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To make sure Capitol Hill’s Bullitt Center does not stand alone, Seattle looks to boost Living Buildings

(Image: Bullitt Center)

Over the years since the Bullitt Center first rose on Capitol Hill, Seattle has tried to build a system to repeat the project’s success across the city. Seattle is, of course, facing an affordability crisis — but it also faces the risks of continued global warming and climate change. In an effort to make construction of super-duper environmentally friendly buildings more attractive, the Seattle City Council Monday is ready to approve new legislation giving developers more incentives, and a lighter punishment for a failed attempt to create “Living Buildings.”

The original Living Building program started as a pilot program in 2010, (amended in 2012, 2014 and 2016) to allow up to 20 buildings to be constructed. By meeting energy and water use reduction, property owners would be permitted a bit more density than the zoning would typically allow.

Developers, however, haven’t been too keen on the program. Since its adoption, only one living building has been opened – Capitol Hill’s Bullitt Center on Madison at 15th. A second, Stone 34 in Fremont/Wallingford was built under a program called “Deep Green” a similar, but not quite as rigorous program.

A couple smaller projects including a building at Capitol Hill’s Bertschi School and a classroom at the Perkins School in Maple Leaf have also achieved the “Living Building” designation. But neither are formally in the pilot program.

Two more buildings are considering attempting the designation as part of the pilot program, and are in the permitting process, according to a director’s report.

That same report, however, states living buildings aren’t taking off in the way officials had hoped.

“While these are important buildings, the current and prior pilot programs have not garnered the attention of developers or been used to the extent intended by the Mayor and City Council,” it states.

So the city is planning to sweeten the deal both by increasing the density and height bonus, and decreasing the penalty for non-compliance. Only buildings in designated urban centers can qualify. The program will also seek to encourage the renovation of existing buildings.

To qualify for the program, an existing building must be in place, and must meet minimum height requirements. If the zoning would allow a building to be up to 85 feet tall, the building to be renovated must be at least 47% of the allowable height. If the zoning allows a height greater than 85 feet, the building to be renovated must be at least 60% of the maximum allowable height. Starting a new building from, say, a parking lot, does not seem to qualify for the program.

The environmental standards for the newly renovated building seek to limit its overall impact in three main areas.

A building must use 25% less energy than might be expected. This number would also be a 70% reduction from the national median energy use. Designers must first submit energy models showing their plan, and then demonstrate that the building actually meets the models once it’s operational.

The building must manage its water, in this case demonstrating a 50% reduction. The reduction can come through a combination of reducing the amount of potable water used and reducing the amount of stormwater runoff. The stormwater reduction would be based on modeling that would demonstrate how much water would typically be expected to be used on the property.

The baseline for the reduction in potable water used is based on how much a building’s occupant would typically use. For example, a restaurant would be expected to use much more water than a warehouse. So while both would be expected to reach the same% reduction that would not translate to the same number of gallons.

Additionally, the building’s tenants must reduce their single-occupant car trips (meaning an increase in people taking transit, biking, carpooling or walking). The reduction varies by neighborhood, and depending on whether or not the trip is work related. Buildings on Capitol Hill, for example, would need to reduce work trips by 70% and non-work trips by 85%. The idea is this could result in a 50% reduction in emissions from vehicles.

Meet all these requirements, and the new building can be taller and more dense.

Under the existing rules, a building would be permitted a 15% increase in density. The new rules would allow a 25% increase. That increase would go to 30% if the building being renovated is unreinforced masonry – a type of building at high risk during an earthquake.

The old rules would allow a height increase of 10 feet if the zoning would allow up to 85 feet, or 20 feet if the zoning would allow taller than 85. The proposed new rules would see those numbers change to 12.5 feet and 25 feet for a residential building (roughly one and two stories). Commercial buildings would be permitted an extra 15 feet and 30 feet.

This height is additive with other incentive programs. For example, if a residential building would normally be permitted to be five stories tall under the regular zoning, and the builder takes advantage of the proposed affordable housing program (assuming it becomes law), that would allow them, generally, an extra floor. If the same project also achieves the standards of this program, it would give them another extra floor, for a seven-story building.

The proposal would also take it easier on builders who try and fail to achieve the standards. A developer would have two years to demonstrate that they are meeting the environmental standards. The idea behind this is to give them a year to gather data about how well it’s working, and another year to correct any problems.

If, after two years, the building does not meet the standards, the developer would pay a maximum fine of up to 3% of the construction costs. This is a reduction from the current maximum fine of 5%. The fine is graduated depending on how far the building falls from the mark.

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