April 19, 2001

New views of sustainable site design from Rainier Vista

  • City and consultants get ready to take the next step in sustainable design.
    Nakano Associates

    Green design is more than an attitude and a set of goals, it’s a team effort. When sustainable goals don’t fit squarely with existing codes and regulations, designer and owner must work together with regulating authorities to make them a reality. The Seattle Housing Authority’s Rainier Vista redevelopment project is a case in point.

    Nakano Associates has been exploring the application of sustainable site design strategies at Rainier Vista with the support of SHA and other members of the design team: Tonkin, Hoyne, Lokan Architects; GGLO Architecture; Kobayashi & Associates; SVR Design Co.; and Path Engineers. They have been working with the city to explore possibilities for applying green design approaches to the 65-acre site.

    Rainier Vista is located about 3.5 miles south of downtown Seattle in the Rainier Valley. This large urban site contains 481 existing housing units managed by SHA. Built in 1942 as homes for Boeing workers during WWII, the development has exceeded its useful economic life.

    The existing buildings and infrastructure are slated for demolition, and will be replaced by about 1,000 new housing units, new community facilities for social service agencies and providers, and mixed-use commercial buildings. The project is designed as a transit-oriented development that will integrate the nearby proposed Edmunds light-rail station. The development seeks to apply New Urbanism principles to create a vibrant urban neighborhood that integrates seamlessly into the surrounding neighborhood.

    Sustainable site design

    At the overall planning level, sustainable site design concepts are expressed in the master plan, with significant increase in density. This is consistent with this area’s urban village concept and its transit-oriented focus, which maximizes the use of the land. The signature New Urbanism street grid pattern is tempered by occasional curving arterial and residential street configurations, which will preserve significant trees and reduce the need for extensive grading along the sloping flanks of the Rainier Valley.

    The design strategies at the site-specific level primarily involve stormwater management. These strategies are either simulations of natural systems or applications of the way natural systems handle runoff, adapted to the urban environment and construction practices.

    The first sustainable site design strategy is to minimize the amount of impervious surfaces. The traditional grid pattern of streets, alleys and pedestrian/bike paths creates an interconnected network of infrastructure and open spaces.

    The design team would like to reduce the street width for appropriate segments and alter alley configurations, and is advocating the use of pervious surfaces such as grass, gravel and other porous paving systems.

    Another concept is to maximize the infiltration of runoff close to the area where it is generated. The team envisions on-grade conveyance of runoff in road right-of-ways that incorporates natural, green treatment of this stormwater. Roads without the traditional curbs and gutters are proposed, to allow runoff to flow to roadside swales.

    Capturing and using clean water on site for gravity-fed irrigation of street trees in the road right-of-ways is being explored. Rainier Vista’s geology is typical of much the Puget Sound, with layers of glacial till and silty sands. This subsurface structure contains water that emerges in the form of seeps or springs along the east and west flanks of the project site. Rainwater can be harvested from rooftops.

    These site strategies are a select few of many options that could be considered for sustainable design. They are not new. Many have been successfully applied on other projects in Europe, the U.S. and the Seattle area. Sustainable building principles are also being applied to the mix of public housing, senior and disabled housing, affordable for-sale housing, market rate housing, community facilities and mixed-use structures.

    Working in sustainable design

    The process of introducing sustainable design principles to the Rainier Vista design has been incremental. SHA has been a supportive client while helping the design team keep central SHA’s mission: to provide affordable housing within budget and on schedule.

    Federal HUD Hope VI funding provides the majority of the project’s budget and many of the sustainable strategies do not fall neatly into city of Seattle standards and practices. Therefore SHA, concerned with the possibility of cost increases, permit and design review delays, needs assurance from the design team and the city. To this end, a meeting to discuss the issues involved in applying sustainable site design principles to this large scale public housing project was arranged with the support of city council members Richard Conlin, Peter Steinbrueck and Heidi Wills, the Mayor’s office, and Lucia Athens of Seattle Public Utilities’ Sustainable Design & Construction Section.

    The design team, along with Mark Buehrer of 2020 Engineering, a civil engineering firm which specializes in environmental sustainability, met with the city representatives, SHA, and members of various divisions of SeaTran, SPU, and CityDesign. City representatives will work with the design team to refine the design and shepherd the project through the design and review process.

    This is where the project currently stands. There are no definite commitments, but the meeting was an impressive demonstration of our city’s openness and its willingness to apply sustainable design concepts on a broad scale.

    To that end, the city has adopted a sustainable building policy and is now using the U.S. Green Building Rating System as a standard for all its new capital projects. Last year, the salmon friendly design charrette generated creative approaches and solutions to specific scenarios with a focus on water quality and salmon habitat.

    Last fall, Seattle Public Utilities and SeaTran completed the experimental pilot project called the Seattle Edge Alternatives Street on a block in the Broadview neighborhood. This project incorporates a number of the concepts being considered for Rainier Vista. The agencies are currently monitoring the results to gather further information.

    Seattle Public Utilities released its stormwater, grading and drainage control code last November, which details additional techniques, many from alternative technologies, that accomplish localized infiltration, storage and treatment. This code was developed by SPU to comply with the state Department of Ecology’s mandate, which was spurred by the Endangered Species Act. The techniques outlined include infiltration facilities such as trenches, rock pockets, dry wells, planters and bioengineered planting strips.

    Elizabeth Daniel from the Seattle Chamber of Commerce Business and Industry Recycling Venture played a key role in helping the design team establish project sustainability goals.

    These efforts and projects like Rainier Vista not only provide us with green buildings and desirable affordable housing, but also present an incredible opportunity to forge a framework and a process for planning, designing and implementing sustainable communities — a legacy for future generations.

    Brad Kurokawa is a landscape architect and senior associate with Nakano Associates.

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