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September 26, 2013

What’s next in green building? Seattle has it

  • Seattle recently reasserted itself as the center of progressive green building, pushing designs and methods that will take the city to the next level of environmental efficiency.
    Skanska USA


    In less than two months, the green building community will come together in Philadelphia for the annual Greenbuild conference.

    This year’s event comes at a time when green building practices are under the microscope. Special interest groups are pointing to a handful of high-profile LEED-certified projects as examples of how LEED is little more than a plaque and some tax benefits. Legislation that is being considered at national and state levels is using misinformation to restrict the use of LEED. It is troubling that the positive impacts LEED-compliant projects collectively have on the health of the environment are getting lost in the political shuffle.

    This is unfortunate as the misinformation ignores the majority of cases where the right set of design and construction methods were used to create spaces that are positive for the environment, operational expenses and the experience of the end users. Skanska’s Seattle office was designed and built to LEED gold standards and we see significant savings in energy use and quality of life over “traditional” office space. In a slim-margin industry like construction, every dollar saved counts.

    This is a time when Seattle is on the cusp of doing great things in the name of green and our city gets it. Seattle recently reasserted itself as the center of progressive green building, pushing designs and methods that will take the city to the next level of environmental efficiency. This is what should be getting attention at Greenbuild and in legislative chambers.

    Image by studio/216 [enlarge]
    Brooks Sports’ new headquarters is participating in Seattle’s Deep Green Pilot Program.

    While special interest groups spur debate elsewhere, Seattle is pushing programs that take the knowledge gained from more than a decade of LEED experience to the next level, offering visionary ideas along with practical solutions.

    On the visionary side, Seattle is home to the first primary school facility to be certified as a Living Building in the Lower 48 states, the Bertschi School’s Science Wing expansion. This is no small accomplishment. Not long ago, the idea of net-zero energy, net-zero water facilities made with only sustainably sourced materials was good for cocktail party discussion, but deemed impractical. Now, it’s a reality, right up on Capitol Hill.

    In the same neighborhood, the Bullitt Center is aiming for the same certification as the first commercial office building to take on the International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge.

    Even as these pioneering buildings took shape, it was easy to find skeptics. Primary amongst the questions was the cost to build. With anything that is the first entry in a category, costs — and learning curves — are high. The same was true when LEED was first introduced. Today, studies show that the cost of building to LEED standards doesn’t have to cost more and that lifecycle cost savings can quickly pay back the additional upfront investment. Additionally, studies indicate that green buildings have higher tenant retention rates.

    Costs for net-zero buildings will only decrease and elements from them will soon be integrated into more traditional designs.

    Photo by Benjamin Benschneider [enlarge]
    Bertschi School’s Science Wing expansion is the first primary school facility certified as a Living Building in the Lower 48 states.

    We’re already seeing it happen. Living Building projects are enabling a new level of efficiency in buildings. Skanska is developing Stone34 in Fremont to be the new headquarters for Brooks Sports. This building, which is participating in Seattle’s Deep Green Pilot Program, is benefitting from the strategies and experiences gained in creating nearby Living Building projects.

    At Stone34, water and energy use is reduced well beyond LEED requirements using net-zero strategies to help push the needle forward. Regionally produced sustainable materials are being sourced that support the long-term approach to our environment and community.

    That regional sourcing factor should not be ignored. While environmental benefits are always touted, current green building standards put an extra emphasis on providing positive outcomes for regional businesses — specifically materials manufacturers and suppliers. That effort helps to provide a true economic boost, but this fact has been lost in the national LEED “debate.”

    Considering that Stone34 will put the economic and environmental factors together and manage to offer tenants market-rate lease levels, the question becomes why shouldn’t everyone from the development, architecture and construction communities be committed to progressive green standards?

    Local thinking and commitment drove the bleeding edge projects that are now influencing Seattle’s built environment. The region’s architects, engineers and contractors are showing that green building isn’t the pursuit of a plaque, but instead an opportunity to build projects that minimize operating expenses, increase environmental sustainability and create places where people want to be. Seattle can lead the nation in showing how this can work everywhere.

    The LEED discussion is only intensifying as LEED v4 rolls out. Seattle will likely be on the forefront of adoption of the new standard as the city is pushing to new heights already.

    Chicago, Philadelphia and other cities can boast about the number of LEED-certified buildings or the LEED-certified square feet they have. These are worthy accomplishments. However, Seattle is the hub of what’s next in green building practices. The city is situated on the intersection of form and function in the name of environmental and economic sustainability.

    Chris Toher is the executive vice president and general manager of Skanska USA Building in Seattle.

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