Harrison Architects


How Seattle Thwarts Innovative Building


 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 specifically-Seattle 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 Green Building Advisory Board illustrates my second point. On his blog, Licata says: 

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 Green 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 Green Building Advisory Board will be punative in function rather than helpful and educational.

At the meeting of the Planning, Land Use and Sustainbility Committee for Resolution 31400 on May 8th, Diane Sugamura, 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 earlier 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 Brussells 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 energy 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

No Mention of Passive House in Seattle Climate Action Plan and Nick Licata Resolution 31400


Neither the City of Seattle Climate Action Plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, nor Nick Licata's Resolution 31400, establishing a Green Building Advisory Board for the City of Seattle, make any mention of Passive House.

Passive House (Passivhaus) is the approach to designing ultra-low-energy residential, commercial and institutional buildings that reduces energy used in heating and cooling to 10% of code, and total energy use to 30% of typical. In Europe it is widely supported by governments and widely implemented (in 37,000+ buildings!)--all for costs comparable to conventional construction.

To leave out this proven, cost-effective means of achieving our carbon reduction goals seems like a serious and unfortunate oversight, perhaps brought on by the fact that at the time the Climate Action Plan was being developed, the Green Ribbon Commission (the group tasked with developing the Action Plan) did not include anyone with Passivhaus knowledge or experience. Passive House is relatively new on the scene, with only several built examples within City limits, but a forward-thinking city should look to forward-thinking solutions.

I am confident that any number of the members of Passive House Northwest could provide the expertise neccessary to add Passive House to the mix. 


Brussels' Exemplary Buildings Program


Yesterday's Passive House Northwest Annual Conference was fantastic, led off by a rousing keynote on Seattle's greenest building to date, the Bullitt Center, by Denis Hayes. The theme for the conference was "Building Bridges." That means reaching out to our community of like-minded adventurers on the edges of low energy architecture--the International Living Future Institute (ILBI), the International Passive House Institute (PHI), and the Passive House Institute US (PHIUS), as well as all of their various supporting and affiliated organizations. At the core our values are the same and it's time to set aside minor quibbles and work together.

At the conference, 200 of us heard from Joke <"Yoka"> Dockx, of the Brussels Institute for Management of the Environment. She is responsible for the Exemplary Buildings program that over the last five years has encouraged and incentivized the creation of over three million square feet of low-energy buildings in the 62 square mile region. 53% (over 1.5 million square feet) of those buildings are Passivhaus buildings.

After the success of the program over the last five years, Brussels has resolved that as of January 1, 2015, all new public and private housing, schools and office buildings in the Brussels region will be required to be built to the Passivhaus standard.

In a nutshell (as I recall): 75% of energy use in the Brussels region is associated with buildings. (Lower transportation energy than Seattle....) Every year since 2008 they had an architectural competition for net-zero and low-energy buildings. The winners were all given technical assistance, publicity, and a financial award amounting to $12 per square foot, 90% of which went to the building owners, and 10% to the design team. The program cost was (I believe) $37 million per year. The results have been that total energy use in the region has been reduced by 10% since the start of the program. Results going forward, when the requirement for Passivhaus kicks in, will be even more dramatic.

Here is the program description for 2012 (translate with Google...): http://www.bruxellesenvironnement.be/uploadedFiles/Contenu_du_site/News/FR_BATEX%202012_reglement_DEF_120221.pdf

Anywhere in Western Europe has the benefit of 20 years of Passive House experience--37,000 Passivhaus buildings, mainly in Austria and Germany. But I found Joke's presentation charming and compelling, and I'd like to suggest that we bring her back to this area to talk to City Council and the Mayor, King County Council and Puget Sound Regional Council, to understand how Seattle and King County and other local jurisdictions might move in this direction.


The Greenest Building: Retrofit or Passive House?


Yesterday, preservation rock-stars Preservation Green Lab released the results of a study on the energy impacts of retrofitting existing buildings versus building new ones. Their unsurprising--for an arm of the National Trust for Historic Preservation--conclusion: Retrofits are almost always greener than new buildings. Building Green picked up the story, as did Grist.

But...are the assumptions of the study biasing it toward that conclusion?

I know several folks at Preservation Green Lab (they are here in Seattle), and they are super-smart, committed people (smarter than me, no doubt.) Still, I'm skeptical of their conclusions. The stated assumption of 30% energy savings (for the advanced case!) is a very low bar. How would the results differ if in both cases the new and retrofitted buildings achieved Passivhaus, saving 90% of their heating/cooling energy instead of 30%? What if we compare retrofitting an existing building to Passivhaus standard with building a new one, also to Passivhaus standard? Or, the most likely real-world example, compare retrofitting an existing building to achieve a 30% energy savings (if that's as far as it could feasibly get) to building a new Passivhaus building with 90% savings (that could be built for the same cost)? How would those scenarios pencil out, comparing Return-On-Investment? We already know its harder to get to Passivhaus with a retrofit. What if required zoning setbacks or fire ratings of materials prevent adding exterior insulation to the existing building, making achieving Passivhaus difficult or impossible, such that the only way to get to Passivhaus (get to 90% reduction, that is) would be to build new? 

David Roberts (another smart Seattlite) laid out "the brutal logic of climate change" in a Grist post. (Required reading!) The Architecture 2030 Challenge, rightfully, has set out goals for the reduction of energy use in buildings that start with a 60% reduction today. Why are we even discussing 30% reductions?  As I said in my interview in The Atlantic, "The economic and social costs of climate change will be increasingly, staggeringly huge, and the longer we wait to begin [serious efforts at mitigation] the fewer resources we will have to work with..." As I tweeted last year, buildings built now to current codes will be worth less in 20 years--they are already obsolete.

The problem with new buildings is not that they are new, but that they are poorly designed. They are poorly designed in part because the means of financing new buildings favors large developments that max out the zoning envelope, rather than the finer grain, smaller buildings more often found in the kinds of existing neighborhoods we all love, and that will create the kinds of vibrant, transit-oriented, walkable dense urbanity we need to meet our carbon emissions goals. We need to think as hard about how to change the means of financing construction as how to build buildings that use less energy. Second, buildings are poorly designed because they don't go far enough in their energy intelligence. They stop at the point they're expensive enough to discourage their owners, rather than pushing harder and farther to get real savings. With Passive House we have to tools to reduce primary energy use by an average of 70% (depending on building type). Let's start the discussion there, eh?

There are excellent reasons for keeping existing buildings: embodied memory, sense of place, appropriate scale.... I'm just not convinced saving energy is the unequivocal answer to the question of new versus remodel that this study suggests.

I'm looking forward to reading the report in detail, before I put my foot further in my mouth than I already probably have. After I get a chance to do that, I'll update this blog entry to reflect my conclusions.

UPDATE January 30th.

I've had a chance to read through the entire study, and have a couple additional comments. From the study:

This groundbreaking study concludes that building reuse almost always offers environmental savings over demolition and new construction. Moreover, it can take between 10 and 80 years for a new, energy-efficient building to overcome, through more efficient  operations, the negative climate change impacts that were created during the construction process.

I don't know about you, but I'd guess some would be tempted to read that and say "Well, dang, we better not build anything new then, eh? That so-called "energy efficiency" stuff is just more liberal hogwash!"

The all-caps "key finding" of the study is:


The footnote is: 

"2. where energy performance for renovated and new buildings is assumed to be the same."

Well (forgive me)...duh! If operating energy is the same for both new and retrofitted buildings, the only difference in total energy use is the embodied energy saved by reusing the existing building. Of course it's going to "save energy" to use an existing building if you look through that lens.

The other issue is that an existing building (unless it is a single family house) will almost never replaced by a building of the same size and functionality. A one-story building in an urban village, for example, is not going to be replaced by another one story retail building, but by a five-story ("four-over-one") apartment or condo over retail mixed use building, which also increases density, saving energy, and which makes transit feasible, again saving more energy. Liz Dunn's own stunning Agnes Lofts project is a beautiful example of that kind of urban succession.

The authors do acknowledge that the study did not take those effects into account, but that doesn't seem to have diminished the enthusiasm with which the press has embraced this study and repeated it's "key finding." 


Passivhaus Could Have Made Bullitt Foundation LivingBuilding More Energy Intelligent


If the Bullitt Foundation's Cascadia Center Living Building had been designed to meet Passivhaus, it would have needed only two-thirds of the on-site-generated energy of the current design to reach net-zero. In other words, a much smaller photovoltaic array.

Denis Hayes has long been a hero of mine. In ninth grade I participated in the first Earth Day, and that day in some ways catalyzed the direction I took with my life. I met Denis briefly at Worldchanging's Future City event, mentioned Passivhaus, and was surprised to learn he was unfamiliar with the approach. We later agreed to get together to talk about Passivhaus over lunch. Last October, sitting across the table from him at a small restaurant not far from the Bullitt Foundation's headquarters on First Hill in Seattle was a real thrill. I shared my knowledge of Passivhaus. We talked about the Cascadia Center. At that point, the design for the building was set, and I had no illusions (ok, few illusions...) about influencing the design. I was curious about how Cascadia Center might compare with Passivhaus, in terms of its energy intelligence.

The Cascadia Center for Sustainable Design and Construction (website for the building) is likely to be the second building in Seattle to meet the Cascadia Green Building Council's rigorous Living Building Challenge. I wrote about the Living Building Challenge on this blog when it was first announced in 2006. It is the first green building rating system that makes complete sense to me. It represents exactly what we should be doing with our buildings. I feel so strongly about it that (as with Passivhaus) I offer a discount on my fee to clients whose projects meet the Challenge. (No one has taken me up on it yet.) Designed by Seattle starchitects Miller|Hull, with mechanical engineering by Portland's PAE Consulting Engineers with input from the Integrated Design Lab, the building is a marvel of sophisticated active technology and expressed greenness. Motorized windows open automatically to provide cooling. Computer-controlled sun shades raise and lower to help maintain optimum lighting levels. Deep borings below the building tap geothermal warmth. A prominent stair with spectacular views encourages tenants to skip the elevators. There is no parking garage! (But there is bicycle parking!) A (very) large, controversial photovoltaic "hat" tops the building. (Some call a previous larger version the "comb-over.") The Bullitt Foundation expects it to be the most energy-efficient commercial building in the world.

But will it be?

After the public presentation of the building at Benaroya Hall I emailed Scott Wolf of Miller|Hull and Denis Hayes, asking if I might have information on the building necessary to make a comparison with Passivhaus. Denis responded that he would be delighted to cooperate, and Scott put me in touch with Brian Court, the project architect, and Jim Hanford, sustainability lead, both of Miller|Hull. I am grateful to each of them for facilitating this conversation and supplying the area take-offs and EUI for the current design. Before we get into the numbers, if you haven't already read it, you might want to click over to my introduction to Passivhaus and back.

  • The gross square footage of the building is 52,000 SF.
  • The current Energy Use Index (EUI) is 16.
  • The Treated Floor Area (TFA) based on the German DIN 277-2 method is 39,050 SF. A relic of its German heritage, this number is used in calculating energy use in Passivhaus.
  • The limit in Passivhaus for Primary Energy is 38 kBTU/SF of Treated Floor Area/year. "Primary Energy" = "Source Energy."
  • In Passivhaus, an "energy factor" is applied to various forms of energy to account for generation and transmission losses. For electricity, this factor is 2.7.

Solving for an EUI that would meet Passivhaus

38 kBTU/SF/yr ÷ 2.7 = 14.07 kBTU/SF/yr. (Dividing our Passivhaus allowable energy target by the energy factor gives us an annual Primary Energy usage target taking the electrical energy factor into account.)

39,050 SF (TFA) x 14.07 = 549,434 kBTU/SF/yr (This gives us the allowable total for Passivhaus for the total annual source energy usage using TFA.)

549,434 kBTU/SF/yr ÷ 52,000 (GSF) = 10.57 (This gives us the EUI target for a building of that would meet Passivhaus.)

10.57 ÷ 16 = .66

A building that met Passivhaus would use 66% of the energy of the Cascadia Center as currently designed.

Or, looking at it the other way:

52,000 GSF x 16 (current EUI) = 832,000 kBTU/yr (total annual Primary Energy usage)

Solve for kBTU/SF/yr using TFA.

832,000 kBTU/yr ÷ 39,050 SF (TFA) = 21.3 kBTU/SF/yr

Multiply that by 2.7 (the energy factor for electricity) to get the primary energy usage. 

21.3 kBTU/SF/yr x 2.7 = 57.52 kBTU/SF/yr

Passivhaus requires an annual primary energy usage (source energy) of 38 kBTU/SF/yr.

The building as designed exceeds the Passivhaus standard for Primary Energy by a bit over 50%. That's even worse than my Passivhaus colleague Mike Eliason of brute force collaborative calculated using guesstimates of TFA from the permit documents filed with DPD.

Since there are commercial office buildings already built in Europe that meet the Passivhaus standard, it appears the Cascadia Center will not be the most energy efficient building in the world.

It is unlikely the building could get to Passivhaus from where it is now. Like many green building strategies, Passivhaus is very difficult to implement successfully after Schematic Design is finished. (I've tried!) We do know Passivhaus can be reached in this building type, because there are examples of similar buildings in Europe that meet Passivhaus, all of which would have a lower EUI than Cascadia Center if you don't count the PV.

I suspect we may see something interesting if we can compare the Cascadia team's air leakage target of 0.25 cfm/SF @ 75 Pascal with Passivhaus's 0.6 ACH@50 Pascal. (The calculation is not trivial.) Proportionally the ventilation and pump energies seem high, but once all other loads are reduced, those loads might pop out more, and pumping is required for the reuse of water in the building, a requirement of the Living Building Challenge. If they were starting from scratch, it may be that by starting first with siting and building massing, then optimizing envelope assemblies and air-tightness (as we do in the Passivhaus design process) they would be able to eliminate the need for some of the mechanical systems. With the internal heat gain of a typical office building, and an appropriate wall assembly, air tightness and glazing, heating load ought to go to zero, and with proper shading (as they've done) cooling load should get to close to zero as well.

Ironically the featured stair, intended to encourage walking over using the elevator, contributes to the building missing the Passivhaus mark. As circulation space, it is not counted in the Treated Floor Area, so has the effect of reducing the total kBTU available for use annually while still meeting Passivhaus.

Despite not meeting Passivhaus, Cacadia Center is a brilliant, important building. That it will be possible to better it, with simpler, less expensive and more durable technology is encouraging. Since we already see dramatically lower energy use with existing Passivhaus buildings, it seems clear that Passivhaus is a better way to meet the "Energy Petal" of the Living Building Challenge than the active technologies employed in the design of the Cascadia Center.

In the United States no one has yet built a commercial or institutional Passivhaus building. Who's going to do it first? We are available to help.

The Chainsaw Retrofit


The Passivhaus approach can be implemented when retrofitting existing buildings as well as when building new ones. Heating energy use in an existing building can be reduced to 10% of what it was prior to renovation. There are (of course) a number of challenges. In western Washington, achieving Passivhaus in an existing building will require:

  1. Adding additional insulation in walls, roofs and floors.
  2. Replacing windows.
  3. Improving air tightness.
  4. Installing a balanced heat recovery ventilation system.

Clearly this is not a trivial or inexpensive undertaking. However, when a planned renovation will involve new siding, windows, and furnace anyway, it is worthwhile investigating an upgrade to Passivhaus performance. Let's say like many of our clients you are interested in having a ground source heat pump as your source of heat. In one of our projects, we found that by going to Passivhaus we could obviate the need for the ground source heat pump altogether, so we could save that money, and use it to pay for much of the cost of the additional insulation and better quality windows. It will still cost more (10%-20%) to get to Passivhaus, but the investment you make in the envelope of your house will pay dividends for the life of the structure.

The "chainsaw retrofit"--so called because this approach involves removing the overhangs of the existing house with a chainsaw!--is one way to add the additional insulation. Matt Wasse in our office has created an animation to illustrate how this approach works. Have a look: 

Try http://www.flickr.com/photos/robharrison/5337590411/ if you have trouble playing the video.

Tour de Vance!


This Thursday the Joseph Vance Building is having its annual Open House, the Tour de Vance! We, along with 25 other progressive organizations, will open our doors for a building-wide party! We're going to call this our "office warming"! Please come down and join us for organic snacks and superior, low-carbon Fremont Brewing beer!

Our structural engineer Carissa Farkas will be joining us as well. Here's your chance to meet the premier Passive House structural engineer in the Northwest!

Time: Thursday January 6th, 5:30-7:30pm
Place: Joseph Vance Building, 1402 3rd Avenue, Seattle (corner of 3rd & Union downtown)

Here's the Facebook page for the event:

Hope to see you!



Energy and Resource Intelligence


 On April 29th of 2009, over on Grist, David Roberts posted an article on Energy Efficiency and Sex. Have a look....

In the article Roberts laments the technical, bloodless mantra of efficiency as it is applied to energy and resources, so divorced from the passion and poetry of life. How can "efficiency" ever be sexy? EU parliamentarian Claude Termes suggested "resource intelligence" as an alternative. I like this. From now on, we will speak of "intelligence" rather than "efficiency" in our work. 




Sightline: "Getting Aggressive About Passive House"


Roger Valdez of Sightline Institute writes about Passive House in a blog post titled "Getting Aggressive About Passive House." The post mentions me and my Passive House Consultant Training classmate and friend Jim Burton of Blip Design.


Worldchanging: Sustainability Gap - Passive House in America vs Europe


Alex Steffen of Worldchanging.com picks up and comments on today's New York Times article on a new Passive House in Vermont:


The New York Times article is quite good, and includes a video and interactive feature on the secrets of Passive House.

Good stuff!