March 17, 2005

Seattle can show the world how to be green

  • Scandinavia offers hints on how to do it
    International Sustainable Solutions

    Photo by Denise Fong/Candela
    Sparling CEO Jim Duncan looks out over a small retention pond tucked into a housing development at Western Harbor in Malmo, Sweden.

    For two years we have brought Northwest developers, design professionals and public officials to Europe to see innovative examples of urban sustainability firsthand.

    One of the first stops on the tour is the Western Harbor development in Malmo, Sweden.

    Western Harbor is a Disneyland of urban sustainability. With its green roofs, car-free streets, stormwater-fed wetlands and renewable energy-powered homes, Western Harbor challenges us to consider the possibilities in our own region.

    Western Harbor was not always like this. When Malmo Mayor Ilmar Reepalu first took office in the 1990s he inherited a city in free fall. The historically blue-collar town, with some of the largest shipyards in the world, had seen its shipbuilding industry disappear within a few years.

    Reepalu, an architect, knew that bold measures were needed. It was clear that heavy industry was never coming back, so he created a new identity for Malmo as a global leader in urban sustainability.

    Planning for Western Harbor, dubbed the "city of tomorrow," was started in 1997. By 2001 Western Harbor had already held a major international building expo. Today, international delegations from around the world, including ours, come to see what is being created on this former brownfield site.

    Green neighborhood

    Photo by Jim Mueller/Gregory BroderickSmith Real Estate
    Narrow streets help limit traffic and allow buildings to line the waterways that channel stormwater. The Turning Torso Building, designed by Santiago Calatrava, rises in the background as an iconic symbol of the new Malmo.

    Western Harbor's 395 acres of formerly contaminated shipyard land now includes affordable and expensive housing, a new university campus and a combination of retail, office and service space.

    It will ultimately house 10,000 people and serve 20,000 employees.

    Western Harbor is more than a collection of interesting projects — it is an entire district designed to become one of the most sustainable neighborhoods in the world. The city drew up a well-conceived program with real estate developers to establish targets for green space, energy use, parking and other considerations.

    For example, "green space factor" guidelines outlined a menu of ways in which developers could achieve targets for maintaining green spaces and encouraging biodiversity. Green roofs, porous paving surfaces, courtyards filled with natural vegetation — these and many other options gave developers great flexibility in meeting their requirements.

    Sustainable energy

    One of the most inspiring goals of Western Harbor is that, on a net annual basis, all of the energy used in the district must come from renewable sources.

    Western Harbor proves that it is possible to build a new urban district with no additional carbon dioxide emissions from energy production.

    The concept began with the premise that energy consumption must be minimized through energy-efficient construction.

    All structures in Western Harbor are designed to operate within an annual energy budget of 105 kilowatt hours per square meter, or about 33,280 BTUs per square foot. By comparison, the Seattle Justice Center — which earned a LEED silver rating, making it one of the most sustainable buildings in our region — consumes about 77,800 BTU per square foot.

    The energy budget defines the target for Western Harbor's performance-based energy standard, with most specifics on materials and building design left up to the builder. The emphasis is on "smart" buildings, and information technology is used extensively to manage water and energy consumption.

    Remaining energy needs are provided by a range of technologies — roof-mounted solar photovoltaic (PV) panels and a nearby wind turbine produce electricity, kitchen waste is collected to produce biogas, and building-integrated solar thermal panels fulfill 15 percent of the heating load.

    Additional heating and cooling is powered by a ground-source heat pump station coupled to a groundwater aquifer heat-exchange system that feeds into a district energy system.

    These diverse energy resources, though largely installed on private property, are owned and operated by Sydkraft, the local energy utility.

    Photo by Steve McConnell/NBBJ
    Quiet courtyards and open green spaces are interspersed throughout Western Harbor, providing habitat that supports urban biodiversity.

    All energy systems have been tied into the city's electric and thermal distribution grids, allowing the utility to gain valuable experience in integrating these distributed resources.

    Another interesting aspect is the way the city encouraged experimentation. In our meetings with architects, building owners and utility representatives in Malmo we learned that not everything worked out as planned.

    For example, detailed follow-up audits showed that some of the buildings failed to achieve their energy targets — the average districtwide consumption was actually 125 kilowatt hours per square meter (39,600 BTUs per square foot) which, while still exemplary by our standards, was 19 percent above the targets. Costs for some of the technologies were found to be too expensive given current market conditions.

    Far from being viewed as failures, the knowledge gained from these discoveries is seen as one of the benefits of this living laboratory of urban sustainability.

    When investigators found that errors in the energy modeling software were largely to blame for the buildings falling short of their performance expectations, the software was corrected. Ultimately, the improvements will enable the software to be more successfully marketed throughout the world.

    Lessons for Seattle

    In Sweden, carrying out a grand vision is comparatively easy because of the top-down approach of the society.

    When Sweden wanted to create an urban showcase for sustainability, it required leadership and vision, but once the concepts were agreed to, making the vision a reality was easy compared with what it would take here.

    Sweden is a socialist country where the government still owns much of the land, and most residential and commercial development occurs through large tenant-owned coops. In Seattle, such a vision would require significant collaboration between various government departments, a multitude of real estate owners and developers, residential and business tenants, and building professionals.

    This would be a daunting but exciting prospect for Seattle and, if carried out, would become our own showcase for the world.

    Western Harbor is such a remarkable accomplishment because the city defined lofty but achievable goals and then set out to determine how to achieve them.

    As Dick Robison of Mithun, a participant on one of the trips, remarked, "When they do something there they do it to a level that is extraordinary."

    International Sustainable Solutions, working with other organizations that have explored these issues, has proposed five goals for a model sustainable neighborhood in Seattle:

    • What if city centers were people-friendly, so that families could live where they work?

    • What if roofs increased urban green? (Look out from a downtown office and imagine what a difference it would make!)

    • What if we dramatically decreased our reliance on fossil fuels by developing locally produced sustainable energy?

    • What if stormwater was an amenity, and not just hidden underground?

    • What if over 65 percent of commuters got to work by walking, biking or public transportation?

    If we did all of this and more, would other communities in the United States and throughout the world be interested in buying the products and the services that we developed by creating this reality for ourselves?

    Sustainability study tours
    International Sustainable Solutions encourages the use of sustainability practices and products by sharing knowledge and creating market opportunities.

    In 2004, International Sustainable Solutions brought several groups of architects, engineers, developers and others from the Pacific Northwest to Scandinavia to look at advanced urban sustainability projects.

    Applications are now being accepted for the next Urban Sustainability Study Tour to Sweden and Denmark in May.

    For more information see the ISS Web site at

    Ask a simple question: after the 2003 breakdown of the transmission infrastructure on the East Coast and the continuing vulnerability of our energy supplies to disruption by terrorists, how many communities would like to have some part of their energy generated locally under their control? This is just one example of expertise we could gain here and sell throughout the world.

    Denmark is one place where they have already proven the economic benefits of sustainable development.

    Driven initially out of necessity by the high cost of imported energy supplies, Denmark embarked on a path to develop its own sustainable energy solutions and innovative approaches to building design.

    Today sustainable energy technologies are Denmark's largest export, and the industry employs thousands throughout the country.

    Seattle is in a position unique within the United States. Local government, much of the development community and the general public already favor sustainability.

    A concerted effort to create and use advanced sustainability technologies, products and services would encourage the development of professional expertise and proven new products that could be leveraged to attract clients from home and abroad.

    Developing a district that uses the most advanced sustainability measures would create a showcase that would attract attention throughout the world.

    The Northwest has shown time and again how it can help industries grow into positions of worldwide leadership, whether the product is software, coffee or airplanes.

    We have a rare opportunity to work together in a broad coalition of government and private interests to develop a new industry for the betterment of society, the environment and our economy. This is what sustainability is all about, and a city that's known for being green should be the leader.

    Jayson Antonoff and Patricia Chase are the owners of International Sustainable Solutions.

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