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How Seattle Thwarts Innovative Building

2013 May 23
by Rob Harrison


Seattle prides itself on its forward green thinking. However, it lags terribly behind on forward green doing. Why is that? There may be other factors endemic to the banking system in the US and the financing of projects, but here are two Seattle-specific issues:

  1. The City’s most valuable incentive to developers of deep green buildings, the additional height bonus, is at odds with the wishes of many immediate neighbors of these buildings. Thus, each new deep green building is greeted with opposition, instead of excitement and encouragement.
  2. Because of this opposition, the City sets up barriers to the granting of these incentives instead of providing technical or financial assistance to design teams and developers to help them achieve their deep green goals and grant them the incentives.

Those barriers add time and cost to projects that are pushing the envelope, making it less likely that design teams and owners will pursue the construction of innovative buildings.

City of Seattle rightly grants an incentive for something we desperately want and need, deep green buildings. However, in classic Seattle passive-aggressive style, while the incentive is saying “Yes, please go ahead and do this! We want you to do this!” the path to achieving that incentive is filled with pain and trouble. Why would the City choose to offer a height bonus instead of a financial award? Because height bonuses are free. It doesn’t cost the City anything to allow a developer to increase the height of their building. Once the building is built though, the increased property taxes from the larger building will help to pay for other needed city services.

Councilmember Nick Licata’s Resolution 31400 to establish a Sustainable Building Advisory Board illustrates my second point. On his blog, Licata writes:

In response to concerns raised over the Skanska project [Stone 34] by the surrounding community, the Bullitt Foundation, and Living Building Challenge representatives, I have introduced Resolution 31400. It calls on the City to provide updates and enhancements to its Living Building Challenge and Seattle Deep Green pilot programs. Resolution 31400 also requests the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) to form a standing Green Building Advisory Board to advise the City on sustainable building practices; to screen proposals for eligibility; and to assist in developing new or updated sustainable building programs.

In other words, according to Councilmember Licata’s expressed intentions, the Sustainable Building Advisory Board will be a watchdog group of green building professionals and community representatives charged with making sure no unworthy buildings are granted the height bonus, arousing the ire of neighbors. The Sustainable Building Advisory Board will be punitive in function rather than helpful and educational.

At the meeting of the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee for Resolution 31400 on May 8th, Diane Sugimura, head of Seattle’s Department of Planning and Design (DPD) said that “a handful” of projects are “in the pipeline” that would be affected by the Resolution over the next two years–that is, three or four. Three or four buildings out of how many that will be built in the City of Seattle over the same period?

This is a program that is not working.

This is in stark contrast to Brussells, Belgium, where their extraordinarily successful Exemplary Buildings program has, since 2007, facilitated the construction of 117 ultra-low-energy green buildings–totalling nearly 3 million square feet. Over twenty-three buildings per year! Nearly half of those buildings are Passivhaus. There, winners of the three competitions held since the inception of the program have been given cash awards of $12 per square foot, technical assistance in achieving their goals, and their projects have been massively publicized. (Including a nice book.) Ninety per cent of the financial award goes to the owner of the building, and ten per cent goes to the design team. (See my previous blog post on the head of the Exemplary Buildings program Joke Dockx’s visit to Seattle for more.) For the Bullitt Center, the award would have been about $600,000.

As a result of the success of this program, the government of the Brussells region has mandated that as of January 1, 2015, Passivhaus will be required for all office, institutional and residential buildings, both single- and multi-family built in the 62-square-mile region.  (Resolution 31400, like Seattle’s Climate Action Plan, makes no mention of Passivhaus.)

As of this writing in Seattle we have two Living Building Challenge Buildings (out a total of four in the entire United States) and one Seattle Deep Green building under construction. Seattle does have a fair number of LEED-certified buildings, but at 85% of current code, the energy-conserving bar is set very low for City-required-for City-projects-over-5,000-SF LEED Silver, and four out of five of those LEED Silver buildings will have to be renovated by 2050 if we are going to achieve carbon neutrality. (Yes, virtually all. Stockholm Environment Institute’s Carbon Neutral Plan for Seattle postulated that 80% of Seattle’s building stock would have to be renovated to something like Passivhaus standard– that is, to 10% of current code–by 2050.)

How can we encourage projects that meet that carbon neutral goal NOW; that do not have to be expensively renovated within the next 37 years? I suggest a new program similar to Brussells’ Exemplary Buildings program, combined with Passivhaus.


Rob Harrison, AIA, is a Seattle architect and Certified Passive Houseâ„¢ Consultant. This article originally appeared in the Harrison Architects blog.

Image credit:  Brussels, Sustainable City



11 Responses leave one →
  1. Frank permalink
    May 23, 2013

    I’d love to see a Brussell’s-like program in Seattle. Rob…you must get onto DPD’s Green Buildings Technical Advisory Group so you can help start turning the ship around!

  2. David Schraer permalink
    May 23, 2013

    The problem isn’t just DPD and the City. Unfortunately, the primary focus of LEED and other U.S. green programs has never been to encourage prompt improvements to codes and processes. Rather, there is a huge industry built on exceptional, nongovernmental standards that has a vested interest in the current two-track system. The role of “model” building programs should be to encourage rapid governmental consideration and adoption of new industry-wide standards, not permanent third-party processes and expenses. Worthwhile LEED standards should be adopted into the code and the Living Building Challenge, Passivhaus (and/or other more progressive approaches) should be the ones getting city support and attention.

  3. David Moser permalink
    May 23, 2013

    Great article, thanks Rob. I would also like to see the definition of a “green building” expanded to include the transportation options of the building’s users. The most important yet overlooked aspect of a building’s carbon contribution is its location, and whether it allows its inhabitants access to transit.

    • Matt the Engineer permalink
      May 30, 2013

      Out of 110 total points LEED* NC gives 1 point for “site selection”, 5 for “development density and community connectivity”, 1 for “brownfield redevelopment”, 6 for “public transportation access”, 1 for “bicycle storage and changing rooms”, and 2 for “parking capacity” (I assume less than standard). I’d love for them to put even greater focus on transportation options and dense building, but 16/110 isn’t a bad start.

      That said, one thing that bugs me about the Living Building Challange is that you aren’t supposed to take any other property’s light**. That’s clearly anti-urban (no shadows = no tall buildings) and I hope they step back from their no-impact ideal to consider the real impacts on the environment this limit on density can create.

      * for example. other rating systems have similar components

      ** please let me know if I’m wrong. I haven’t read the standards myself, but I read this was an issue with the Bullitt Foundation building.

  4. Lisa Picard permalink
    May 24, 2013

    Exceptionally well written Rob.

    Further to your point the punitive risks rather than the opportunistic benefits “green” projects can realize… restricts these programs to privately financed, patient money (like bullet foundation) or all equity sources with strong values (Skanska’s stone34) since traditional financing can’t see predictability in the program, thus reducing the number of applicants capable of pursuing and thus achieving change in our built environment.

    Most importantly, incentives need to be given to occupants of buildings in a way they can see the value upfront (tax benefits, economic incentives, etc) – for engaging in the perceived risks of operating differently in these buildings. These are the entities that actually control what is being built and our ultimate success. For example, a company that locates inside high performance buildings must agree to conduct business in a different way. If that company can see the savings to the bottom line, ultimately leases can be signed, causing a project to be realized. When there is demand for these buildings… no faster incentive causes them to get built.

    • mike eliason permalink
      May 30, 2013

      how was bullitt privately financed – it received something like $10M in new market tax credits?

  5. RossB permalink
    June 1, 2013

    So, the city puts lots of restrictions on building heights, thus increasing sprawl. But then they allow tall buildings if they have certain “green” features. But now they restrict those buildings, if the neighbors don’t like it. Got it. So, not only is this bad for the environment, but bad for everyone who rents.

  6. Shawn Crowley permalink
    July 20, 2014

    Not addressing the more general points about building green in Seattle, the use of LIcata’s blog is misleading. Opposition to Stone 34, particularly by Living Building Challenge, was not due to NIMBY concerns, it was because the building didn’t meet the Deep Green requirements it’s incentives were predicated on. The project had to drop the Deep Green label and use some other non-protected term.

    Ms. Picard, commenting above, should know all about this as she was the developer for Stone 34.

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