July 25, 2002

Seattle LEEDs the nation in sustainable building

  • 11 city projects now registered under the system
    City of Seattle


    As the first municipality in the nation to adopt the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Silver target for its own major construction projects, the city of Seattle has now added sustainable building to its widely recognized reputation for environmental leadership.

    LEED stands for “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design” and is a menu-based rating system. Many other jurisdictions and major organizations have followed the city’s lead with similar programs, although not all at such an aggressive level of performance.

    The city adopted its sustainable building policy in early 2000, recognizing that by moving boldly, opportunities might be captured with the biggest civic building boom in the city’s history. And that’s exactly what happened — the city currently has 11 projects registered with the LEED system.

    Each of these new or remodeled buildings is moving far ahead of standard practice in energy and water efficiency, material resource efficiency, ecological site development, and improved indoor environmental quality. The projects are in various stages of design and construction, with the first, the Seattle Justice Center, due to be complete in August this year.

    Justice Center
    Photo courtesy of the city of Seattle
    LEED standards are being used on 11 buildings in Seattle, including the Justice Center.

    Other projects currently under construction include the new City Hall, Central Library, Southwest Precinct police facility, and the remodel of the McCaw Performance Hall and Fisher Festival Pavilion at Seattle Center.


    The city’s sustainable building program is part of Mayor Greg Nickels’ Environmental Action Agenda. In addition to increasing resource-efficiency, reducing environmental impacts and improving indoor environments, the program will yield cost savings to taxpayers through the long-term reduced operating costs of their facilities. The combined annual operating savings once all these LEED facilities are complete will total more than $500,000.

    The LEED system also helps to address improving our region’s economy, as it awards points for supporting local industries and manufacturers by specifying their products. Using local products helps lower transportation costs and impacts, and supports local jobs. Increasing sustainable building in city facilities and in the region also helps to protect the quality of life in the Pacific Northwest by conserving local resources, mitigating global warming and using site development strategies that help salmon.

    Another benefit of thinking more sustainable when we design facilities occupied by public safety personnel is that it can help limit hazards to building occupants, and ensure continuation of critical city services in the event of an emergency situation. Improved air filtration systems, increased use of on-site generated power, and well-designed and operating building systems can all contribute to disaster-preparedness and public safety.

    One of the major lessons that the city has learned as a result of this effort is to look at the total cost of ownership of its facilities. Most owner/developers focus almost exclusively on initial construction costs. However, when looked at over time, initial construction typically accounts for only 2 percent of the total cost, operations and maintenance 6 percent, but the payroll cost tallies in at a whopping 92 percent. (Source: The Economics of Green Building, by David Gottfried, Chapter 1 of the Sustainable Building Technical Manual, a publication of Public Technology Inc.)

    Investing in better working environments for staff, including better daylighting, access to views, air quality and thermal comfort, has been documented in research to increase productivity, job satisfaction and decrease staff turnover. All this adds up to a better, smarter and more cost-effective way to do business. The city will monitor and evaluate its actual savings and program benefits once its facilities are up and running, and will be sharing the results.

    Getting started

    pie chart
    Image courtesy of the city of Seattle

    Another important lesson already learned is that it is critical to start early with sustainable building. Clearly articulate sustainable building goals early in the project process: start with project planning and programming, work with a skilled cross-disciplinary design team, and integrate the sustainable solutions into the design, not add them on as “extras.” If these basic rules are followed, the cost for building a sustainable facility can be comparable to a conventional one.

    Using the LEED tool has been incredibly helpful for the city to meet its goals. One of LEED’s greatest values is that it provides clear design criteria and a common language for design teams, allowing for a more efficient and effective process. By defining benchmarks and organizing critical issues into theme areas, the sustainable design process is expedited. In addition, because it is a national tool developed by many experts, it allows the city to compare its performance to other jurisdictions in other parts of the country.

    The Northwest design community is keeping pace with the city’s leadership, with 18 percent of the nation’s LEED Accredited Professionals, an examination program offered by the U.S. Green Building Council.

    Sixteen percent of the LEED projects nationwide are located in the Northwest, and the city’s 11 projects represent 4 percent of the total square footage of LEED projects registered in the nation. For more information, to online to

    Lucia Athens, ASLA, is a licensed landscape architect and coordinates the city of Seattle’s Sustainable Building Program. She was previously a professor at the University of Georgia and lectures on sustainable design.

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