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

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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Visit Seattle’s first (likely) living building

Posted on February 22, 2011

Recently, the Restorative Design Collective completed what will likely be the first living building in Washington State at the Bertschi School. Of course, we won't know whether it meets living building certification until it has operated for a year. But the project is designed to provide all its own energy, treat its own water and lay light on the land. It is called the science wing and will be a scientific learning area for students.

This is the first living building project to target the 2.0 version of the challenge (a tougher standard than the original), and the first project to be built in an urban area. The project was built largely through volunteer work, organized by a group called The Restorative Design Collective. The project cost about $1 million but members of the collective donated about $500,000 in pro bono time in addition to that.

Stacy Smedley, of KMD Architects and co-founder of the collective, said it is important to have a living building in the region where the challenge was born. Jason McLennan, CEO of the Cascadia Green Building Chapter, published the challenge at the end of 2006. Chris Hellstern, the other co-founder of the collective, is also at KMD.

The DJC story on the finished product is here, a story written last June details the founding of the collective and design plans here. If you don't have a DJC subsciption, this story is unlocked (meaning anyone can read it). It's a really interesting personal look at problem solving issues on the project. We also covered the installation of the building's SIPS panels on the Green Building Blog here.

For instance, the team focused heavily on water and has a system in place that would treat collected water to potable standards. But before it can do that, it must wait for state and local rules to change. A runnel, cut in the ground, will allow children to see flowing rainwater.

Bertschi will offer tours of the building, though it will usually be a science wing for students' education so tours must be pre-arranged. For more information, call Bertschi at 206-324-5476.

If you're interested in learning more about living buildings, check out the fifth annual Living Future (Un)Conference. This year it is in Vancouver, B.C. from April 27-29. As someone who has attended each of these conferences so far, I can say it is an incredible time.

Here are some pictures of the finished product. More pictures on my Facebook page here.

The exterior of the science wing, Image courtesy Katie Zemtseff

The living wall and area where children will do plan and animal experiments, image courtesy Katie Zemtseff
Closeup of the living wall. Image courtesy Katie Zemtseff.
A runnel where students will be able to watch rain water flow, like a river. Image courtesy Katie Zemtseff.
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In 2011, Seattle moves towards district energy

Posted on January 13, 2011

This week, we ran this story in the DJC about Yesler Terrace, CollinsWoerman and the effort to start considering resources on the broader scale.

For those of you that don't live in the area, Yesler Terrace is a 28-acre publicly subsidized housing community owned by the Seattle Housing Authority. It is  in the process of being redeveloped.

Imaging one energy and water system for all this space.
CollinsWoerman is a local architecture and planning firm.

District energy systems are common in Europe, especially Denmark. They allow buildings to connect to each other, increasing efficiency and reducing costs by letting several buildings share energy from a main source, such as steam, geothermal, biomass or waste heat.

But they are often cost prohibitive because streets must be torn up for a network of pipes to be built underground.

Steve Moddemeyer, principle of sustainable development at CollinsWoerman, said according to a CollinsWoerman study for SHA, a district water system could cut water use by half for Yesler Terrace and reduce wastewater flows by 70 percent for the same or less cost as a traditional system. Just imagine if you could do that for an entire city!

The fact that Yesler Terrace is considering a water and energy district is really exciting. But what's more interesting is what it says about Seattle. District energy has long been a buzz-term in the city's green community. It seems like we might finally be moving towards getting momentum on new projects.

The city of Seattle hired AEI and Cowi to study district energy opportunities for the city. They are looking at where these systems would be feasible and will identify the top three places. Moddemeyer has seen such interest in district energy and water, he said Yesler Terrace might not be the first project to employ the system. If private developers move forward, he said district systems could be the norm within five years. (Can you even imagine that scenario...?!)

Separately, the city is also working with Trent Berry, a partner with Vancouver, B.C.'s Compass Resource Management. Berry is also providing expertise on district energy systems.

The city of Bothell is also looking at installing a district energy system.

The new projects point in the direction Seattle is heading. But we are also lucky to have Seattle Steam here. Seattle Steam, a district heat provider for 200 downtown buildings, has been around for over 100 years. I'm sure there's a lot of experience they can add to this discussion.

It seems like Seattle has an opportunity here to be a real leader.

Moddemeyer said the biggest obstacle to progress is our faith in the current system. Projects like King County's $1.8 billion Brightwater Treatment Plant put all our water treatment eggs in one basket, betting that water will continue to be treated the way it is in years to come.

What do you think?

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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: 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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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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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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Rainwater harvesting: to require or not to require

Posted on July 15, 2009

This week, the DJC ran an excellent article from Arthur H. Rotstein with the Associated Press called "Commercial projects in Tucscon must start harvesting rainwater." The article says that the Arizona city has enacted the nation's first municipal rainwater harvesting ordinance for commercial projects. The ordinance requires developers building new business, corporate or commercial structures to supply half of the water needed for landscaping from harvested rainwater starting next year.

Apparently, landscaping accounts for about 40 percent of water use in commercial

development and for 45 percent of household water consumption in Tucson. That. Is. Crazy.

The article also mentions that a half-dozen other communities in Arizona are looking at replicating the approach, and that rural Santa Fe County in New Mexico has required harvesting using cisterns or similar structures for commercial and residential development since last year.

Which brings me to the next question: why isn't this a requirement everywhere? Water is cheap, yes. But even though it is cheap, it still costs money. If Tucscon - which the article says gets 12 inches of rain a year - requires rainwater harvesting, why don't we? (Other than little details like the state owning the rain that drops down from the sky....) 

Now I know Tucson and Seattle are very different. I know Tucson uses so much water on landscaping because the city is in a desert, which means for most anything to grow, it is going to need extra water. But the underlying principal is the same. Water is a free resource. When water falls on the ground, it flows along roadways, picking up dirty icky things like metals and nutrients, eventually ending up in a water body like the Puget Sound, where it

The new LOTT Alliance project in Olympia will be all about water treatment and water conservation. Lisa Dennis-Perez of LOTT said the more conservation there is, the more the organization can delay the need to build additional water treatment plants.
does real damage or at a treatment plant, where it goes through an extensive process to get clean. So why don't we, as a country, require that at least some of that water is captured and used for something productive?

It just seems like a really wasted resource.

Where am I wrong here? Please tell me why this would not work.

By the way, water is going to become an even greater issue of importance as more people move to the Pacific Northwest. I wrote this article a couple weeks ago that discusses the challenges between the desire to get off the water grid and traditional infrastructure.

In that story, a number of experts from our region discussed where we are going with water treatment and the difficulties that lie ahead. It covers a range of opinions but all speakers could agree on one thing: water needs to be more expensive for change to happen.

Kurt Unger of the Department of Ecology pretty much spoke for the crowd when he said "Water is too damn cheap... We need to assess a fee on water to enable so many more things to happen."

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What does it feel like inside a LEED building?

Posted on December 8, 2008

This is from a series of guest posts by representatives of the Northwest Building Efficiency Center. This post was written by Vicki Zarrell. 

I recently had a chance to tour the Washington Public Utility Districts Association (WPUDA) building in downtown Olympia, the first building in Washington to be certified LEED Platinum by the U.S. Green Building Council. The WPUDA moved into the new building late in 2007, occupying the second floor.

The first thing I noticed when walking up the steps from the sidewalk was an

Courtesy Matt Todd photography
engineered rocky stream bed with the pleasant sound of flowing water – and I wondered if it was “water efficient.” Later I went to the underground parking garage to see the huge water tank where rainwater is collected from the roof. The collection system serves the water feature, which is allowed to naturally dry up during the summer, as well as irrigation of exterior plant material.

For those times when there is TOO MUCH water from the roof or hardscape, a natural-looking swale along the east side of the building filters the runoff and recharges the groundwater. This entire system is a win-win for the City of Olympia and the WPUDA since it eliminates run-off to the city’s stormwater system and no municipal water is needed for landscaping or the water feature.

Another obvious exterior feature of the building is the large array of photovoltaic solar panels on the roof. According to the WPUDA, solar will supply about 40% of the building’s energy needs and surplus power produced by the panels will be sold to Puget Sound Energy through net metering.

Inside the building the individual carpet squares caught my eye, which are easy to replace if damaged and are part of the building’s emphasis on materials and paints with low toxicity. I also noticed exceptional views of the capitol campus and surrounding neighborhood. With generous use of windows and skylights—and with work spaces primarily arranged around the perimeter of the building and bay-type windows jutting out from the structure—90% of work spaces in the building receive natural light. Yet there seemed to be no glare from windows or light fixtures. The windows are super energy efficient and designed not to reduce visibility the way tinted glass does.

Other elements contributing to LEED certification were the fact that most of the construction materials came from 500 miles or less, that the lumber was FSC certified, and that 75 percent of all construction waste was recycled. The area of the roof without solar panels is a light colored “cool roof” that reflects the sun’s infrared rays, reducing the building’s “heat island” effect and air conditioning costs.

This is a building that made me think, “I’d like to work here.” Besides its pleasing atmosphere, knowing that the building is efficient and well designed contributes to its desirability as a workplace. For a video describing the building, visit

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What’s your water footprint? Calculate it!

Posted on October 2, 2008

If you haven't guessed by now, I really have fun with calculators. Yes, I know they aren't always accurate. Yes, I know they often are designed to inflict guilt (and are

This is the water calculator!
often successful). Yes, I know they don't always represent the entire picture.... But heck, they're fun.

So today, my calculator of choice measures a "water footprint". The calculator, presented by a New York-based project called H2O Conserve, asks you a number of questions. You answer and BAM! Your water use gets compared to that of the typical American, all accompanied by handy and sometimes cute graphics. My favorite is the one that accompanies the 'I don't brush my teeth' answer. (Which I do, by the way. I just wanted to see the graphic....)

I am below the national average, but just barely at an individual water use of 1,072.20 gallons per day. Written out, that seems staggering.

The calculator also offers handy suggestions of how to decrease my water use, but some of them are just plain against my cultural habits. For example, it says I can save 10 or more gallons of water a day by not flushing the toilet and "letting it melow" instead.  Somehow I don't think that would fly with my colleagues at work.

But some of the tips are also interesting. For example, the calculator says I can save water by getting an efficient dishwasher, rather than washing dishes by hand.

If you want to see how much water you use, click here. And if you missed it, click the tag 'calculator' below to find out what an ecological footprint is... and how you measure up!

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More images of ‘net zero’ townhouses underway in Issaquah

Posted on September 30, 2008

After a tumultuous year, the zHome project has started off on a new foot with its Monday groundbreaking. The project is a 10-unit townhome development in the Issaquah Highlands that uses smart design and technology to create all the energy it consumes. It plans have net zero carbon emissions and cut water use by 60 percent.

I first wrote about the project last December here when Noland Homes was the

Courtesy of David Vandervort Architects
builder on the project and planned to develop it at its own cost. A lot has changed since then: namely Noland dropped out and Howland Homes came on (and will develop it at its own cost). But the project has finally broken ground and, as Brad Liljequist, zHome project manager for the city of Issaquah, says in the project's inaugual blog post (yes it has a blog here) it "takes my breath away a little bit" to be at this stage in the project's life.

zHome has a nifty Web site that can answer all and any of your questions from what materials are being used to how they're doing it to how to buy into it. For more information, visit it here.

Courtesy of David Vandervort Architects
This solar panel from the groundbreaking comes wrapped in a bow!








The latest rendering



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