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December 10, 2002

Real estate firm grows green in Seattle

  • Kaufman Realty works on traditional deals, but specializes in promoting sustainable development.
  • By MARC STILES
    Journal Environment Editor

    Photo by Marc Stiles
    Green real estate is the specialty of Ben Kaufman, left, who has joined his dad, Louie, at Kaufman Realty in Seattle.

    Kaufman Realty is one of Seattle's newest real estate companies.

    Launched about five months ago by the father-son team of Louie and Ben Kaufman, it is a full-service brokerage that offers traditional services plus a specialty: working with clients interested in green, innovative and community-focused housing.

    "We are one of a kind," says Ben Kaufman, who has studied green building and innovative community development for more than 10 years. He has visited numerous sustainable developments in the Northwest, as well as in Europe and Australia.

    The notion of starting a real estate company with a green focus was perfectly natural -- and exciting -- for the son. Ben's eyes light up and he becomes animated as he discusses his avocation.

    Louie, on the other hand, had to be convinced, which isn't surprising given his background. He has more than 30 years' experience that includes residential property management, residential sales, home construction and renovation, as well as the sale of small apartment buildings.


    About permaculture:
    What is it?
    The word was coined in 1978 by Australian Bill Mollison as a contraction of "permanent agriculture" or "permanent culture." Today, the term refers to the conscious design and maintenance of cultivated

    ecosystems which have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems.

    This system of design applies ecological principles and appropriate technologies to gardening, food production, shelter, water, energy, community development, alternative economic systems and other aspects of contemporary living.

    "I come from a traditional real estate background where you put concrete down everywhere," said Louie, previously with Windermere Real Estate. "The tree's in the way? Bulldoze the tree and put concrete in its place."

    But after living in Seattle and listening to his son's ideas, he warmed to the idea and proposed that Ben join him at the company office on Queen Anne Hill.

    In an interview, Ben Kaufman discussed his background and what fuels his passion for green real estate development.

    How did you get started in real estate?

    I come from a family that has been involved in real estate. Dad's in real estate. My grandfather was in real estate. My uncle was in real estate.

    I've had a real estate license since the early 1990s. I started in commercial real estate appraisal working for Bruce Allen & Associates doing mostly rural land appraisals in East King County and the rest of the Puget Sound area.

    I received a degree from the University of Washington in Community and Environmental Planning and worked for awhile in project management. For the past year, I've been doing some private consultation with affordable housing developers through my other company, Benjoy Consulting. I've been working on a contract down in Salem, Ore., working on property tax exemption issues related to a large affordable housing project, RiverPark.

    What got you interested in sustainability?

    When I was traveling in my early 20s, I was living on Hawaii, and I met various individuals who were living a lifestyle that was respectful to the environment. That led to studying green homes, green development, eco-villages, permaculture, co-housing -- just a litany of innovative housing ideas.

    Part of my education also involved traveling to Australia. I studied for a quarter at a place called Crystal Waters. It's a development that's based on permaculture.

    Permaculture is a system of ethics and principles traditionally based on agriculture, but it's well adapted to real estate. Very few people are doing that in the Northwest. There are a lot of people doing that in Australia and New Zealand. There are some practitioners in the Southwest of the U.S.

    I studied with Max Lindegger over in Australia. I studied how he put Crystal Waters together. Crystal Waters (www.ecovillages.org/australia/crystalwaters/) won a United Nations award on livability.

    How did this translate into Kaufman Realty?

    I've always been looking at what are the missing pieces in real estate, and one of the missing pieces is the marketing and sales of innovative product, whether it's land or whether it's residential or commercial. There is just a void.

    I've had a lot of connections from various volunteer organizations I belong to. I produced CoOportunities Northwest (co-opnw.org). I was the cofounder with Ami Peters.

    We had a conference attended by about 600 people at the Seattle Center in October 2001. A lot of people there had always talked to me because they knew I'm in real estate. They would approach me and say, 'I'd like to buy something that's green.' Or, 'I would like to buy something that's like co-housing...'

    There's all this innovation that's gradually coming along on the professional side -- architects, builders, developers. And then there are sellers and buyers. There's this kind of emerging intelligence about, 'Well, OK, I can buy a home that kind of reflects who I am...'

    So with that in mind, I wanted to get into Kaufman Realty and use that as a specialty.

    What kinds of projects are you interested in doing?

    As a brokerage, it's about getting the deal done. The specialty is innovation. There are all the different kinds of real estate -- residential, commercial and land and even some neighborhood industrial/commercial.

    You said Kaufman Realty is one of a kind in its green philosophy. Are other Realtors contacting you to find out what you do?

    I'm working with Monica Alliegro with Catapult Community Developers. She's a principal there, and she has a lot of retail experience. We're working together with the Urban Environment Institute.

    Right now, we are actively seeking tenants to co-locate in a project which would be based around businesses that have a sense of environmental responsibility or that work in environmental sciences or work in the environmental field. We're looking to talk to people who are focused on this innovative, green product in their own business.

    You can co-locate them in a facility similar to the Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center in Portland. It's a former warehouse that Ecotrust (www.ecotrust.org) has revitalized as a marketplace that fosters the ideas, goods and services of a conservation economy. We'd love to do something similar in Seattle, and we're talking to people right now about that.

    What other sorts of projects are you working on?

    I just represented The Cottage Co. in the purchase of 2.2 acres in Kirkland. It's for 15 units of innovative courtyard housing.

    And there is a local Antioch professor who puts on urban permaculture courses and workshops. His name is Jonathan Scherch, and I'm actually working with Jonathan right now to locate a place in Seattle to do a city farms permaculture site. Besides teaching permaculture courses and workshops, Jonathan has a business, Living Systems Design Guild LLC (www.lsdg.org) with Michael Broili.


    Kaufman Realty
    306 Ward St.

    Seattle

    www.kaufman-realty.com

    Do you have plans to work outside the Seattle area?

    I'm working with a guy right now to look for 5 acres in Whatcom or Skagit counties, up against the mountains. We're looking for something with some trees on it so we can build a recreational retreat and use permaculture doing it.

    I can't work as a real estate agent out of state (because of licensing regulations) but I would work with (out-of-state) real estate agents. It's basically forming a relationship with a Realtor or with a developer.

    Does being in Seattle make it easier to do what you do?

    Yeah, definitely. Seattle has a lot of passionate people who are interested in pushing the envelope, who are interested in doing something more than business as usual. There are a lot of people in the city who live their values. They talk to me a lot about wanting to see that in real estate.

    Kaufman Realty is a full-service brokerage, and a lot of our business is now traditional. At the same time, this green component goes well in Seattle because of the kind of people who live here. It's very easy in this city. I think it's a vast under-tapped market right now. I definitely think there's plenty of business out there.

    What's your biggest challenge?

    I think getting the word out is the largest challenge.


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