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September 27, 2018
Specialty: Consulting to create a sustainable built environment; policy, planning, programs, projects and education
Management: Principals Elizabeth A.D. Powers, Alistair Jackson, Donna Trost
2017 revenues: N/A
Projected 2018 revenues: 10 percent growth
Projects: Sitka in South Lake Union, developed by Vulcan; Red Cedar in the Yesler Terrace redevelopment by Seattle Housing Authority
The DJC asked O’Brien & Co. principal Elizabeth Powers about trends and issues in the industry. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What recent projects are you most proud of?
A: O’Brien & Co. is providing technical assistance and verification services on two exemplary multifamily projects: Sitka in South Lake Union, developed by Vulcan; and Red Cedar, a Yesler Terrace redevelopment project by Seattle Housing Authority.
We are also providing LEED certification support to the University of Washington, which has several outstanding projects: North Campus Housing; Population Health Facility, which is the first LEED version 4 project on campus; and West Campus Utility Plant, which earned gold certification under Envision, a rating system for sustainable infrastructure.
Q: How have you diversified your business in response to increasing workload?
A: The field of sustainable building is expanding its focus on how the built environment influences public and individual health and O’Brien & Co. is actively working with many clients on this topic. In terms of sectors, we are more engaged in existing buildings than ever before. As the largest portion of the building stock by far, existing buildings represent the best opportunity to create change.
Q: Are clients requesting more technological advances as the sustainability industry matures and evolves?
A: Our field is continuously raising the bar because we still have a way to go before the built environment is creating a positive impact by which to offset previous negative impact. Technologically, a lot of the solutions already exist. It is more about applying them consistently at scale.
Q: Can you cite improvements in sustainability technology used in your recent projects?
A: Some examples are electric vehicles, on-site renewable energy production (which is getting very cost effective with the drop in the cost of solar systems), and approaches to energy-efficient buildings such as passive house and heat pumps combined with direct outdoor air supply and heat recovery.
Q: Are your clients still focused on the bottom line when considering sustainable design practices and standards?
A: Clients pursue sustainable building for many different reasons, but all the reasons related to a value they ascribe to sustainability. Mission-based companies and public agencies need to walk-the-talk and often want to lead or set an example.
Many organizations find a commitment to sustainability necessary for recruitment and retention, from colleges and universities trying to attract students to tech companies seeking the best talent.
Some projects are motivated primarily by incentives such as additional funding or FAR. These projects are primarily focused on lowest first cost sustainability features, whereas others are interested in overall life-cycle cost reduction because they will maintain and operate the building.
Another value that could relate directly to the bottom line soon is carbon reduction. Organizations that made commitments to address climate change are finding that they need to set specific standards for their buildings to meet the greenhouse gas reduction targets they set. Meanwhile, both the public and the state government are pushing for some sort of regulation on carbon emissions which could impact almost every business’ bottom line.