DJC Green Building Blog Covering green building issues in Seattle and around the Pacific Northwest

Which Living Building are you most excited for?

Posted on May 25, 2011

In the Pacific  Northwest, there are a number of living buildings in different stages of development. But in Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, B.C., there are three projects that stand out and will be fascinating to compare.

The projects are Seattle's  Cascadia Center for Sustainable Design and Construction, Portland's Oregon Sustainability Center and Vancouver's Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability. Though each is very different, they are large and significant enough to be comparable.  Unlike most living buildings, which have to date been smaller structures in isolated landscapes, each of these is in the center of a city. Each are being built by nonprofit or educational organizations. Each will act as a nexus of sustainability for their respective communities.

Of the three, CIRS in Vancouver is furthest ahead, and should be ready for occupancy this summer. The 60,000-square-foot, four-story structure is a dry-lab research facility for the University of British Columbia. It's budget is $37 million Canadian. It was designed by Busby, Perkins + Will. I wrote a previous post about the project here.

Courtesy Perkins+Will Canada Architects Co.

Next, comes the Bullitt Foundation's headquarters in Seattle. The Bullitt project, on Capitol Hill, will be six stories and a basement over 52,000 square feet. It is designed by The Miller Hull Partnership and Schuchart is the general contractor. Point32 is the development partner. Completion is planned for next summer. Bullitt is not releasing its budget but plans to release other detailed information on performance and development. At the design presentation for the project earlier this month, Jason McLennan of the Cascadia Green Building Council said “I think this is the most important building being built in the country today,” he said. “It's going to open up a whole new set of eyes.”

Image courtesy The Miller Hull Partnership

Third, is the Portland project. It recently completed final design and should begin construction in early 2012, with an opening in late 2013. The team includes Gerding Edlen, SERA Architects, GBD Architects and Skanska Construction. The Portland Daily Journal of Commerce reported that the project's budget is $59.3 million, not including $4 million needed to align streetcar tracks beneath it. The seven-story building will be 130,000-square-feet. It's funded by the City of Portland, the Portland Development Commission and the Oregon University System.

Image courtesy Oregon Sustainability Center.

Though each is similar, a "green competition" has sprouted from the beginning between the Seattle and Portland projects. Time recently published a post on the "green war" here.

Though each building must accomplish the broad goals of the living building challenge (provide all energy, treat and provide all water) they are meeting the goals in different ways. In large part, jurisdictional codes and requirements have influenced design. The Vancouver building, for example, is essentially becoming its own waste treatment plant and will provide all its own water. The Bullitt project will use composting toilets, and is struggling with the ability to treat rainwater. I'm excited to see how each performs.

Which building are you most excited for? Which one do you think is the prettiest, or the one that you respond to best aesthetically? Answer our poll at right or comment below with your reasons!

P.S. For more on Seattle's first building designed to living building standards that is complete, the Science Wing at the Bertschi School, click the living building tab or go here. It hasn't received certification yet but is on track to do so!

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Majora Carter asks us to celebrate little achievements

Posted on April 28, 2011

Last night's keynote presentation was a world away from last year's. As depressing as James Kunstler's talk was at Living Future 2010, Majora Carter's was uplifting and inspiring. I figure that is the point.

In a very casual manner, Carter explained her history with the South Bronx and how she came

to be active in its revitalization. Really, it all came down to a dog. Carter was walking her dog Xena through her neighborhood when the dog led her past a pile of waste and crack viles to the Bronx River, which Carter didn't really know existed. Seeing the river's natural beauty so close to her home started Carter on a journey to develop green space along the river, and towards an effort of empowering people at the local level to care about their environment.

One big problem, she said, is that most people, especially those of color, view environmentalism as an upper middle class white movement that has "absolutely nothing" to do with them. Carter said part of her mission is to teach that "the environment" is really something everyone interacts with on a daily basis and that green elements can put money back in your pocket. In her talk, Carter championed green infrastructure such as green roof, and urban agriculture efforts.

Like the tea party, Carter said she believes in a smaller government. However, she believes this can be achieved by creating jobs for society's most expensive citizens. The generationally impoverished, she said, or people who are in and out of jail or people coming back from war, use the most social services dollars. If these people had something to look forward to and some way to start paying the bills, less would return to jail or to patterns that use social service dollars. Carter works on such programs in her community, and supports others across the country.

For example, she referenced a program in Chicago called Sweet Beginnings led by Brenda Palms-Barber that teaches ex-offenders to harvest honey from beehives, turn it into skin products and market it. A year in jail costs $60,000. The national recidivism rate is 65 percent Carter said, and this program's recidivism rate is 4.5 percent. The program saves society money while creating empowered workers, and keeping dollars from product sales in the local economy.

"Really all any of us want is something to look forward to," she said. " There’s Bronxe’s all over the place."

Carter said everyone can further this type of goal by asking how your work, products or even material choice can create social well being. Carter said things like making sure  you have local hire provisions can have a big impact.

She also said it's important to celebrate the small things. Because it's the small things that really count.

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Canadian Building aims to be greenest in North America

Posted on April 27, 2011

Living Future 2011 in Vancouver, B.C . could have begun better. My first event was a tour of the new Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability space at University of British Columbia.  To get there, all 30 of us had to wait 20 minutes, get on a 40 minute bus ride and then trudge through 15 minutes of pouring, pouring rain. Needless to say, I should have remembered my umbrella. A kind soul on the tour (not from the Northwest, obviously, who

The inside of the CIRS building, as it looks today
DID remember her umbrella) gracefully let me half-hover under hers. Despite that, I am currently totally soaked through though my shoes and coat are now drying out.

Thankfully, the tour was totally worth it. The CIRS Center is poised to be an incredible project, once complete. The four-story, 60,000-square-foot dry-lab research building has targeted both the Living Building Challenge and LEED platinum. Its goal is to be the most innovative building in North America. The building should be ready for occupancy by the end of May. It was designed by Busby Perkins + Will.

When designing and building it, the team concentrated on equally balancing the need to be net positive, or to give back more energy and environmental benefit than the building took from the grid; to be humane, or being constructed and thought of with the best impacts on humans possible; and being smart, or cost effective and adaptive.

The inside office space of the new CIRS building. It is shaped like a horseshoe.
To do that, this building functions on a greater scale than just its footprint in two big ways. It captures wasted heat from the building next door and uses some of it to fully heat the CIRS building before giving the rest back. Doing this allows the building next door to reduce the amount of steam it requires for heat, which reduces money the university spends on natural gas, saving money and creating a net positive effect.

It will capture all rainwater, treat it and use it as potable water for those in the building to drink (this is what the Bullitt Foundation's Cascadia Center targeting living building status in Seattle wants to do, though code rules are making it tough). It will also treat all wastewater generated in the building and use it to flush toilets, urinals and for drip irrigation. This was a difficult thing to permit, said Alberto Cayuelo, associate director of the UBC Sustainability Initiative. All water will be treated, drank, reused, treated, reused and treated again. This is the first building in Vancouver, the team said, to do this. Water that hits the building's hardscapes will be redirected into the aquifer.

The building's price is $37 million Canadian, with a $22 million construction budget. Cayuela said the project will cost between 20 and 30 percent more than a LEED gold building.

“I’d be lying through my teeth if I said this building came in at no premium,” he said. “(But) on a total cost of ownership basis, we can recoup that investment in a few years.”

The project should save money through energy and water initiaves.

There’s a lot more that I can and will say about this project. But I’ m about to hear Majora Carter speak, so more info will have to wait for another story!

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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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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


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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Where Vancouver, B.C. trounces Seattle: density

Posted on April 2, 2010

I'm back in Seattle and the haziness of the Globe Conference (so many conference sessions on giant, world changing ideas!) is finally lifting from my head.

However, I must return to a theme I explored last week in this post about whether Vancouver or Seattle is greener. In that post's comments, Mhays said Seattle needs to encourage density to really be the greenest it can be. "We’re doing a good job in many ways, but way behind Vancouver," he said.

After spending some time there and paying particular attention to the density issue, I couldn't agree more. Sure, Vancouver has its problems. In one session at Globe, Peter Busby explored one of these saying people in Vancouver that live near the center of the city have lower greenhouse gas emissions than those who live further out. To counter this, he proposes creating density nodes throughout the rest of the city that would allow people to live, work and play in their neighborhoods rather than having to go downtown. (More on Vancouver's stance on density here).

But when you look at the variety of housing types in Vancouver's downtown, it just blows Seattle out of the park. Basically, in Seattle, you can live downtown if you want to - or can afford - a condo. In Vancouver however, you don't have to be confined to a condo to live downtown. They have - gasp! - row houses!

Here are a few images of downtown housing types. They are just a small tidbit of the many varieties of styles I saw:

Row homes
Downtown Vancouver
Photo by Payton Chung

Photo by Payton Chung

The pictures don't show the difference as clearly as you would see with your own eyes. But basically, in parts of Vancouver's downtown, you can live in units that are much more like townhouses than they are condos. This row-housing type is shown in the first image and last image. If you look closely, you can also see this type of housing at the base of the second image.

The variety of housing types is sure to attract different kind of people. Not everyone wants to live downtown in a condo... but if you could live downtown in something resembling a townhouse with a bit more private space, suddenly you attract a whole other market.

So... why can't Seattle do this? Why can't we bring other housing types downtown? What stops us from having that variety? And is there anything we could do now to encourage it?

Busby had an interesting observation. As cities grow, he said, many new inhabitants will be immigrants from Africa and other areas that are already used to living densely. Generally, he said they are used to small living areas and to lots of walking. We can take advantage of this influx, he said, to "change the pattern of organization" in cities.

Now, I don't mean to knock Seattle. We have a great city that is moving forward on a number of fronts. But as far as diversifying housing use in downtown... it seems like the same old same old. (And by diversifying, by the way, I mean doing so for different price points as well as in unit styles).

Even in Vancouver, these things aren't easy. But the important thing is to keep improving. Mayor Gregor Robertson said, "There's angst about the transition here and potential political disaster associated with that but in Vancouver, we see huge opportunities for change."

P.S. Nick Christensen of has an interesting article from January on a similar topic here.

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Sustainability and the business perspective “never waste a good crisis”

Posted on March 26, 2010

I'm in a fascinating session on sustainability and how large companies consider it to be part of their business. Let me tell you guys, there is some really interesting stuff going on in this world!

John Mitchell of Cenovus Energy of Calgary spoke about his company's commitment to sustainability. He

The world
said sustainability makes so much business sense that it has moved beyond the convincing side and is now an integral part of his company's strategic division where it is placed on an equal footing with things like longterm planning.

Here's the money quote: "We’ve moved past having to justify the sustainability payoff. This is integrated in our business this is part of what we do... that approach is a given. What we need to do is identify the right metrics to ensure we are driving the right things," he said. "This isn't a  justification anymore. It's a demonstration and a delivery."

Speakers in this international session represent Herman Miller, Cenovus Energy, Suncor Energy, Novo Nordisc, and HSBC.

All speakers said sustainability makes sense for many different reasons... it increases ROI, creates value, creates trust and builds brand.

Sharon Walck of HSBC said her company doesn't think of the sustainability paybacks simply in financial terms because it believes climate change will affect everything in the future. "The business world should be under no illusion... we are now on the path to a new carbon economy," she said. "I want to contend that the sustainability payoff topic is not singlular," she said. "We believe this short term focus is quite frankly outdated. Simply put, sustainability means so much more."

Paul Murray of Hermann Miller has been working on sustainability for his company since 1992. Back then, he said one person per month would inquire about sustainable systems. Now, the environmental part of the

A Herman Miller chair
Web site gets 1,400 hits per month and 98 percent of RFPs for office inquire about the company's environmental program.

For the past few years, he said his company has spend a quarter of a million dollars per year on energy efficiency upgrades. That effort has a 33 percent rate of return and pays for itself every three years.

Waste is another area that has saved his company a lot of money. Last year, his company was paid $2.9 million for the materials is recycled however he said when you consider the amount of money saved and made, it is "a $15 million swing."

Herman Miller has also been working on cradle to cradle practices with Bill McDonough since 1999, which led to intellectual information that is patented. Murray said his company looks at every material in every product and if it has anything toxic in it, asks the supplier to take the toxic materials out. It can't always happen, he said, but often it can.

Additionally, the office furniture industry has been severely impacted by the recession and other business factors in recent years. Murray said every department at Herman Miller has been impacted and had cuts - except his. "My staff is still intact. I think that tells you how a company like mine values return on the bottom line."

Suzanne Stormer of Novo Nordisc in Demark also spoke about the global crisis. She said it has created an opportunity for businesses to go further in saving resources. "Never waste a good crisis," she said. "The economic recession is also forcing us to think smarter, in terms of reducing waste. When you have enough of everything you can do whatever you like but in times of scarcity you are forced to be more creative.”

Speaking of businesses, every business represented at this conference is really looking at sustainability issues, rather than just paying lip service to the ideals. Here are some of the companies here, some of which might surprise you: Dow Chemical, Starbucks, Novo Nordisc, Walmart, HewlettPackard, FedEx, Sears, Seventh Generation, Citigroup, Fito Lay Canada, Kraft Foods, Shell International Petroleum, InterfaceRaise.

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Water: the elephant in the room

Posted on March 25, 2010

I'm at the Globe Conference in Vancouver, B.C. and I'm attending a number of sessions on two themes: water and cities and urbanization.

I'm attending the urbanization sessions because it important to see how cities plan to grow more sustainably, and how they plan to be restructured over time. I'm attending water sessions because water is always

water - the elephant in the room
the big elephant in the room: everyone talks about climate change but many people are more concerned about water. Think about it: water is critical for agriculture, energy and health, not to mention our drinking supply.

The session I'm in right now is called "Water Efficiency: Managing a Valuable Resource." Sonia Lacombe, senior manager, climate change and sustainability at Ernst & Young in Toronto, spoke about how businesses look at water and said it's changed a lot in the past few years. "In the past a lot of corporations were not dealing with water like they are now," she said. "This is now a topic that interests more and more board members."

Ernst & Young is a professional services firm. She said clients are looking for more information on managing water risk, disclosing water information, regional differentiation such as regional impacts and what regional actions are being done etc. Things driving this concern are consumer concern, competition amongst companies and the business case that companies internally see in water efficiency.

Samir Brikho, chief executive of Amec in London, said his company recently identified water issues as one of the most important areas to focus on because it sees the potential for it in the future.

Joe Deutscher of Dow Chemical Canada said competition is a big driver. His company recently created a water treatment system that replaced an outdated product that created many, many gallons of wastewater, and saved the company 25 percent in capital costs. It was industry competition that drove this innovation, he said, adding that competition is the best way to drive change. "Industry has to collaborate."

A number of companies, Lacombe said, are considering water impacts even though they are not required to do so via regulations. She is working with a few large European breweries that have considered how to produce goods with the least amount of energy and water possible. "In the absence of regulations, some corporations are really getting organized ahead of time."

Have you seen companies increasingly looking at water issues?

However change happens in the reuse and efficiency of water operations, one thing is clear amongst everyone who has spoken here: water rates need to grow dramatically for anyone to care about water efficiency and reuse issues, and for change to happen. We pay far more for our cell phone and cable bill than we do for water. How much would you be willing to pay and what would you want your government to be doing with the revenue from increased rates?

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What role do cities play in sustainability? Seattle and Vancouver at the Globe 2010 Conference

Posted on March 24, 2010

I'm at the Globe 2010 Conference in Vancouver, B.C. where I just attended the keynote session. For those of you that don't know this conference, it is focused on the business of sustainability, and the idea that environmental problems provide an opportunity to create business and economic solutions.

Speakers during the keynote included Gregor Roertson, mayor of Vancouver; Frank Wouters, chief executive of Masdar Power, Abu Dhabi, UAE; and James Suciu, president of global sales and marketing for GE Energy in Atlanta, Ga.

The speakers discussed a number of things: Robertson talked about how the successful 2010 Olympics has

Vancouver, B.C.
put Vancouver on the global map, Wouters spoke about the potential for collecting energy and the creation of his company's green city in the desert; and Suciu spoke about GE's commitment to the future green economy.

But all of them focused on cities in some way, and the power cities have to effect change. Robertson discussed how Vancouver, B.C. aims to be the greenest city in the world by 2020 and how it is moving towards that goal. But Vancouver is just one of many cities moving in this direction. He said it is the city's job to push policy and business forward, as national governments have become "frustratingly stagnant."

"The cities are destined to be the major partners with green business in creating the change and prosperity that we need."

He said cities that aggressively target this sweet spot between supporting business and driving public policy will lead the future, while pulling more business to them, causing economic success.

I'm wondering where this balance exists. How much of the responsibility rests with cities, and how much rests with federal governments? Anyone have an answer?

Vancouver is doing this in a number of ways. The city council recently voted to have all new buildings going through the rezoning process in the city shoot for LEED gold as of July of this year, he said. It also has the highest number of entrepreurs in North America and a number of federal and municipal incentives, such as paying half the salary of R+D workers.

"A generation ago, our goals would have been seen as an obstacle to business but in 2010, they are a huge opportunity."

Of course, when I hear about Vancouver and all the great goals they are targeting and achieving, I inevitably compare it to Seattle. It is striking to me that in Vancouver, all buildings going through the rezoning process (representing most buildings built in Vancouver) will have to be LEED gold while in Seattle, you can still get away with building a project in the city that doesn't have to achieve any green certification at all. Seattle's green building team is currently working on an update of its green code and is looking at enhancing it... but on these sweeping issues it seems like Vancouver is always one step ahead of us.

(Is Vancouver greener than Seattle overall? Answer our new poll at right!)

In this post, Brent Todarian, director of planning for the city of Vancouver, says the LEED gold move wasn't made without difficulty, but still, it happened. Here's how he described it:  "Although Council conveyed sympathy and understanding for the industry's challenges, and sought to provide flexibility and further consultation and partnership on the details, they ultimately chose to take another key step toward our greenest city goal."

What would happen if Seattle took that lead, especially in this down market? Would we be able to achieve a similar goal and would we even want to? In this down market, is it the time to be making these type of changes or should we leave it for another day? Thoughts to chew on.

Anyway, I'll be here until Friday and will post more updates as the conference goes on. I have a feeling cities and their power to create change is going to be a big theme....

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Vancouver B.C. questions traffic options after Olympics

Posted on March 3, 2010

Over at HugeAssCity on Publicola, Dan Bertolet has a great overview of Vancouver, B.C.'s transportation experience during the Olympics, then connects that to Seattle's current replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct debacle. It's an interesting overview, though I have to say the post's comments are possibly even more interesting....

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