Skip to content

S400: Full Spectrum Solutions

2011 October 26
by Ray Johnston

< Downtown Seattle - click to enlarge; photo by Dan Bertolet >

Our buildings are finally beginning to meet the challenge of sitting lightly on the planet.  As new standards emerge, we tackle energy envelope, water use, sewer, and electricity production.  We begin to limit the toxic materials we use and manage our waste streams.  Standards allowing natural ventilation and aspiration are letting our buildings breathe.

It is time to synthesize all of these to create socially viable urban environments:  buildings that perform at a high level on all fronts and that help us to create a beautiful city. Rather than generate spikes on the graph of sustainable solutions, let’s raise the line uniformly.

We create progressive zoning to promote urban living and to encourage social interaction. Today Seattle is creating a new urban design element for the Comprehensive Plan. Let us seek diversity and promote a sense of commonality to our urban intent. Incentives are a wonderful tool in the creation of diversity. A public plaza, working environments packaged with living, extreme sustainable strategies could all be rewarded by greater FAR, faster paced permitting and civic support. To some extent these rewards exist today, but they are applied to the spikes on the graph rather than the base line. How can we encourage the other side of the equation: a sense of community?

What if the base line was “sensible sustainability”?  This phrase suggests a long term proforma with life cycle costs balancing initial investment. A sensible solution achieves sustainable, financial and social goals—a triple bottom line. This concept  means a positive impact on neighborhood as an essential characteristic. It means buildings that are rich partners in the creation of the urban fabric. It means environments that encourage us to know one another and to participate socially.

We live in a culture that worships stardom and creates spikes in the graph rather than a steady rise across the spectrum.  Sensible sustainability can help to even out the advance.  Its precepts are simple, seeking a path that can be achieved by anyone—a path that makes sense financially, aesthetically and in terms of our urban fabric.

Great cities begin with amazing features including geography, water, trading paths and visionary pioneers. Their continued evolution depends on the re-invigoration of vision and the resulting continual upgrades. The large leaps are ones that happen across all measures—the uniform rise of the line on the chart rather than the unusual spikes. Seattle is ready.


Ray Johnston is a partner at Johnston Architects, pllc, and a board member of Futurewise.