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August 31, 2021
June 28, 2021, was a memorable day. The hottest day on record in Seattle, a friend had to take refuge at my apartment. We laughed as she expressively cooled off in front of a portable air conditioner. Although, in truth, the situation wasn't that funny. Temperatures reached such heights in the city that a portion of the freeway buckled.
My friend had recently moved into a luxury 195-unit apartment building, built in 2011. The complex boasts great amenities that include a rooftop area, penthouse entertainment lounge, and on-site gym, but there is no in-unit air conditioning. When things cooled and she finally returned home, the heat in her one-bedroom apartment had been so severe that the TV had broken and candles had melted. It would not have been practical or healthy for her to have stayed home without some form of mechanical cooling.
My friend's situation was not unique, despite increasingly hot summers and what seems to be the now annual wildfire smoke that comes to coat the city each summer, air conditioning is not standard in the majority of Seattle area homes, and especially not in mid and high-rise apartment buildings. To get this amenity, you'd have to look to the city's uber luxury rentals, such as the SPIRE in downtown.
On the other hand, most commercial buildings in Seattle do have AC. According to Sarah Moore, director of engineering at McKinstry, there is also an increasing demand for AC in retrofits, especially in the healthcare and educational sectors. Is it about time then that the rental market followed suit?
Mechanical cooling is of course pricey, but with more dangerously hot days than ever before, has it reached the point where it is both a sensible and viable return on investment? Moore confirmed that although demand for the amenity is not as strong in real estate as other markets, it does appear to be growing. Lori Mason Curran, real estate investment strategy director at Vulcan Real Estate, concurred that it is becoming more and more common to include air-conditioning in mid-rise rental projects. “Air conditioning is typically available in certain units – around 30% or so,” she said. This is the case for the company’s Jackson Apartments at 2401 S. Jackson St. This building, designed by Runberg Architecture Group, includes MFTE units, but it is not clear if AC is available in these or only higher cost units.
In addition to soaring temperatures, a paradigm shift towards a more environmentally conscious culture might also pave the way for air conditioning to become a standard feature in the rental market. Modern HVAC technology like heat pumps, which can both cool and heat air, tend to be a superior choice in terms of versatility and energy efficiency over older, less sustainable, heating and cooling systems.
This shift might already be upon us.
“When I first worked in the industry it was like pulling teeth to get clients to prioritize energy efficiency in their designs and plans, now aggressive action in this area is increasingly demanded,” Moore confirmed.
Another thing working in the Seattle renter's favor is the state and legislation. The city offers significant tax incentives to those who build green through its Green Building Permit Incentives. Projects can gain additional height, floor area, or a faster building permit in exchange for meeting specific green building goals and certification.
Moreover, for those driven more by financial concerns, environmentally friendly cooling systems can be a cost-effective option, especially in the retrofitting of older buildings with less efficient heating systems. In a heat dominated climate like Seattle, replacing these with a heat pump can often reduce heating costs whilst also adding the ability to cool the air.
Green appliances, which emit low levels of heat, are another increasingly common energy efficient technology that could help cool things down for renters. They might even be enough to attract a possible renter to a property. In a 2020 report by the National Association of Realtors, 70% of agents and brokers indicated that promoting energy efficiency in their commercial listings was very or somewhat valuable.
It does then seem like the demand for AC exists on many levels.
As is often the case, offices of architecture and design firms are leading the way when it comes to models for keeping our spaces cool in sustainable and innovative ways, but also with the realization that air conditioning systems are becoming necessary in a city where temperatures continue to trend upwards.
Weber Thompson’s self-designed new office at the Watershed Building in Fremont (900 N 34th St.) offers a good example. Finished in 2020, the building is meant to keep cool without AC but it does include an air conditioning system - unlike the firms old office. Passive cooling features include high-tech self-tinting windows and extra insulation. With the unprecedented heat in June however air-conditioning did have to be used.
Over at Rice Fergus Miller, the companies ten-year-old building at 275 5th St in Bremerton stands as a testament to the ways in which properties can be designed – and in this case retrofitted - to require as little mechanical cooling as possible.
“They say this building was designed to be off,” explained Erin Hatch, director of marketing at Rice Fergus Miller. The three story 30,000 square feet property is constructed of concrete walls approximately one foot thick. This means that it takes a long time for things to heat up or cool down and the inside temperature remains relatively consistent throughout the day. The building also includes an aptly named ‘Big Ass Fan’ in an atrium, which further keeps things cool. Again, however, during the recent heatwave, AC was required.
“We had the cooling system on for about two hours in the morning and then the building remained at a comfortable level for the rest of the day, it never topped 80,” Hatch explained. “I think with regards to air conditioning, as temperatures rise in Seattle the message is that you can’t not have it, but how can we build and design in ways that mean we use it as little as possible?” she continued.
Another revolutionary building when it comes to innovative and sustainable ways to keep things cool is the Catalyst Building, on Eastern Washington University’s campus in Spokane, designed by Michael Green Architecture with HVAC systems provided by McKinstry. This five-story, 159,000 square-foot building, includes a state-of-the-art HVAC system, solar photovoltaics, solar shading and a near-passive house building envelope that adds to passive cooling.
Moving forward, it appears that when it comes to cooling, in all markets we can expect to see a holistic and environmentally friendly approach that fuses active and passive elements.
Nonetheless, when summer rolls around again, for thousands of renters it remains to be seen whether they will be able to stay cool at home, or if the journey to find AC and relief will continue.
Emma Hinchliffe can be reached by email or by phone at (206) 622-8272.