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Improving Building Performance Through Initiatives, Incentives, and Mandates

Several U.S. cities offer design- and code-related programs and services to encourage architects and developers to pursue sustainability more vigorously.

By Ian Spula

Buildings account for 40 percent of all energy consumption and about one-third of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States and European Union. While the Passivhaus Institut has been a relative hit with Europeans, counting tens of thousands of certified residential and commercial structures concentrated in Germany, Austria, Belgium, and Scandinavia, the United States has a couple dozen, most single-family houses certified under the system’s U.S. counterpart, the Passive House Institute. That said, the United States reigns as the country with the most square footage of LEED-certified space—by nearly a factor of 10 to the second-place finisher, China—according to the U.S. Green Building Council.

Aside from these global certification programs, plenty of ambitious green-design initiatives exist at the local level, with considerable help from private organizations. We round up a few here.

Living Buildings Give Back

The Living Building Challenge (LBC), created in 2006 by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), is arguably the most rigorous performance standard for the built environment. A building must satisfy minimum requirements in a minimum of three performance areas, or “petals,” with at least one being a net-positive energy, water, or materials standard.

The LBC coalesced in the Cascadia region, and Seattle got into the game with greater zeal than most. In 2009, Seattle became the first municipality in the country to build an incentive program around the certification, the Living Building Pilot Program, which permitted variances under the city’s Land Use Code to enhance building performance. For examples, developers could increase floor—and therefore window—heights to increase natural lighting and reduce electricity consumption, and build taller projects with greater floor-area-ratios (FARs) in exchange for achieving Living Building status or Petal Recognition.

Failure to meet the designated status could result in a penalty of 5 percent of the developer’s project cost.

In the pilot’s first five years, about a dozen developers expressed interest, but only the Bullitt Center and Stone 34, the new headquarters of Brooks Sports, followed through. Since 2015, 20 parties have expressed interest, says Dan Seng, AIA, a senior associate at Perkins+Will’s Seattle office, who wrote about the importance of revising the pilot.

“There is more careful review now, for a developer to be able to proceed in good faith,” says Denis Hayes, CEO of the Bullitt Foundation. “We now have a handful of participating builders with projects on their drawing boards.”

The Bullitt Center and Stone 34 are invaluable demonstration projects for private developers to observe extreme energy efficiency in the flesh. Perkins+Will design principal Erik Mott, AIA, says the pilot program becomes more appetizing once developers see proof that the big idea can translate into reasonable maintenance, tenant satisfaction, and real savings over a building lifespan.

Mott is currently overseeing 400 Westlake, a project now under permitting review that encompasses the redevelopment of a landmark two-story Firestone Tire building and 12-story office addition. The project will seek LBC Petal Certification—the developer opted to pursue the place, beauty, and materials petals—and exceed the city’s baseline water and energy code requirements. In exchange, 400 Westlake reaps an extra 20 feet in height and a higher FAR.

“There are opportunities to innovate in architecture through the program,” Seng says. “When design teams are excited by this prospect, it may motivate client developers to act.”

Other King County municipalities have adopted similar incentive programs. In ironing out the complexities of realizing Living Buildings, the region is performing an important service for the country. The Bullitt Center, for instance, had to engage in a complicated dance with the city over permitting and air rights related to unprecedented design features, such as its expansive solar-panel roof canopy and on-site graywater treatment system.

“We had some missteps, and it took negotiations and patience,” Hayes says. “Institutions like foundations and universities will probably be doing the first suite of these projects—entities that have a directive to go green without maximizing profit.”

Scaling Up Green Design

Three hours south, in Portland, Ore., green building advocates are working to influence the master plan for the 25-acre Broadway Corridor redevelopment. The mixed-use site may ultimately capture 10 percent of the residential and job growth projected for center-city Portland through 2035.

Although the project is still in its early stages, Hayes says a number of serious players in policy and development believe it should become a model of urban sustainability. Mark Edlen, co-founder and chairman of eco-focused builder Gerding Edlen serves on the Portland Development Commission, the body that will review the Broadway Corridor plan. Others pushing for a deep-green site include Portland State University, ILFI, and EcoDistricts. The latter emphasizes the advantages and efficiencies of pursuing sustainability on a community rather than a building scale.

That’s the promise of Broadway Corridor. “The powers that be seem to think that it is a unique opportunity to catapult Portland into the truly elite ranks of sustainable cities,” says a hopeful Hayes.

Closing the Gap on Energy-Code Compliance

In Minnesota, an energy-compliance program called the Commercial Energy Codes Support Program Pilot is looking to advance green design by establishing a successful precedent for a statewide, utility-funded, commercial energy codes–support program. The pilot models the system on a small scale, partly funded by a state Department of Commerce grant, and offers a targeted approach to cost-effective energy savings—all in a state with a natural disincentive: relatively low utility rates.

Typically, design teams submit energy models for municipal review in order to satisfy energy code requirements. When the Minneapolis-based Center for Energy and Environment (CEE) began comparing some simulations against actual built performance, a chronic mismatch became clear: Projects claimed to be following performance paths to meet or exceed the state energy code, but enforcement was nonexistent, particularly in under-resourced municipalities. CEE also found that many designers and developers struggled to interpret and address Minnesota’s entire energy code, which includes 100-plus line items.

“There’s a long history of not meeting the energy code in practice,” says Russ Landry, a senior mechanical engineer with CEE. The organization realized it could help close the gap by including independent reviews at an early stage in the building planning process via design consultation and energy performance measurement.

Rather than striving for full compliance on all projects, the pilot focuses on achieving higher compliance for line items having an outsized impact. “We chose two dozen of the most impactful energy-code line items and published a reference guide steering designers to a set of codes relevant to their building and site type,” Landry says.

CEE’s two-pronged approach engages large and small projects differently. For buildings larger than 50,000 square feet, it lends municipalities design review support. A Minnesota city will submit to CEE, which will review and provide feedback on whether a project adheres to its chosen energy performance path.

For projects under 50,000 square feet, as well as multifamily buildings, CEE provides technical support to design teams. Nominal incentives are offered to encourage participation, but the program remains totally voluntary.

Landry says the program kicked off with three cities eager to partner: Blaine, St. Louis Park, and Minnetonka. But participation by project teams has lagged. It’s a new thing, and designers are dubious whether an extra week or so of time invested in review in an already lengthy and rigorous development process is worthwhile. However, Landry believes that some project teams are incorporating the extra review into their normal workflow to avoid disruption later on in code review—hinting at a desire to utilize this free expertise and close the energy performance gap in built projects.

The pilot will end this summer with an assessment report issued thereafter. If considered successful, the pilot would be formally adopted and funded by the public utility companies.

Mandates Still Work Best

Meanwhile, California is making great strides, beginning with a goal of every new residential project becoming net-zero energy by 2020. Laid out by the California Public Utilities Commission in 2008, the target has been enshrined in state and local energy codes. There’s no law to enforce it, but today builders following code are producing near-net-zero residences that may only require a few solar panels to reach the homestretch. This past January, San Francisco mandated solar panels on new commercial and residential buildings with 10 or fewer stories.

Back in Europe, the EU’s Energy Performance of Buildings Directive requires member nations to develop plans to bring all new construction to nearly net-zero performance standards by 2020. Cities like Brussels that have hundreds of built or newly retrofitted Passivhaus structures and are proactively pursuing energy efficiency are ahead of the schedule.

California aside, this zeal is lacking at the state level across much of the U.S. when it comes to codified, enforceable green design. For perspective, only one building in Seattle could be built in Brussels today. Yep, you guessed it: the Bullitt Center.

This article was originally published in ARCHITECT in April 2017.

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