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Originally published July 19, 2012 at 8:18 PM | Page modified July 20, 2012 at 9:45 AM

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When is green not green enough? Dispute swirls around 2 Seattle projects

A Seattle program to encourage construction of "the most ecologically sound modern buildings in the world" is raising questions about whether the rules are being bent too far.

Seattle Times business reporter

Stone 34

The basics: 3400 Stone Way N. Five stories, 129,000 square feet. Offices, ground-floor retail.

Energy: Geothermal system will reduce demand for power generated off-site to no more than 25 percent that of a conventional building. Shallow floorplates and high ceilings admit more daylight, reducing demand.

Wastewater: Filtered water from sinks and showers reused for irrigation on site. Wastes from toilets sent to city sewer.

Parking: 216-car underground garage.

Bullitt Center

The basics: 1501 E. Madison St. Six stories, 43,000 square feet. Offices.

Energy: Solar array on roof will produce as much power as the building consumes in a year. Narrow floor plates and high ceilings admit more daylight, reducing demand.

Water: Designed so treated rainwater from the roof can supply all of the building's needs.

Wastewater: Filtered water from sinks and showers reused for irrigation on site. Wastes from toilets composted on site.

Parking: Only for bicycles.

What's next

Vote scheduled: The Seattle City Council's Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee is scheduled to vote at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday on amendments to the Living Building Pilot Program that would pave the way for Stone 34.

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Three years ago the Seattle City Council established a pilot program to encourage "Living Buildings" — commercial projects greener than any ever built in Seattle, or anywhere else.

To stimulate such cutting-edge construction, the council decreed that projects participating in the program could be exempted from some city design requirements that otherwise might block them.

Now, however, as the council moves to extend and amend the pilot program, some of its strongest supporters say it's not living up to its promise.

It's being used, they say, to bend the rules for buildings that aren't sufficiently green.

"These projects are not Living Buildings. They can't call themselves Living Buildings," says Amanda Sturgeon, vice president of the International Living Future Institute, the Seattle-based nonprofit that developed and trademarked the concept.

Her allies include the environment-oriented Bullitt Foundation, owner of the only project that has been approved under the pilot program so far: The Bullitt Center, now under construction on East Madison Street, touted as the greenest office building on the planet.

Their criticism comes as the council considers expanding the program to accommodate one fiercely contested project: Stone 34, Skanska USA's proposed headquarters for running-shoe and -apparel maker Brooks Sports at the foot of Stone Way North.

It will be "deep green," Skanska says — but to pencil out financially it needs to be 20 feet taller than the 45 feet that zoning now allows. City planners have proposed amending the pilot program to allow that.

The Wallingford Community Council and many nearby residents say Stone 34 is too big for the neighborhood.

That's not the issue for Sturgeon and Chris Rogers, whose firm is developing the Bullitt Center.

Their point, these critics say, is that projects like Stone 34 aren't green enough to warrant inclusion in the pilot program in the first place. They may meet the letter of the law, but not its intent of promoting a radical, global change in how buildings are designed and built, says Rogers.

"I worry that the city is considering diluting the program for a project that isn't seeking to be a Living Building," he says.

Tough standards

So just what is a Living Building?

It's a project that aims to generate as much energy as it consumes, a building capable of supplying all its own water and processing all its own sewage.

Living Buildings can't be built on undeveloped sites, can't ship in building materials from far away, and can't use common construction materials that contain anything toxic. There are 20 requirements in all.

The Living Future Institute, which certifies Living Buildings, calls them "the most ecologically sound modern buildings in the world."

Skanska has acknowledged from the start that Stone 34 won't meet all the certification requirements. It won't have solar panels or wind turbines to generate its own power, for instance.

But, from all indications, the five-story project still would be greener than most office buildings.

Skanska executives liken it to the Toyota Prius hybrid — not as green as Nissan's all-electric Leaf, but a step in that direction.

Lisa Picard, Skanska's regional manager, says Stone 34 aims to exceed the U.S. Green Building Council's requirements for a "LEED Platinum" designation — the organization's highest standard, and one that only a handful of Washington buildings have attained.

The project has won the support of King County Conservation Voters and the smart-growth Quality Growth Alliance, among others.

It still won't qualify for certification as an official Living Building. But it can seek approval under the city's Living Building pilot program anyway — because participation isn't limited to projects seeking that lofty status.

The council established a lower threshold in 2009, saying the 20 requirements were so tough that some flexibility was warranted.

Projects also can qualify for the program's perks if they meet 60 percent of the requirements, plus demanding energy, water and stormwater conservation standards.

Skansa says Stone 34 can do all that.

Dispute builds

City Councilmember Richard Conlin, who heads the committee that oversees the pilot program, says he's mystified by the Bullitt Foundation's criticism of it now. The foundation agreed to the lower standard three years ago, he notes: "This is their program."

But Rogers, Sturgeon and former Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis say the 60 percent alternative was intended for projects that made a good-faith effort to meet all the requirements for Living Building certification, only to fall short.

Skanska hasn't made that good-faith bid, Sturgeon and Rogers say — it never intended to be a Living Building. "I don't think anyone anticipated projects would apply without that intention," Rogers says.

"With a 60 percent pick-and-choose option you can really leave all the hard imperatives behind, which is what they've done," Sturgeon adds.

But Skanska's Picard says the pilot program needs to be more flexible, not less, to succeed. It's due to expire in December, but until recently hasn't attracted any participants except the Bullitt Center.

The Bullitt project inspired Stone 34, Picard says: "It's the superlative, the aspiration we all hope to get to." But it's being financed with help from federal tax credits, she notes, and the prospective tenants it has lined up so far are nonprofits or government-related institutions.

Stone 34, in contrast, is competing in the private-sector, commercial marketplace, Picard says, and it's important to demonstrate that a building this green can succeed in that environment:

"Let's not make the perfect the enemy of the good," she says, paraphrasing Voltaire.

Conlin says he can understand why the Bullitt Foundation and Living Future Institute might want a "purer" standard.

"But what we're interested in is really seeing people do deep-green buildings that are commercially viable," he says.

Rogers takes offense at the implication that the Bullitt Center isn't commercially viable.

Tenants will pay market rates, he says, and the foundation, which will occupy just half a floor itself, plans to make money on the project.

More true Living Buildings might have been proposed but for the recession, he and Sturgeon say.

Rogers says Skanska should pursue other avenues than the pilot program to win city approval for Stone 34. Sturgeon concurs.

"They're creating a lot of confusion about what a Living Building is," she says.

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com

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