Oct 19, 2015
BY: and
THEME: Sustainability

Three Suggestions for Seattle’s Living Building Pilot Program

Among cities in the United States, Seattle has stepped out as a front runner in providing legitimate incentives to developers for high performance buildings. Their unique Living Building Pilot Program establishes height and floor area ratio (FAR) incentives in exchange for aggressive energy- and water-use reductions.

The International Living Futures Institute (ILFI) acts as a third party certification entity using the Living Building Challenge (LBC) and Petal Certification Programs as performance tracking tools for registered projects.

The requirements and penalties for the pilot program are currently being re-evaluated by the Seattle Department of Planning and Development (DPD) based on feedback from the developers, technical advisers, and design teams pursuing the program. In the current version of the pilot, projects have the option of full LBC certification under ILFI, or Petal Certification, whereby project teams satisfy the requirements of three or more ‘petals,’ one of which must be either Water, Energy or Materials. All projects must also meet the minimum standard of 25% reduction in energy (from the Seattle Energy Code – already a high bar in itself), a 75% reduction in water use, and capture/reuse of 50% of rainwater that falls on the site. Projects are penalized, based on a sliding scale, if they don’t meet the registered performance targets. The further away actual performance is from the proposed target, the higher the penalty.

The success of the Bullitt Center in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood gave birth to this program in 2010. In 2015, the Bullitt Foundation was one of the first buildings in Seattle to receive full Living Building Certification.  Looking to harness the momentum generated by this high-performance building, Seattle urged developers to follow the Foundation’s lead. Stone 34 in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood (now Brooks Headquarters) was the first product of this new program. Since the project’s developer, Skanska, registered this project under the Pilot program, none have followed suit.

The scheduled sunset of the Living Building Pilot Program at the end of 2015 gives us a chance to examine what has worked, what hasn’t, and ways to improve similar programs across the country.

What is working: Municipal commitment

Seattle has aggressive goals to improve building performance, decrease energy usage, and limit greenhouse gases (GHG). Buildings make up over 20% of Seattle GHG emissions. The City has stated goals of reducing nearly 60% of total greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050.

By incentivizing high-performance buildings with height and area bonuses, Seattle has introduced Living Building Certification to the mainstream developer market (one that has typically shied away from ‘deep’ green projects). Combined with Seattle’s successful and voluntary 2030 District program, ongoing partnerships across building sectors and energy rebate programs have the potential to transform Seattle’s building stocks into one of the highest performing in the world. And these are all programs that can be repeated in other cities, with the proper amount of governmental buy-in.

What isn’t working: One size doesn’t fit all, and money talks

The program is designed around a single-use project type, so office buildings largely fit the mold. The City grants the height and area bonuses via the Master Use Permit process, one which typically addresses building massing, materials and compliance with Seattle Municipal Code.

To implement the engineering and performance metrics behind a Living Building in these early stages of design, the design teams are assembled early to design building energy and water systems that meet aggressive targets. Often teams are developing new systems and working with utilities on innovative approaches and combinations of systems that are completely new to everyone involved.

Cost estimators and contractors work to develop pricing for a highly efficient building envelope, plumbing, electrical, and mechanical systems. Developers weigh the benefits of additional lease area, premium rent for unique market attributes, and reduced operating costs against premium building pricing and the risk of penalties for non-compliance.

In short, the cost dynamics are complicated at a phase in the design process when there is little certainty. This design climate often leads to contingencies on top of assumptions. The net effect is that cost estimates may rise for both design soft costs and construction hard costs to a point beyond the costs of a base building without the pilot. When the first costs of the building rise higher than a traditional building, only owners with a strong commitment to sustainability are likely to stay in the program. There is a balancing act of providing the right level of incentive with the appropriate level of performance target and penalty. The long term benefits of higher performing buildings (i.e. lower utility bills, decreased maintenance and better indoor air quality) can be considerable. But calculating this added value at early design stages is difficult and requires an extensive cost benefit analysis.

Three Ways to Improve the Living Building Pilot Program

1. Take the lid off
Seattle is serious about reducing GHG and saving water. The shortest path to innovation is to remove the limitations. Make the targets aggressive and give developers real incentive to achieve them. By removing restrictions on height and area developer limitation are physical and whatever the market will bear. If a high-rise can meet Living Building Certification, is it worth an additional 20 feet of height? How about 40 feet? Why not 100 feet?

2. Define the Process
The pilot is offering significant incentives with high stakes. The program needs predictability, consistency, and certainty in the path forward. Given the infinite combination of program types, sizes, zones, and site conditions any one building could comprise, the process needs to be adaptable. Borrow a page from the permit process. Require a pre-application meeting with city, designer, and developer, and use this to establish bonus and strategy criteria and concurrence. The decisions of this meeting would then be documented and become an understanding between applicant and city. Match the system design requirements to fit the application: The Master Use Permit (MUP) application includes a strategy narrative that describes how the team intends to meet the minimum criteria.

The Building Permit application includes more detail, including system engineering calculations and supporting data that demonstrate conformance with the program criteria.

Lastly, a post-occupancy measurement confirms that actual building performance is meeting the original criteria. This verification phase would last a year or more to include seasonal variations.

3. Simplify the requirements for water reduction and reuse
The drought situation in the West over the last two years and the decreasing snow-pack on Pacific Northwest mountains underscore the value of water conversation in the region. The proposed revisions to the water section simply states that no potable water shall be used for non-potable uses. Though I appreciate the clarity of the language, with no reduction target on potable water usage, the language falls short of what is achievable. Set an aggressive target for reduction and require reuse for all non-potable uses.

Additionally, to meet aggressive water reduction targets means combining water detention with retention. Clearly allow this combination to streamline inter-agency approval processes.

As is the intent, the Pilot Program is evolving. Seattle has drafted language for a new and improved Pilot Program. The incentives are stronger, penalties are less harsh and the requirements are clearer. City staff have sought participation and input from the design, construction, and developer markets and demonstrated a willingness to listen and modify the program. City leadership, industry participation, and program changes will continue to push building performance ever higher. The City is flying a big ship that is difficult to turn quickly but it is steering us toward more sustainable waters.

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