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March 4, 2021

4 Living Buildings: collaborative, courageous, open-minded learning

  • We cannot thrive or survive without one another, and that extends to the way we design and construct smart buildings.


    Last year, humans were reminded of the fragile ecosystem we live in with each other, our interdependency and how isolation can have significant, negative impact.

    Nothing in nature thrives or even survives in isolation. Trees in a forest rely on a complex fungi system beneath the surface of the soil, known as mycorrhizas, to transfer nutrients, carbon, water, and even to alert one another of a nearby illness or trouble. Some species of clown fish and sea anemone have a mutually beneficial relationship where they depend on one another for survival. The clown fish takes refuge in the sea anemone and the sea anemone benefits from the clown fish cleaning it and providing it with nutrients from its waste. This is possible because the clown fish has a stronger mucus layer than most fish which protects it against the sea anemone’s viscous stingers, its nematocysts, allowing it to hide happily from its predators.

    We humans, as part of nature, are no different — we cannot thrive or survive without one another. This extends to the way we design and construct smart, efficient, sustainable, even restorative, buildings.


    Four projects currently pursuing the city of Seattle’s Living Building Pilot Program (LBPP) illustrate this humanity and deep collaboration across design teams. The LBPP provides height and floor area incentives (up to 25% more floor area and 12.5-30 feet of additional height, depending on zone limits) for buildings in exchange for meeting high-performance sustainable design, construction, and operations requirements. While there are multiple requirements for the LBPP, the advanced energy efficiency strategies alone showcase the need for deep collaboration, trust, curious problem solving, open-minded learning, and courageous transparency to design and construct buildings which acknowledge our future.


    Liza apartments, Western & Cedar apartments, Magnolia Safeway condominiums and the 570 Mercer office building are all pursuing the LBPP. Each striving for distinctly different LBPP compliance paths, Rushing is aligning with each of these project teams to identify LBPP energy and water efficiency strategies, as well as providing mechanical, electrical, plumbing engineering (MEP), lighting design, and living building/sustainability consulting.

    In the evolution of these projects so far, there are common threads of integrated team behavior which are bringing innovative solutions to the table:

    • Listening attentively, with curiosity of the needs, varying perspectives, and drivers of ownership, all disciplines, and occupants.

    • Seeking out learning beyond that project, including gathering data and lessons learned from previous LBPP projects.

    • Striking a careful balance between multiple, potentially conflicting, goals, for example minimizing energy use and optimizing human health.

    Liza apartments

    Image by Hewitt [enlarge]
    Across from Rogers Playground park in Eastlake, Liza apartments will integrate with the thoroughfare through the neighborhood.

    Liza apartments at 2517 Eastlake — a six-story, 185-unit residential building in the Eastlake neighborhood of Seattle — is going beyond net-zero energy, targeting net-positive energy in compliance with the Living Building Challenge (LBC) Energy Petal Certification. This requires the building to generate more energy than it uses. The project is also pursuing the city of Seattle’s water requirement of no potable water use for irrigation, toilet flushing, and a few other uses, as well as the LBC Beauty and Place Petals. This endeavor began with the developer team’s proactive investigation into the LBPP as an option for enhancing the project’s bottom line and environmental impact, all in one. Washington Holdings and Pollard Entities began by seeking collaboration not only within the project team but beyond as well. They connected with previous LBPP project teams to learn from their experiences and toured Insight and Bullitt Center.

    Given the target to generate more energy than will be used in the building, the team did a deep dive into how to engage occupants in the building’s energy efficiency target. This led to exploration, by multiple disciplines, of energy-saving strategies well beyond what is typically explored for a code compliant building, including: a tenant utility data sharing program; feedback systems to create energy use awareness and prompt behavior change, e.g. smart thermostats, energy-use light displays, and energy dashboards; clotheslines to reduce the use of driers; and signage in and around the building to share the energy story to prompt behavior change beyond the building footprint. This project team includes Washington Holdings and Pollard Entities, Hewitt, Navix, Rushing, and Exxel Pacific.

    Western & Cedar

    Image by GGLO [enlarge]
    Western & Cedar will be one of the first net positive energy high-rises in Seattle.

    Western & Cedar is an 18-story, 185-unit, residential apartment building in the Belltown neighborhood of Seattle, also pursuing net-positive energy as part of LBC’s Energy, Health & Happiness, and Beauty Petals Certification, as well as the reduced potable water use requirement. This project tells a strong story of team collaboration to determine a smart balance of potentially conflicting ownership goals, specifically (1) energy efficiency and human health (air quality) and (2) energy efficiency and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (i.e. future-proofing of removing refrigerant). Regarding enhanced air quality and energy efficiency, ERVs (energy recovery ventilators) will be installed in each unit. The negative air quality impacts of using gas appliances is another related exploration on this balance of health and energy use. Preliminary findings are showing gas stovetops result in air quality that could be below the levels prescribed in the LBC Health & Happiness Petal.

    Inclusion of refrigerant was debated among the team given its negative GHG impacts and predictions of it being outlawed in coming years. Mechanical systems evaluated were VRF (variant refrigerant flow), which includes long lines of refrigerant, and hydronic heat pumps, among others. The hydronic system illustrated lower efficiency than VRF, when designed such that it wouldn’t require amounts of water which would jeopardize the LBPP water requirement (non-potable water use required for this). VRF was selected for the project.

    This project team includes Saratoga Capital, GGLO, KPFF, Rushing and Exxel Pacific.

    Magnolia Safeway

    Image by Bumgardner [enlarge]
    A birds-eye view of the Magnolia Safeway courtyard, designed as a community gathering space.

    Magnolia Safeway is a seven-story, 180-unit residential condominium project with ground floor grocery space in the Magnolia neighborhood of Seattle. The project team is pursuing the city of Seattle’s LBPP reduced potable water use requirement, energy target of 25% improvement beyond Seattle Energy Code (SEC), and the LBC Materials, Health & Happiness, and Beauty Petals.

    The building is being designed with a shared energy system where heat given off by the grocery store refrigerator cases is being harnessed to offset the heating for the condo spaces, grocery space, and hot water. Both Security Properties and Safeway have been instrumental is supporting this approach from day one, seeing this brilliant pairing: why would we reject heat when it can be used elsewhere in the building? Not only has each team member contributed to implement this design concept, data from previous projects was gathered to inform right sizing and energy performance. Safeway provided valuable data from other stores, and the team harnessed lessons learned from other LBC projects, such as the PCC in Ballard.

    To start off on the right path, a biophilic design workshop was conducted by Rushing, early in design, in which team members explored their own connections to nature, how nature could be woven into the building design, and the health benefits of doing so. Tears were shed, vulnerable stories were told, and open-minded learning, courageous communication, and team connection was fostered. It is the establishment of this dynamic which led to investigation of innovative solutions such as dynamic, sculptural elements which mimic flocks of birds, use of groundwater to flush toilets, strategic use of daylight in order to minimize electric lighting, green building education opportunities for the school across the street, and expressions of water and energy use at the street level.

    Key Magnolia Safeway team members include Security Properties, Safeway, Bumgardner, KPFF, Rushing, Exxel Pacific, Communita Atelier, and Michela Communications.

    570 Mercer

    570 Mercer, an eight-story, 114,294-square-foot office building at the boundary of SLU and Lower Queen Anne neighborhoods in Seattle, is also targeting the city of Seattle’s LBPP reduced potable water use requirement, energy target of 25% improvement beyond SEC and the LBC Materials, Place, and Beauty Petals.

    The identification of a strong water-use strategy has demanded a full team endeavor examining predicted number of occupants, toilet flush flow rates, performance, maintenance, plant types for irrigation needs, available roof collection area, and climate patterns over the past 20-plus years. This exercise required all contributors to bring their relevant data to the table to weigh carefully together and determine the ideal recipe of factors to meet the project’s needs.

    Also wanting to create a building beneficial for human health, Schnitzer and the team are looking at strategies to contribute to potential reduction of transmission of viruses, i.e. COVID-19, specifically bi-polar ionization which creates ions that attach to virus particles and other VOCs, increasing their weight to cause them to be more easily captured by filters or fall to the floor more quickly.

    The 570 Mercer project team includes Schnitzer West LLC, Weber Thompson, Navix, Rushing, and PCL, among others.


    None of these design explorations can be done in silos. Together, we can do this though. If entire ecosystems can come back to life by sharing resources and working together, we can build cities which restore and give back, rather than deplete our resources and natural systems. We can create a healthy future by continuing the momentum of respectful, transparent, open collaboration, exemplified in these and all deep green and LBPP projects. Let us ask ourselves each day what we can do to bring this deeply woven collaboration, ears open for learning, egos checked at the door, and utmost respect for one another’s perspectives and expertise into all our design and construction efforts.

    Alexandra Ramsden is a principal and director of sustainability, energy and commissioning at Rushing Co.

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