May 28, 2009

Seattle gets sustainability lesson from Sweden

  • Stellar Holdings and Lorig are teaming up to use the best aspects of European projects — sustainability, walkability, high design and affordability — on the Thornton Place mixed-use project in Seattle’s Northgate neighborhood.
    Stellar Holdings


    Sustainability and economizing the use of natural resources are so ingrained in Swedish life that it influences most everything we do. It’s about more than just energy-saving appliances and green building practices. As Swedes, we take a more holistic approach to sustainability and it affects how we live, what we eat, how we spend our time and money, and how we get from place to place. Sweden has long been viewed as a model for green building innovation and best practices in sustainable design.

    Restricted land and scarce resources in Sweden demanded a commitment to sustainability that is both affordable and replicable long before it was a priority in the rest of the world. This overarching commitment to sustainability is also a natural outgrowth of the country’s core belief that all people deserve equal access to universal health care and other benefits. And since sustainability is viewed as an extension of a healthy lifestyle, it makes sense that Swedes would expect to enjoy the benefits of green living.

    This philosophy has even trickled over into business; the best example being Ikea, which built an industry on making great design affordable because of a belief that good design can enrich everyone’s life.

    Cutting-edge green

    Photo courtesy of Stellar Holdings
    Stellar redeveloped this former industrial port property in Malmö, Sweden, into sustainable and affordable housing.

    Headquartered in Seattle with an international portfolio that includes Sweden and Poland, Stellar Holdings is a real estate investment firm that carved its niche developing innovative, mixed-use properties. We own one of the largest privately held real estate companies in Sweden, Bygg Vesta, which is developing energy-efficient apartments in Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö that are affordable and also meet the high design standards set forth by local communities and cities.

    Our Bygg Vesta team developed a method for creating energy-neutral apartments called Egenvärme hus, which we first used at Malmö and now use for all of our Swedish projects. These are ultra-low-energy buildings that ensure a comfortable indoor climate year round without a conventional heating system. This technology reduces the amount of energy required for heating through the use of solar irradiation through windows and heat emissions of appliances and occupants to keep indoor temperatures comfortable.

    The Malmö project meets a 65-kilowatt-hour threshold, which is 65 percent lower than the average apartment in Sweden; the average American residential usage is more than two-and-a-half times that amount!

    Sustainability can start before a project breaks ground. For instance, the Malmö property was constructed on former industrial port property, which was then transformed into a vibrant, sustainable — and affordable — development. By redeveloping what was once industrial land, we were able to reduce sprawl and further densify an urban area.

    Not satisfied with this achievement, we are now working on a project in Stockholm that will be a 55-kilowatt-hour Egenvärme hus.

    Managing the balance between sustainability and affordability is a constant challenge. It requires that we source materials throughout Europe to find the most affordable resources.

    Photo by Sky-Pix
    Thornton Place in Seattle is taking a Swedish development approach by using Thornton Creek to bridge the gap between the natural world and the urban environment.

    Another key component to affordability is providing tenants with the tools to manage their energy consumption/ conservation. To ensure that tenants are conscious of their energy use, electrical and hot water usage is measured in each home.

    Furthermore, by building compact and walkable projects with easy access to transit, we promote a healthier lifestyle that fosters a close community.

    We design all of our Swedish projects so the technology can be transferred to other countries. And this commitment extends beyond real estate; we recently brought a company from Sweden to the United States called Powerit Solutions. Headquartered in Seattle, this company creates energy efficiency by regulating costly peak-hour demand charges to reduce energy consumption and cost. For us, sustainability is not simply a goal to be achieved, but a mind-set that pushes us to constantly improve and evolve.

    Borrowing from Sweden

    As we looked to invest in a development project in Seattle, we searched for an opportunity to partner with other developers, local municipalities and neighbors who share Stellar’s commitment to creative solutions, community enhancement and sustainability. When local developer Lorig approached us about bringing our European expertise to Thornton Place in the Northgate neighborhood, we jumped at the chance.

    Photo courtesy of Stellar Holdings
    The Malmö redevelopment encourages alternative transportation means, such as biking.

    Although the asphalt lot under Thornton Place had been vacant for more than 20 years, in large part because of the local community’s opposition to how the property should be developed, we didn’t view that as a deterrent. We believe that when interests are aligned and there is a real commitment to doing the right thing, doors are opened and creative solutions are embraced. As a result, Thornton Place will not only be one of the first certified LEED for Neighborhood Development projects in the country, it will also contribute to the revitalization of the greater Northgate community by adding new retail, affordable rental housing, market-rate condominiums and senior housing.

    One of the most serious concerns for the community was about a portion of the Thornton Creek headwaters that had been buried under this former parking lot for more than 50 years. As Seattle’s largest watershed, Thornton Creek travels more than 11 miles before it flows into Lake Washington; and the community, city of Seattle and development team were committed to preserving and restoring this precious natural resource.

    The city ultimately created the Thornton Creek Water Quality Channel, which carefully reconstructed the headwaters of the creek to serve as a natural detoxifier for the watershed drainage as it passes through the vegetation in the streambed, ultimately reducing pollution in Thornton Creek and eventually Lake Washington. The channel also serves as a signature backdrop to Thornton Place, bridging the gap between the natural world and this more urban environment, a distinctly Swedish approach.

    Early in the development process, we participated in the Green Building Council’s pilot sustainability rating program called LEED Neighborhood Development. The program considers a broader definition of sustainability by emphasizing the creation of compact, walkable, vibrant, mixed-use neighborhoods with good connections to nearby communities.

    Photo courtesy of Stellar Holdings
    Energy-efficient apartments in Stockholm use much less energy than typical American apartments.

    Thornton Place is adjacent to the region’s largest transit center park-and-ride, offering easy access to downtown Seattle and the Eastside. With a light-rail station coming in the next few years, the neighborhood’s connectivity will only improve.

    Additionally, the buildings themselves have earned a LEED silver designation, which includes: high-efficiency building envelope, windows, and heating and cooling systems; reuse or recycling of a majority of site-generated construction waste; use of native, drought-tolerant plants; low VOC interior finishes; and water-conserving faucets and toilets.

    Thornton Place possesses the best aspects of our European projects — which are sustainable, walkable and reflective of the highest standards of Swedish design while still being affordable. Where there was once an asphalt parking lot in Northgate now sits 109 condominiums, 278 apartments (some targeted for the workforce), and Aljoya, a 143-unit retirement community owned and developed by Era Living. Add to that a mix of 50,000 square feet of retail space with the area’s first 3,000-seat digital IMAX movie theater and you get the ultimate example of sustainable, mixed-use development.

    Lars Jonsson is founder and CEO of Stellar Holdings, a Seattle-based real estate developer and investor with projects in Seattle, Sweden and Poland. He has been actively involved in commercial real estate since coming to the U.S. in 1986 and was an investor in Pacific Place. He is Washington’s honorary Swedish consul.


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