We’re in the middle of a construction boom and the city is as green as they come but Seattle’s program designed to foster showcases of environmental best practices only has one true Living Building to show for it. But a new package of changes to city codes could result in more buildings like Capitol Hill’s Bullitt Center finally sprouting up around Seattle.
“The large amount of construction we’re seeing in the city right now and strong commitment from not only builders and architects in the community… it’s surprising we haven’t seen more Living Buildings in the program,” City Council Planning, Land Use, and Zoning Committee chair Rob Johnson said last week as the group passed legislation hoped to kickstart the program.
Many of the proposed changes are technical adjustments to better align city laws with recent changes in state laws or to streamline city buildings codes. A few are also designed to make buildings more energy efficient generally, such as requiring high-efficiency heaters, or making buildings ready for solar panels.
But a number of them are designed to make Living Buildings like the Bullitt Center more feasible.
The city started the Living Building program in 2009, and so far the Bullitt Center is the only building to qualify. Another building, Stone 34 — at “the intersection of Fremont and Wallingford” — comes close having been built under “Deep Green” standards. However those standards are being scrapped under this new package in order to simplify the system.
The construction of Stone 34, however, is influential in this new system. Unlike the nonprofit Bullitt Center, Stone 34 was built by a for-profit developer. If the city wants to have more of these buildings, they’ll need to find ways to make them palatable to that business model.
“Stone 34 provides a good example of what the market will bear,” said Ryan Moore, senior planner with the city.
But now the idea is to generate more Bullitt-style Living Buildings. Such buildings, the eco-friendliest of the eco-friendly, must meet a series of requirements set out by the International Living Future Institute which govern not only things like water and energy use, but also ensure the building is attractive on the outside and pleasant to be inside.
If a developer is able to meet these requirements, they are allowed either a 15% increase in density, or to build a bit taller – 10 feet more if the zoning allows 85 feet or less, or 20 feet taller if zoning allows 85 feet or more.
One of the larger changes in the proposal is to make this increase permitted by right where previously, it had been subject to a design review. This uncertainty had turned off some potential developers who wouldn’t want to sink time and money into planning a building when they might not get the bonus, Moore said.
The overall project will still be subject to the design review process. The Design Review Board will still need to approve the look of the bonus height or density, but will no longer be able to reject the bonus.
To fully qualify as a living building, the development must be certified by a third party, such as the Living Future Institute, after its been open for a year. The idea is to make sure that the design actually worked in the real world, not just on paper. If a building fails its certification after that year, they must pay a fine equal to 5% (reduced from 10% under current standards) of the construction cost.
One of the other major changes will be to water requirements.
“Water seems to be the biggest challenge,” Moore said.
Living buildings require that 100% of water be self-contained. Buildings are expected to collect stormwater, use it and treat it on-site. Seattle’s requirements will be a bit looser, simply saying that drinkable water can’t be used for non-drinking purposes. For example, water that goes down the drain after someone washes their hands could then be piped to a toilet and used a second time for flushing. Clean water from the tap, however, could not be used for toilets.
The new regulations are still considered a pilot program; it will only be available to 20 buildings across the city and runs through the end of 2025. Moore said the sunset date is in part to recognize that building designs may change.
“If a lot of these become business as usual, then why have the incentive?” he said.
But a bigger hope might come in an amendment passed last week that will add a requirement for Seattle to being figuring out how to create a similar Living Building incentive program for existing buildings. As much as Seattle might hope to have more projects built like the Bullitt, smaller investments in overhauling older buildings would likely pay larger environmental dividends.
The full City Council is expected to pass the update Monday afternoon.
UPDATE: There is another. Not only is there one more Living Building project in Seattle — there is another on Capitol Hill. 10th Ave E’s Bertschi School is the proud home to the Living Science Building:
At only 1,400 square feet, the project gets left out of the discussion of major developments. But let’s give credit where credit is due.