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February 17, 2011

City's role evolving as green practices take hold

  • The focus at Seattle’s planning department has changed from educating to facilitating, helping the private market carry out its own innovations.
    City of Seattle


    I’ve recently come to the conclusion that green building is like the old joke about the weather — wait five minutes and it will change.

    For my own home, built in 1901, I spent months determining the absolute best way to insulate it by weighing multiple considerations: best R-value, minimal thermal bridging, low infiltration, moisture resistance, and so on. I finally decided on spray foam only to read an article later indicating that its production process could emit more greenhouse gas than the foam saves once it’s installed. Turns out, I may have been better off considering mushrooms, an up-and-coming insulation product.

    The lesson? The green building community — designers, developers, builders as well as government entities — needs to remain nimble as we continue our efforts to create a sustainable future.

    I liken the approach needed to that of “adaptive management” used in the conservation field. At the risk of oversimplifying a complex, scientific approach, it goes something like this: conceptualize, implement, evaluate, repeat.

    Adaptive management recognizes that we need to both look to the future — for instance, net-zero energy buildings by 2030 — as well as act now to create change. It recognizes that I don’t need to wait for the perfect, fungi-based insulation before taking action to weatherize an old, leaky structure. In an iterative process, we can create change and continuously gather information, evaluate and improve on an evolving system.

    City Green Building

    Photo by Francis Zera [enlarge]
    The city managed the development of Fire Station 28 in Rainier Valley, a $12 million project that opened in 2009 and recently earned a LEED gold rating. The project was designed by Schreiber Starling & Lane Architects and built by Bershauer Phillips Construction Co.

    At the Department of Planning and Development the City Green Building team, in collaboration with Seattle City Light, Seattle Public Utilities and Office of Sustainability and Environment, is doing its best to remain nimble and adapt to the changing green building market.

    Nimble? City government? I know, I hear the snickers now. But in my own experience moving from the private sector to working within the city, I find on this side of the counter an amazing level of passion, engagement and creativity that goes into envisioning and putting in place the policies and programs that will keep us on the path to a better Seattle.

    City Green Building’s mission is to make sustainable development standard practice in Seattle. Originally established in 1999 as a team of dedicated individuals from across city departments, City Green Building was brought together in 2006 as one unit in DPD’s planning division. The program initially focused on outreach, education and technical assistance.

    The initial achievement was market transformation, with select projects providing proof that green buildings are viable, both environmentally and economically. As the market advanced, we found there existed an extremely knowledgeable and innovative group of professionals in the design, development and construction community.

    Our role needed to change from educator to facilitator, helping the private market carry out its own innovative approaches. City Green Building is now working at the broader scale of policy and code development. We have grown from influencing individual projects to adopting an environmental approach for sustainable development as a whole.

    Following is an outline of the key Seattle green building initiatives for 2011 and beyond. The initiatives fall into three main categories, covering the spectrum of adaptive management: conceptualize, implement and evaluate.


    Links for your next Seattle
    green building project:
    City Green Building: www.seattle.gov/dpd/greenbuilding

    Priority Green: www.seattle.gov/dpd/permits/greenpermitting

    Community Power Works: www.communitypowerworks.org

    Seattle City Light Conservation Incentives: www.seattle.gov/light/conserve/

    Seattle Public Utilities Green Building: www.seattle.gov/util/About_SPU/Management Click on “SPU & the Environment,” then “Green Building.”

    While the private market in Seattle is certainly advancing green building on its own, we can help to look ahead and push the envelope by advancing our own cutting-edge approaches through policies and planning.

    Leading by example. In 2000 Seattle became the first city in the nation to formally adopt a sustainable building policy in which all capital projects greater than 5,000 square feet are called upon to achieve LEED silver.

    Ten years later, the policy is outdated with both private and public projects in Seattle easily exceeding the standard, and with more aggressive policies in place in many other jurisdictions. Combined with the city’s growing emphasis on addressing climate change, it is time to renew our leadership position.

    The proposal for an updated policy, currently under development, will include an expanded scope that addresses both new and existing capital buildings, ensures alignment with the city’s environmental priorities and provides for ongoing improvement over time.

    Seattle 2030 District. As part of a private-public partnership, the city is working with private owners, developers, building managers and design and engineering professionals to create a groundbreaking high-performance building district in downtown Seattle.

    The district has adopted the 2030 Challenge for Planners with the goal of 50 percent energy, water and transportation emission reductions district-wide by 2030. The city will work closely with the private sector to develop baselines, targets and strategies.

    The 2030 District organization will help members to find financing, share critical tools and best practices, and create joint educational opportunities towards decreasing their buildings’ utility consumption and operating costs.

    The future of codes. A model Green Construction Code (IgCC) is under development by the International Code Council, slated for final release in March of 2012. The IgCC would provide a common baseline of environmental performance for all projects.

    To ensure the final product would be one that could meet its own needs, the city of Seattle has been one of the few municipalities to be engaged in evaluating and developing revisions for each iteration of the draft code. In a related code initiative, the city is working with the Preservation Green Lab to investigate the potential for an outcome-based energy code approach, especially for existing buildings.


    Making green building happen entails incentives that encourage change as well as regulations that ensure it.

    Priority Green. Priority Green provides permitting incentives to accelerate the adoption of green building practices in the private sector. Incentives range from expedited permitting for projects meeting established green building standards to facilitated reviews for highly innovative projects with potential code challenges.

    Priority Green has been put in place incrementally over the past two years, culminating with the addition of expedited permitting for multifamily and commercial projects last November. Despite the current down economy, the program currently has 10 projects under construction and six in review.

    The city is revising the requirements for Priority Green Expedited to be consistent with the recently adopted 2009 Seattle Energy Code.

    Living Building pilot. Priority Green includes incentives for projects pushing the envelope of green building.

    One such approach is the Living Building Challenge, a green building rating system that recognizes buildings meeting the highest levels of sustainability. Living Buildings are required to be self-sufficient for energy and water needs and meet advanced standards for elements such as material use and quality of the indoor environment.

    In order to meet these standards, projects may utilize design approaches that may be inadvertently discouraged or prohibited by existing land-use code. The Living Building Pilot Program was put in place to allow flexibility in the application of development standards to accommodate innovative technologies and design approaches.

    Community Power Works. Led by the Office of Sustainability and Environment, Community Power Works is a Seattle neighborhood-based building retrofit program that will achieve deep energy savings and create green jobs.

    Funded by a $20 million award from the federal Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant BetterBuildings program, CPW will target existing residential, commercial, hospital and municipal buildings. The program includes a range of incentives, including subsidized energy audits, low-interest loans and retrofit assistance.

    With the goal of achieving 15 percent to 45 percent in energy savings per building retrofitted, the initiative will be a significant component of the city’s work to reduce energy use in existing buildings by 20 percent.

    Energy disclosure. In 2008 the city established a goal of reducing energy use in existing buildings by 20 percent by 2020. To help to meet that goal, the city enacted energy use benchmarking legislation that requires all buildings in Seattle that meet specified size and use thresholds to report aggregate annual energy use consumption for that building to the city, and to disclose that information to potential purchasers or tenants.

    The energy benchmarking and disclosure program is designed to increase access to information about comparative energy consumption in buildings and to encourage the market to drive energy efficiency investments. By tracking energy use data, the city will be able to better understand typical building energy loads, monitor changes in energy use over time and identify opportunities to improve building efficiency.


    We don’t yet know what we’ll learn from energy disclosure, but we do know that unless we understand the issue we can’t effectively address it.

    As the adage says, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. That’s the basic premise behind energy disclosure. It’s also an important element of the city’s overall approach to green building.

    Green building portfolio analysis. Over the past two years, the city has generated a process to conduct an ongoing analysis of the impacts of LEED- and Built Green-certified buildings. Gathering information from the U.S. Green Building Council, Built Green, and building owners and designers, we’ve established a tracking system that identifies the overall numbers of green projects built each year, the types of green strategies used, and the projected yearly savings in transportation, water, energy, carbon and waste.

    In 2011, we’ll be looking more specifically at projects participating in Priority Green: how many and what types of projects participate, what strategies they use and what environmental savings are being encouraged by the program. With a better understanding of its effectiveness, we can make informed refinements to Priority Green and continue to improve its impact.

    While the full range of the green building work throughout the city is more extensive than what can easily be covered in this synopsis, a few common themes emerge from the breadth of activity captured above: Building a better Seattle involves both improving standard practice and pushing the envelope by promoting innovation. Our work will continue to evolve as we learn about new strategies and approaches and as we identify what works well, and what doesn’t, and we shall be both looking to the future and doing what we can do now.

    Speaking of what we can do now, is a ductless mini-split heat pump the best option for updating my home’s inefficient heating system, or...?

    Sandra Mallory is the program manager for City Green Building, in Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development.

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