible: drink the water that falls on its site and treat the toilet waste the occupants produce. I say impossible because the barriers seem endless. (Clarification: I do not actually think it is impossible. As a journalist I don't take sides and have no opinion on the topic. But if you were to look at the issue before Bullitt started talking with agencies, it was an impossibility. That's the point of the Living Building Challenge... to break down barriers).

The barrier I discussed in the story is King County's capacity fee. According to an internal county

Here is a current rendering of Bullitt's project
document, a different project (part of Amazon's new headquarters in South Lake Union) wanted to go partially off the water grid and requested a waiver of the capacity fee. The waiver would have resulted in a loss of over $700,000 for the county in 2008, the document says. Because the building would still be hooking into King County's water system for some services, the county declined the waiver. Even though a building may be water independent, it still needs to be connected to the county system in case of emergency. This means it needs to be able to function at any given moment.

Developers and green enthusiasts say the fee should be waived because it encourages innovation, and developers won't pursue these projects otherwise. The county says it's a social equity issue: by waiving the fee, other less fortunate individuals will end up paying for infrastructure and the county has already counted on new development to support that work. Specifically, the county is in the middle of building the $1.8 billion Brightwater Treatment Plant.

I'm really interested in this dilemma, especially the validity of the social justice claim. I had a brief conversation via Twitter this week with @bruteforceblog (whose very interesting blog is here: http://bruteforcecollaborative.wordpress.com/). Bruteforce said if this were a rural site he'd be all for cutting the capacity fee but in a city, the less affluent will be burdened by the cost. He suggested priority permitting as an incentive. However the city already provides priority permitting for super green projects and in this economy, the quickened pace doesn't equal the amount of savings it once did. I asked him what other ideas he might suggest. Bruteforce said perhaps a FAR or height incentive could be the answer, adding that no matter the incentive, developers will always argue it isn't enough. However, a commenter on our DJC story, Kent Andersson had another opinion: "It's not about punishing the poor. It's about everyone paying the true costs of the services they use. We should allow the exemption to spur the future, however if they need to discharge, then they should pay a higher rate."

Regarding the capacity fee, the county is currently considering three pretty black and white options, again, according to the internal county documents: waive the fee for projects that go off the water grid, partially waive it or do nothing and keep the structure as it is.

But there's another option. Why not let innovative projects go off the grid and then charge them crazy insane fees if and when they do use the system? Just a thought.

Where do you stand on this issue? Do you think the county is right on with its social justice reasoning or is that an excuse? What incentives do you think should be offered to developers, if any should be offered at all to get them moving in this direction? Or maybe we all should pay the "true costs" of water and agree to much higher water rates? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

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Neighborhood density in Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. What can we learn from each other?

Posted on April 8, 2010

I've been writing a lot about Vancouver's density recently, in comparison to Seattle's so I know I should move onto another topic. And I promise I will next time. But I just can't resist posting these pictures of my sister's neighborhood, Kerrisdale.

Kerrisdale is about a 15-minute drive away from downtown and a 10-minute drive away from the University of British Columbia. It is a sweet neighborhood, filled with restaurants and shops (but only one bar that I could find). However, what's unique about it isn't the composition of retail. It's the composition of housing types within a two-block radius. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves:

Interesting looking row houses

Mid-rise apartment buildings

Retail

More retail

A large single family home

This neighborhood has nearly every type of housing within two blocks, all mish-mashed up together. That McMansion above? It's located across the street from the first picture of row-houses. The mixing of housing types doesn't feel crowded; it feels like a nice, traditional neighborhood. It's a real urban village.

Seattle has neighborhoods that exemplify this mixed-use concept just as well. Capitol Hill, Lower Queen Anne, Ballard to some degree. But for some reason, the way Kerrisdale did it just felt smoother. Maybe it's primarily an architectural issue? But it feels to an outsider like the apartment building is meant to be located next to a large, single-family house.

To all my density nerds out there, what do you think is Seattle's best example of density that meshes well? It is Capitol Hill or Lower Queen Anne? Any particular street or corridor that really stands out? A really good  recent example, I find, is NK Architect's latest project on Lower Queen Anne called Fourth and Roy. The DJC wrote about it last month here. Basically, the team designed it to consciously fit in with the neighborhood.

In our story, Brandon Nicholson, a principal at NK, said he tries to picture a four-plex craftsman knockoff on the parcel and does not think it would fit in with the neighborhood's character. “In a neighborhood filled with old brick buildings, it might be much more modern in aesthetics but in materials and scale, it's appropriate for the context of Lower Queen Anne.”

Fourth and Roy townhouses in Lower Queen Anne
What do you think? What's Seattle's best example?

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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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How can deconstruction help flood victims? Dave Bennink tells you, and wishes for rain

Posted on May 21, 2009

This is a guest post by Dave Bennink, owner of Re-Use Consulting. 

I was born in Bellingham and have always lived in Washington. Yes, that means I'm allergic to sunlight and spend 11.23 months a year with extremely pale skin, and the other .77 months with extremely red skin. For me, there is a positive to all that rainfall and that's river and stream kayaking. Recently, I was able to pay penance for all of that praying for rain. I helped

Items donated to flood victims, photo courtesy Dave Bennink
organize a flood relief effort in Western Washington where materials from buildings that we were deconstructing and salvaging were donated to families around the Pacific Northwest.

The January floods damaged hundreds of buildings around the area and many of the homeowners didn't have sufficient insurance to cover the repairs. A typical home may have had to replace sheetrock, insulation, wiring, wood flooring, doors, sliding glass doors, cabinets, appliances and more. My clients couldn't help with the sheetrock and wiring by they donated almost 100 doors, over 40 cabinets and many other expensive items including a large amount of lumber and plywood. The value of these donations was in excess of $75,000!

What was I most impressed with? It was either because they donated them anonymously or

Wood donated to flood victims, photo courtesy Dave Bennink
because they did it in these tough economic times. This project was a real pleasure to be involved in and I met a number of good people that help people in need in all sorts of ways. I would like to publicly thank all of our donors for their generosity and pray that we don't need to do this again next fall or witner. I do hope it keeps raining though, sorry about that!

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Cascadia Scorecard update out! … and people in BC live longer than we in Washington do

Posted on February 11, 2009

Today, Sightline issued a new update to its Cascadia Scorecard. Sightline is an environmental think tank, based in Seattle. Its scorecard is a progress report that tracks seven trends in the Pacific Northwest including pollution, population, sprawl and economy.

The scorecard is a plethora of information. Here are some of its findings:

  • In 2008, the Northwest states or Oregon, Idaho and Washington spent almost $30 billion on imported fossil fuels, what it says is a record high. That breaks down as $16.6 billion for Washington, $9.4 billion for Oregon and $3.6 billion for Idaho. Regionally, that's the equivalent of $10,000 for every family of four.
  • The share of residents living in walkable or transit-oriented neighborhoods has increased in each major Northwest metropolis since 1990. But the scorecard says if recent trends continue, it will take 56 years for the Cascadian city average to match the compact-growth record of Vancouver, BC. Today. 
  • People in this region consume the energy equivalent of just over 2 gallons of gasoline per person every day, which is nearly double the scorecard's model of Germany.
  • People in British Columbia live an average of two years longer than residents of the Northwest states. Also, if BC were an independent nation, it would have the second longest lifespan in the world after Japan.

To see more fun facts about the intersections of our lives, the environment and the future, read the scorecard for yourself at http://scorecard.sightline.org/.

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Puget Sound is sick… and the PSP’s plan to cure it is online

Posted on November 6, 2008

Remember that time, last July or August, when you caught a view of the Puget Sound out of the corner of your eye... maybe above Pike Place Market. Maybe crossing a ferry to Bainbridge. Maybe at Discovery Park. And you just thought to yourself 'Wow.'

Hold that memory in your head. Now imagine what this region would be without Puget Sound. If you voted for the Pike Place Market property tax levy because of the

Puget Sound
Puget Sound

 market's intrinsic value to this community, then imagine how much more intrinsic is that body of water that is an environmental and economic driver of the Pacific Northwest.

Guess what, it's sick. It's really, really sick. So sick, the Puget Sound Partnership has spent the last 18 months figuring out what it would take to cure it with its draft action agenda. But hold your horses, the document is still only a draft and is ready to change based on your comments.

If you care about the sound... or would like to have future memories with the sound in it, I'd read my story in the DJC tomorrow, check the action agenda out here, and start investigating the issue and how you can make a difference. It's worth it.

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Density: the region vs. itself

Posted on April 30, 2008

Legos have been played with. Leaders have created their plans for people and transit. Gov. Chris Gregoire has extrolled the benefits of compact communities, and Washington's role as an international leader. In short, Reality Check 2008 is halfway under way and will soon be done (for a definition of Reality Check, see the post directly below).

The fact that so many regional leaders are playing with Legos is definitly interesting and will no doubt be the major focus of the plethora of different news organizations that are here from NPR to TV to print papers. But something else is happening beneath the surface of the Legos... people are listening to the concerns of other regional leaders they might not necessarily otherwise hear.

That's one of the main points of this excercise, said Greg Johnson, ULI Seattle chair and president of Wright Runstad & Co. For example, members of my table included representatives of Microsoft, Fort Lewis, a Snohomish County economic council member, and the Washington Roundtable. Other people at my table were Seattle City Council Member Sally Clark, Seattle developer Jim Soules, Executive Director of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agnecy Dennis McLeran and Bert Gregory, president of CEO of Mithun.

Representatives of ULI said they spent an awful lot of time planning those tables, and making sure differnet groups were represented, to come up with broader solutions.

What do you think? Will this event come to anything, or will it become yet another regional plan that people trumpet as the next big thing, then forget about a month later? Does this region have any hope of coming up with a comprehensive plan to deal with density, jobs and people?

If you live in an area that has went through this excercise already - Sacramento, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles.... have you seen any differences because of this process? Tell me what you think, you never know who may be listening.

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Does Puget Sound need a reality check? Leaders look at density, use Legos to find out

Posted on April 30, 2008

playing with LegosI'm about to head out to Reality Check 2008, along with 250 of my closest business, environment, political and civic leader friends.

Held at the University of Washington and presented by the Urban Land Institute, it's a high profile day-long event where leaders in their field come together to play with Legos. Yes, I'm serious. After a series of welcome speeches, the 250 leaders will do a planning exercise that uses Legos to represent people, transit and other things. They will physically plan for where a whole lot of people projected to come to this area by 2040 - 1.7 million people and 1.2 million jobs, to be exact - will go.

Perhaps the most impressive thing is the guest list, and the group of people ULI has been able to get it one place. Attendees should include Gov. Chris Gregoire, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, the mayors of Auburn, Redmond, Bothell, Sumner, Lynnwood (and other cities), and an impressive list of council members from different city and civic councils.

On the business front, there's going to be representatives from Mithun, CamWest Development, Vulcan Inc., Microsoft, Opus Northwest, Wright Runstad and Co., Boeing, and Uwajimaya. Most of the attendees are high level executives, if not presidents. Basically, anybody who is anybody in planning and development is going to be there (or at least is sending a representative). The event is by invitation only.

The exercise has already been done in Washington, D.C. and Sacramento. For more information on it, press here. I'll keep you updated as it moves along.

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